THE CLOSURE OF CFS BEAVERLODGE
ITS UNIQUE PAST
Among all the radar sites that were closed over the years, CFS Beaverlodge was unique. The site of the radar base, Saskatoon Mountain, is a height of land situated between Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge, Alberta, owned by the Provincial government. It was the only site in this area that was not subjected to the effects of glaciers. Some of the plants found here are not found elsewhere in the region. In 1928 the mountain was declared a Provincial Park. It was the community gathering place, a spot to picnic and pick berries. Then it was chosen as a site for the radar base - 214 acres of Saskatoon Mountain was leased to the Federal Government. Access to the rest of the area was restricted and the mountain was lost to the citizens of the area. In 1955 the Order in Council which created the Provincial Park was rescinded. Some of the remaining area was leased out to surrounding farmers for grazing their cattle. It was always understood by the families that lived here then that the mountain would be returned to its original status if and when the radar base ever closed. I do not know whether this was ever part of a written agreement or not. Even as late as 1969, county maps still showed the area surrounding the base as Provincial Park. The first homestead registered on Saskatoon Mountain was that of Mr. Fred Grier and it was the site of his homestead upon which the radar base was built. This was also the site of the forestry tower. Many people came and went from that radar base never knowing its history.
The announcement of the closure came in April 1985 but I could find no mention of this in any of the newspapers. Rumors about the base closing had been flying about for years, so little attention was given to this latest one. It wasn't until November 7, 1985 that a steering committee to look into the impact of the closure was formed which included representatives from all the neighbouring municipalities as well as both the Federal MP and the Provincial MLA. On November 25, 1985 the steering committee formed the Economic Adjustment Committee. Funds for this committee were provided by Canada Employment and Immigration as well as the Northern Alberta Development Council. The Committee consisted of a representative from the Town of Beaverlodge, a representative of the civilian workers, a chairperson, and a secretary treasurer. The Committee's objective was to "identify the impact of the closure on the town and surrounding areas and to develop and assess the feasibility of alternatives for new employment opportunities and possible alternative users of CFS Beaverlodge facilities". They hired Fresh Start Social Consultant Company Limited of Edmonton, AB to conduct a "Community Impact Study".
The facilities at the radar site were evaluated and the cost of maintaining them was determined with the help of the military. The 105 military and the 49 civilian workers were interviewed as to their thoughts on the closure and their future plans. Among the 49 civilian workers, 26 would be eligible for transfer and out of these over 80% would have preferred to stay in this area if suitable jobs were available. The total number of people directly affected by the closure (military, civilian workers, spouses and dependents) numbered from 250 to 275. Most of these would be leaving the area and thus the money they spent would be lost to the area. Businesses and groups were surveyed as to what they thought the effect of the closure would be. It wasn't until January 1986, that the consultants suggested that there should be a public meeting to discuss the closure and to get public input. A meeting was scheduled for February 12 but was not even advertised until that same day. An afternoon meeting was for private proposals only and consisted of only five individuals. A public meeting was held in the evening but was poorly attended, not by lack of interest, but by lack of notice of the meeting. The consultants determined that the operation of the radar site would be very expensive and that unless a major government department made use of at least a portion of the facilities, it would not be economically feasible to use the existing facilities and maybe not even then. They also determined which specific sectors would suffer the most from the closure. This list included the fact that the Town of Beaverlodge would lose revenue from the closure of the trailer court, the County would lose taxes from the radar site, and the school board would lose funding due to the decrease in children that would result. Out of all of this came a hodgepodge of ideas for the use of the base that ranged from a prison all the way to putting it back to a provincial park and everything in between. One roadblock to future development was the fact that Saskatoon Mountain was being considered as a Natural Area and this would limit any future development on the radar site. The consultants report was tabled March 18, 1986 and the Committee ceased to exist March 22 without implementing any of the recommendations. This is a quote from the consultant's report and summarizes the whole survey.
"Many opportunities for the future use of the CFS Beaverlodge exist. It is imperative that the Committee or some other group act quickly to pursue these opportunities. However, the Committee must recognize that the costs to upgrade the facilities for a new user will be very high, therefore in terms of government and industry restraint, it may present difficulties for any large-scale use of the site."
A schedule had been established for the closure of CFS Beaverlodge. It stated that from July 1987 to September 1987, other federal departments would be given a chance to find uses for the radar site. If no federal government user was found, then the provincial government, municipal governments and then private groups would each be given a chance in that order to find a suitable use. If no alternative users had been found by February 1988, the site would be offered for sale. In May either the new owners (if any found) would start their take-over, or reclamation of the site would begin. All usable materials would be removed and demolition would start. The site would be restored to a natural state, with all debris removed from site and the site seeded down to natural grasses. The original deadline for completion of this would be August 1989. This timetable allowed three years from the announcement of the closure to the deadline for proposals.
From March 22 to December 10, 1986, nothing much was heard about the closure. The citizens of the area thought that the local municipalities were working on implementing the suggestions of the consultant but there seems to have been nothing done.
On December 10, 1986 the "Community Futures Program" is kicked off." The Community Futures Program was designed to assist communities faced with major layoffs and chronic unemployment to develop new employment opportunities and adjustment measures". Again funding for the program was supplied by Employment & Immigration. Beaverlodge was the first community signed up. A Regional Development Officer was hired to again look into the future used of the radar site. The Saskatoon Mountain Economic Development Authority (SMEDA) was formed. Its mandate was to provide assistance in the establishment of new businesses and to assist in retraining people for new jobs. SMEDA stills exists today (March 2000).
The next group interested in the radar site was "SMARTS", Saskatoon Mountain Arts, Recreation, and Technical Society, a (quote) "Society dedicated to the establishment of Saskatoon Mountain as a heritage and recreation site serving the South Peace." It was a diverse group with 36 directors and 150 members. They held a public meeting on April 15, 1987 which was well attended. The result was a proposal to operate or own the site for multi-use purposes which included very many differing potential uses but with no concrete ones. SMEDA supported this group in the hopes that they could encourage light industry to locate on the radar site as that would be the only way to cover the high costs of running the site (estimated at around $15,000 a month minimum). A quote from Peace River MP Albert Cooper summed up everything. He said "People are going off on their own tangents and the issue gets bogged down. They should narrow their options." Every proposal to use the site so far tried to combine too many differing uses into one. By trying to include something to please everybody they ended up pleasing nobody.
The deadline was fast approaching and so far nobody wanted to take on the financial responsibilities of running the site although lots of groups were interested in using the site.
On January 1, 1988 the deadline was extended to allow the Town of Beaverlodge to submit a last ditch proposal. The town wanted all buildings and small equipment left (at no cost to the town) so the town could have an indefinite time frame in which to find a user for the site that would create jobs for the area.
Yet another committee was formed with funding from Employment and Immigration. On January 19, 1988 the Joint Adjustment Committee was created by an agreement between the Ministry of Employment and Immigration, the Town of Beaverlodge, and a representative of the employees on the base. Their objective was a feasibility study for the utilization of CFS Beaverlodge facilities for a cultural and recreation centre. Their mandate was to run until March 31. They hired GPEC to evaluate the buildings on the radar site, determine their condition, costs of upgrades and the costs of running the facility. Most of the data presented by GPEC was the same data presented by the consultants hired by the Economic Adjustment Committee in 1985. Again there was no definite use proposal but only a general proposal that would see the Town of Beaverlodge take over the site for a future cultural and recreational facility. A public meeting was to be held on January 28 but, as had happened before, the meeting was not announced to the public until the day before. Very few attended due to the lack of notice and bad weather. There was not enough time for anyone to come up with a solid proposal before the deadline.
I think a quote from the "Proposal for the use of CFS Beaverlodge, Facilities after August 1988" dated Jan 28,1988 summed up the general feeling of the public as a whole.
"Our mountain belongs to the community. It was bad enough to give up the site to the Department of National Defence. We do not want the view, the wilderness and beauty to be denied us for ever. Beautiful natural areas are disappearing all too fast. If this should happen, we would rather see the site restored to its natural state."
They got their wish.
In June 1988, the military started their packing and by the end of June most of the personnel were gone. Sixteen key personnel stayed to the end. Only nine of the civilian workers who were eligible for transfer, decided to stay in the area. Job security played a major role in the decision of the others to go elsewhere.
One of the civilians who transferred was Lucy McCarty who was the secretary to six COs during her 14 year employment. She came here when her husband, Floyd, was transferred here. Her husband retired here and she continued working at the base. Now the tables were turned and her husband relocated due to her transfer.
One of civilians who stayed was Jim Frissell, a civilian engineering clerk who had been at the base for 9 years. He decided that he would prefer to retire here where the hunting and fishing were great.
The gates officially closed on August 31, 1988.
The main housing for married personnel had been the DND Mobile Home Court which was located in the Town of Beaverlodge and consisted of 36 sites serviced and occupied, with space for an additional 6 units which were being used for a playground. The court was located between 10th and 11th streets at 7th Avenue. The DND owned this property and installed all services and infrastructure. The site was to be turned over to the Town of Beaverlodge for low income housing. The town proceeded to schedule a disposal auction of the mobile homes for October 22, 1988, before they even had title to them. The Federal Government was informed of this upcoming auction and sent a representative to take over the auction. The auction went ahead with the proceeds going to the government instead of the town. The site was eventually sold to the County of Grande Prairie for a future school but due to cutbacks the new school was put on hold indefinitely. The utilities were removed and the site cleaned up to "a mowable standard". The concrete pads and paved parking lots and roads are still there. The site is kept tidy by the county.
Several "gifts" were given to neighbouring municipalities. Among these gifts, Wembley received the bleachers, and an antenna was donated to the South Peace Museum. The Town of Beaverlodge was given the recreation centre on the consideration that it would be removed from the site by the end of July, 1988 with the town bearing all costs. This proved to be a very costly gift. The town disassembled the building and moved the salvageable portion of the building to Beaverlodge where it sat around on a vacant lot while they tried to figure out how to use it for a building for SMEDA. When it was determined that it was not feasible to do so, the parts were then transported to the local airport in the hopes of using it there. Eventually it was sold as scrap.
Due to extensions, the tenders for demolition and reclamation were not put out until the spring of 1989 with a closing date of March 23.
The Commissionaires kept watch over the site until May 1989 when the contractors for the demolition took over responsibility for the site, almost a year behind the original schedule. These commissionaires were honored on May 5 for their work at CFS Beaverlodge.
All evidence that there was ever a radar base was removed except for the main radar tower which was still in use for civilian purposes. A new MOT radar tower was being constructed. The quonset huts were sold and relocated. All rubble was removed from the site. The site was seeded down to grasses and left to regenerate.
In 1992 the site of CFS Beaverlodge was officially returned to the Province of Alberta.
In 1988 the radar site was determined to be a likely site for an archaeological dig. The digs at this site took place from 1989 until 1991. Much evidence of use of this site by the natives over 8,000 years ago was found. SMEDA had hoped that these digs would provide an incentive to create a tourist attraction on the site.
The main radar tower stayed in place until the fall of 1994 when it was finally demolished. After it had been retired, its use as a viewpoint was considered, but it was determined that this was not feasible. The structure was demolished and the area cleaned up and restored to nature.
The radar site was also used for trials on the feasibility of generating power by the use of wind. It was determined to be feasible but no funds were available to develop such a program and it was felt that such a project would not be suitable for the site.
On July 26, 1995 Saskatoon Mountain was designated a Natural Area encompassing a total of 1766.74 acres (715 hectares). The Alberta Government is considering reinstating its status as a Provincial Park. The site is open to the public for horse back riding, cross country skiing (on trails originally created by the military personnel), hiking etc. Motorized vehicles are banned from the site. The sewage lagoon was cleaned up and is now maintained by Ducks Unlimited. Deer abound in the area. The archaeological dig can be found by walking straight ahead at the end of the pavement and down a dirt trail. Trails abound throughout the site.
I often wonder what the site would be like today if those involved in trying to find uses had stopped concentrating on users that would be connected with grants and more on uses that would tie in with the natural beauty of the site. There are plans to construct a "Welcome to" sign this spring (2000) and to build an information kiosk in the future.
Despite all the "Doom and Gloom" predictions regarding the closure of CFS Beaverlodge, the Town of Beaverlodge is still here. We are still a "bedroom community". Businesses have risen and fallen as they always have even when the base was open. We were a lot luckier than many other communities.
This report would not have been possible without the help of a great many people including SMEDA, the Beaverlodge and District Historical Society, the Grande Prairie Public Library (Isabel Cambell archives), Alberta Environment, Alberta Lands & Forests (Debbie Stover), Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune, Milt Wright (Archaeological data) and a great many individuals.