Harvey Locke, founding father of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (of which the M-K is a key link) makes no bones about Sawchuk's contribution to the M-K: "He wasn't the only guy, but boy oh boy—without him, I don't know if it would have happened." While George Smith handled political strategy, Sawchuk and his former partner, Marce Fofonoff, guided people from the media, government, and scientific communities through northern B.C.'s vast country on horseback, so they could see firsthand what was at stake. Smith, Sawchuk, and others also engaged in a series of grueling negotiations over the M-K, initiated by the provincial government, that lasted nearly ten years. At the table were guide outfitters, recreational hunters, representatives from the oil and gas, mining, and timber industries, snowmobilers, environmentalists, local businesspeople, government officials, and others who had a stake in the region. (Some First Nations groups elected not to participate fully, fearing it would compromise ongoing treaty negotiations.)
"We argued over every last foot," Sawchuk recalls. But they all had a powerful motive. "If we couldn't come to an agreement, the government would decide for us, and that scared the hell out of everybody."
The formula they helped hammer out called for 25 percent of the M-K to become provincial parks; 60 percent have been designated "special management zones" that are open to oil, gas, and mineral development, but (in theory) only on a limited basis. Most of the remaining 15 percent are "special wildland zones," where logging is prohibited. Officially legislated in 1998, the creation of the M-K was as much as anything a colossal act of faith—an invitation to a wide variety of stakeholders to rise to the occasion of one of the last best places on Earth and to do their best to keep it that way. Too big and too valuable to simply lock up, the M-K embodies an inspired attempt to find a kind of middle way to meet the needs of an ecosystem, its peoples, and the wider public all at once.
Sawchuk's journey to become a self-styled guardian and ambassador was a circuitous one, and along the way he saw and did things that still haunt him. The Peace River region southeast of the M-K, where he lives, is a broken patchwork of farmland and clear-cuts tightly crosshatched by seismic lines and access roads for natural gas wells. The Peace River itself has been dammed not once but twice, and a third dam is being considered. But it wasn't always that way. "When I was growing up, we were on the frontier," he says. "To walk to my grandmother's house, I had to travel through wild country." During his lifetime, logging, mining, and gas exploration have made the country virtually unrecognizable. "It could happen here, and it wouldn't take long," he says of the M-K.