I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

National Parks II

  • J.G. Nelson, The Last Refuge (Montreal: Harvest House, 1973). 
  • J.G. Nelson, Canadian Parks in Perspective (Montreal: Harvest House, 1969). 
  • Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979). 
  • Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). 
  • Bill Waiser, Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946 (Calgary, Alberta: Fifth House Publishers, 1999).  
  • Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince Albert National Park (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Fifth House Publishers, 1989). 
  • Rick Searle, Phantom Parks: The Struggle to Save Canada’s National Parks (Toronto, Ontario: Key Porter Books, 2000). 

In The Last Refuge, J.G. Nelson examines the unique natural and anthropological history of the area that is now encompassed by Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Nelson points out that human memory is inherently shortsighted and that in order to fully understand what will happen in the park in the future as a result of human actions, one must understand how humans have changed the land in the past. Nelson focuses on Cypress Hills, he states, because it is the area into which the Indian and the bison were funneled by the repressive forces of the white man. Nelson is clearly a member of an older school of historians who argued and readily assumed that it was the white man that destroyed the ecological stability of the plains. The indigenous way of life changed “as a result of the appearance of the white man and the substitution of his profit-oriented commercial system for the subsistence economy of the Indian,” Nelson writes. Before the white man’s arrival, he argues, the Indians were secondary, less numerous members of the ecological system and took no more from the environment than that which they needed to survive. It was not until the white man arrived that Indians started to hunt commercially and, subsequently, wastefully, literally sucking them of their Indian-ness and making them white drones. It is this kind of early argument, which places the blame for ecological disruption and bison depletion almost solely on the shoulders of those of European descent and their evil capitalist ways that historians such as Dan Flores, Pekka Hamalainen, William Dobak, and others have been arguing against since the early 1990s. These individuals contend that the Native Americans played a much larger, if not the most significant, role in the destruction of their mainstay, the bison, than individuals, such as Nelson, portray. Like Flores and the others, Nelson also points to the Native American spiritual believe in the inexhaustibility of the bison and other animals; however, Nelson takes it one step further and suggests that waste is a western construct and therefore Indians cannot be to blame because their beliefs dictate that abundance is preordained. Yet, this kind of assertion on the part of Nelson is treacherous because it suggests that one cannot be held fully accountable for one’s actions if one’s beliefs lead one to act in a certain way, throwing the concept of universal morality out the window.  

The fur trade, beginning in the late seventeenth century, was the first western, economic or cultural entity to infiltrate the plains, spreading European material goods and values, and eventually leading the first white men to the Cypress Hills region in search of ever-more-fertile fur grounds. Nelson emphasizes the white man’s dependence on Indian know-how, depending on Indian provisions, such as pemmican, to make it through the brutal plains winters. Like Thomas Binnema, Nelson points out the uneasy character of Indian life during the period between 1620 and 1821, stating that horse theft and warfare were commonplace events. Nelson also traces the growing anxiety towards growing threat of American encroachment on the plains on the part of Canadians, particularly amongst Hudson Bay Company employees and investors, which eventually led the government to promote western settlement as discussed by Doug Owram in Promise of Eden. Before permanent settlers reached the region, the plains were considered temporary places for business or a place through which one traveled to reach one’s destination, such as the gold mines in British Columbia, which were similar to those described by Elliott West in The Contested Plains. However, like in West’s southern plains, Nelson illustrates that the northern plains were actually a region of increased interaction between native and white persons. With the infiltration of white institutions, settlements, and infrastructure, such as the railroad, Indians were steadily being pushed to the southern, Cypress Hills region during the mid- to late 1800s, eventually being swept into reserves.  

Aside from tracing the cultural and economic developments within the parks borders, Nelson also wishes to examine some of the long-lasting environmental problems that have plagued the western plains throughout the centuries. Nelson specifically looks at the diversity and quantity of wildlife on the plains and how these animals affected the environment. The bison, Nelson argues, had the most significant affects on environment through such activities as grazing, wallowing, and trail-making. Such creatures as beaver, locusts, and prairie dogs contributed considerable environmental alterations to the landscape as well, Nelson contends. He suggests that one explanation for early explorers’ reports of uninhabitable aridity in the West is that the bison were more numerous at that time, which had resulted in a more barren landscape, more severe than normal. This suggestion is interesting because it lessens the significance of Indian landscape manipulation practices, such as fire, and further downplays the Indian’s place in the ecological system in early years, placing the bison in the dominant slot. The Indian’s transient nature demonstrates their subordinate position in the ecological system because they moved to where the bison and the environment led them; with the onslaught of permanent settlement, the white man moved humanity into the dominant position.  

Not only are settlement areas permanent in the western world, but so too are spaces that are designated wild. The designation of official wildness is no more apparent than in the institutional concept of a national park. In October 1968, at the Canadian National Parks of Today and Tomorrow conference, Nelson and numerous other contributors from various academic fields and professional positions discussed the history and current state of Canada’s national parks. The resulting volume from this meeting of the minds was edited by Nelson and titled Canadian Parks in Perspective. In the work, Nelson states that the conference was held in reaction to increased public outcry against pollution, suburban sprawl, and other industrial and urban land-use problems. Although these issues are important, Nelson argues that their scope should be widened so as to address less obvious land use problems, such as those occurring in national parks. The same pressures that are resulting in pollution and the like are also changing the face of the country’s parks, often in ways that are not in the best interest of the Canadian citizenry. The main problem is that the public knows little of what is occurring in their national parks. The essays presented in Canadian Parks in Perspective are meant to provide the public with much needed information in hopes that it will assist public decision making in regards to national parks and other Canadian institutions in the future.  

The essays cast aside the traditional assumption that the national parks are pristine wilderness areas, preserved and protected from the dangerous capitalist claws pawing at their door. The mandate for accessibility and consequent recreational tourism has always been at odds with preservationist ideals, each battling continuously for supremacy, and as time goes on the battle is only to intensify, Nelson argues, as recreational, conservational, scientific, and other parties contend for access. Banff, as usual, serves the prime example for land-use gone awry within in a national park. Town sites, such as the one in Banff, are naturally at odds with the preservation of the ecological integrity of the parks. However, it is much easier to assess the economic worth of tourism than of environmental integrity, and thus, the latter gets the short end of the straw and is often sacrificed for further recreational development, despite the loss of educational opportunities. More emphasis needs to be placed on multi-discipline studies of national parks and the fuller understanding of the ecological systems that the parks encompass. B. Reeves, like Nelson and Andrew C. Isenberg, points out in ‘Man and His Environment The Past 10,000 Years: An Approach to Park Interpretation,” that nature is dynamic and, in addition to outside, human disturbance, is subject to internal destruction. Park development has never taken these or any other factors into account when deciding park boundaries, Ian McTaggart Cowan argues, which is a major folly on the part of park creators and an issue that needs to be addressed. Nelson also notes that there is not enough land set aside for outdoor recreation and scientific pursuits, and suggests that the land acquisition techniques practiced by the government are insufficient for keeping up with growing demand for such areas.  

Increased acquisition today is important because, as J.I. Nicol points out in “The Long View,” the power of humans to irrevocably transform the environment is increasing at a manic rate, while understanding of human effects on ecological systems is increasing, but less rapidly. The twin mandate for both tourism and preservation, Nicol and others, laid the foundation for most of the problems plaguing parks in the present. Many of the contributors point to the United States’ national park system as an example by which Canada should follow. In National Parks: The American Experience, published in 1979, Alfred Runte examines the American side of the North American national parks experience. Runte also notes the significance of the battle between recreational and preservationist ideals both historically and contemporarily. National parks in the United States are important because they are the most recognizable and celebrated outcomes of the American conservation movement, Runte argues. They are proof that the United States is responsible and unselfish, much more so than many other nations, in its actions towards the environment. They are another feather in America’s cap, another trophy of exceptionalism. Yet this celebratory atmosphere surrounding national parks often, as most self-congratulatory ambitions do, results in less-favorable aspects of the institutions being ignored. Although national park history does hold instances of remarkable statesmanship and philanthropy, Nelson argues that historians of the past put national parks on too high of a pedestal. 

The original impetus for national park creation was not environmental in nature, Nelson contends, but rather cultural. National parks were one of the products of America’s nineteenth century search for a unique, national identity in the West and desire to prove their worthiness and independence to Europe. Runte points to the example of Niagara Falls as a catalyst for future national park activity. Americans were shamed by European visitors to the falls who condemned Americans for commercializing the beautiful national landmark and accused Americans of being incapable of appreciating the natural beauty that lay before them. The West and the natural, sublime oddities it possessed offered not only a place where Americans could foster spiritual, democratic, individuality, but also a place where Easterners could flex their influential economic and cultural muscles to conserve and showcase America’s own historical landmarks, which could rival those found in Europe. The environment was the least of early park former’s concerns. Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other early conservation initiatives were chosen, not because of their ecological value, but because they were odd enough in comparison to the rest of the landscape to deserve special treatment and trophy status. In other words, their scenery was valuable culturally and, conveniently, economically. “Cultural insecurity, as the catalyst for concern, speeded the nation’s response to the threatened confiscation of its natural heritage,” (32) Runte remarks, and the economic opportunity that these heritage pieces evolved to represent ensured that the parks would remain in existence.  

Exploitation of the parks was not frowned upon, Runte writes, but merely limited to that exploitation which benefitted the nation as a whole, rather than an individual developer or businessperson. Additionally, economic aims were not pushed aside when a national park was suggested. Rather, a national park only took form when all other uses for it were ruled out. The land had to be economically “useless” for anything other than scenery, thus making sure that the national park idea did not disagree with materialism, he writes. Many times the potential for higher tourism revenue than natural resource extraction had to be proven before a national park was deemed advantageous. While Samuel Hays viewed the Hetch Hetchy controversy as an example of Pinchot’s unwillingness to sway from utilitarian sensibilities, Runte uses the event in a similar way to show of how scenic and utilitarian often at odds and how utilitarian uses, if proven to exist, usually won the battle. 

As public awareness of environmental processes and conditions increased during the mid-twentieth century, national parks evolved into symbols of America’s last remnants of wildness. Ecological integrity began to take precedence, particularly in the Everglades National Park. Yet, although Americans may profess that they have the environment’s best interests at heart, even today, they are often incapable of being convinced of a piece of land’s worth without the attachment of economic and utilitarian uses, Runte argues. The public does not understand that in order to keep ecological integrity within the national parks, visitation must be limited. They simply do not understand the effect their actions have on the environment. As long as outdoor recreational demands increase and their worth measured through dollars, the parks are in danger of further environmental degradation.  

Like Robert Craig Brown and Leslie Bella, Runte acknowledges that profitability has been a major incentive for park formation, development, and maintenance. However, unlike Brown and Bella, Runte does not see economic practicality as the sole reason for national park origination. Rather, national parks are the result of the complex interplay between nationalistic, cultural ideals, economic considerations, emotional connections, ecological understandings, scientific research, and numerous other factors. Like Paul Kopas, Runte views national park meaning as a continuously evolving entity. Alan MacEachern also dismisses the purely profit-driven analysis of national park existence. Brown’s “Doctrine of Usefulness,” like Turner’s Frontier Thesis, has been accepted as fact and remained unchallenged for too long. Brown’s assessment of national park development does not define “usefulness” correctly, ignores preservationist undertones that were present at the beginning of the movement, ignores park employee principles, and is only a workable explanation when looking at the very beginning of the national park movement because motivations change. It also does not take into account the well-known fact that the national park system has, officially since 1930, existed to serve the twin mandates of use and preservation at the same time. MacEachern also criticizes Bella for downplaying the fact that national parks have always been meant to be used, and that making a profit from this use, though problematic ecologically, does not go against original national park principles. In Natural Selections: Natural Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, MacEachern follows in Runte’s cultural footsteps. Prior park historians, he argues, have ignored the cultural influences that have driven each individual park’s acquisition. “National parks,” he writes, “are about both nature (which we may define simply as all that is nonhuman) and culture (all that is human); a history of national parks that does not address both is incomplete.” (3) Just as it is our culture that declares what is wasteful, as Nelson suggests in The Last Refuge, our culture also defines what we see as natural. Nature, wilderness, and the like do not have concrete meanings, but rather evolve to fit our cultural needs and desires at any given time. Parks are special in that they are the ultimate representation of a society’s definition of nature, a place where people convince themselves they have made preservation the utmost position of importance. 

The Atlantic National Parks are fruitful grounds for the exploration of this phenomenon of nature definition evolution, MacEachern argues, because they entered the scene late in the game, well after Western parks had been formed and shaped according to the nation’s accepted vision of wilderness. Because the Atlantic parks did not boast awe-inspiring peaks and ravines or formidable and exotic animals and due to the fact that these parks would be in areas that were not wilderness, but already populated, Canadians had to reshape their understanding of nature and national park character in order to incorporate these new pieces of land into the nation’s esteemed conservation system. Each of the four parks on which MacEachern focuses has a unique story. In the establishment of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, he describes efforts to regulate and alter the customs and livelihood of the area’s residents, which is reminiscent of Matthew Evenden’s discussion of changes forced upon indigenous way of life on the Fraser River in Fish versus Power. In the case of Prince Edward Island National Park, MacEachern highlights the irony, a theme that is rampant in the book, of painting the Green Gables to meet a perceived, fictional understanding of a park, which is supposed to be valued for its natural qualities. Yet, a cultural and intellectual consideration of this transformation, like that offered by Runte, is incomplete because it treats nature as a place where history occurs, a topic from which one branches elsewhere for political and cultural explanations. Environmental historians “must ask what nature is and what nature does,” MacEachern asserts. MacEachern sees nature as an active participant in history. Nature is not static; it is dynamic. Environmental historians must resist the human urge to separate humanity from the rest of nature, MacEachern states, suggesting he may not agree with Elliott West’s human-focused assessment of the field. They must return the humanity and the study of its actions back into the confines of the biological systems in which they exist. “As I hope I have shown, however, these attitudes and actions are never about nature alone, but also involve our own messy human aspirations for social, spiritual, and financial betterment,” MacEachern concludes, “as such, parks serve to document how we have felt about and behaved toward one another.” (240) 

Perhaps one of the most complex examples of parks acting as stages on which to study human interaction is the use of labor camps within Canada’s National Parks during the first half of the twentieth century. This historical phenomenon is looked at in depth by Bill Waiser in Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946. The thousands of men that worked in the labor camps were “Canada’s unwanted,” Waiser writes, “unskilled foreign workers, the jobless, and the homeless, pacifists, possible subversives and enemies of the state, and prisoners of war.” (1) They were individuals, who were mainly prosecuted for who they were and not due to actions committed on their part, threatened mainstream Canadian society’s civilized and respectable status-quo, and also conveniently answered a desperate call for labor on behalf of the National Parks. It was a win-win situation for the Canadian federal and provincial governments. The labor camps got the individuals off the street and the bank rolls of the cities, kept them separated from the rest of society, and resulted in much-needed productivity and development in the parks. Those that lived near the parks also benefitted from the labor and welcomed it because it meant more business for local establishments.  

During the early twentieth century, the national parks were actively touted as tourist attractions and remedies for the ravages of modernity. Similar to Runte’s assessment of American national parks, Waiser contends that Canadian national parks did not hold value based on their natural, supposedly-pristine, ecological uniqueness, but were rather treated like any other natural resource commodity, garnering only as much value as their scenic and recreational prospects promised economically. In order for this potential value to be fully realized and tapped and the parks’ enema for societal ills administered, the national parks had to become more accessible and that meant the need for new roads and facilities.   

MacEachern’s assessment of J.B. Harkin is not the traditionally celebratory account. “Historian’s eagerness to see Harkin’s drive for dollars as a strategy rather than a philosophy tells us more about them than about him,” (26) he writes. Because he served so long and because Canadian national parks are viewed as a success, MacEachern states that Harkin is assumed to have been a great preservationist and becomes a hero by default. This kind of revisionist attitude is what E.J. Hart was reacting against in J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. MacEachern points to Waiser as a fellow revisionist, whose assessment of Harkin as a “hapless cheerleader” illustrates the reality of Harkin’s less-than-heroic, futile position. Waiser paints Harkin as a man interested in the benefits the national parks offered to human’s spiritually and economically, not as a man dedicated to preservation. Waiser’s Harkin is an opportunist who jumps on the prospect of being supplied internment labor in order to finish his expansionist objectives within the parks, particularly in regards to road building and the subsequent increase in tourism that augmented automobile traffic would bring. 

Waiser, using a multitude of primary sources including interviews, effectively illustrates the difficulties experienced by the various groups of individuals that were sent to work in the parks over during these decades. He shows how wartime hostages, such as the Ukrainians and the Japanese, felt that their personal liberties were violated, not understanding why they had been labeled criminals in the first place. The conscientious objectors of World War II, represented largely by young Mennonites, also take on a sympathetic air, as their personal conflictions are fleshed out by Waiser. He shows how those out of work during the Depression, at times, welcomed the chance for employment and a way of finding shelter from the worst ravages of the outside world. Waiser’s narrative, as he notes at the end, demonstrates that the history of Canadian national parks has not been solely shaped by the forces of recreation and preservation.  

In Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince Albert National Park, Waiser, like MacEachern in Natural Selections, uses a case-study, Prince Albert National Park, to more closely examine specific examples of historical occurrences, such as the labor camps and Indian removal, and cultural and economic park trends. The region in which Prince Albert National Park lies is unique, he states, in that it was relatively uninhabited until the mid-nineteenth century. This isolation changed, however, once the agricultural settlers in Owram’s Promise of Eden started to flood into the land to the south. The town of Prince Albert was expected to become, with the aid of the railroad, one of the epicenters of the West; however, once the railroad decided not to extend its yellow brick track to the North, Prince Albert fell into national obscurity and became an “economic backwater,” relying upon resource extraction, such as lumbering.  

The formation of the Sturgeon River Forest Reserve as a result of the Dominion Forest Reserves Act of 1911 set the area on a new course. By the 1920s, the reserve was not only an area in which farmer’s grazed their animals and lumbermen cut trees, but it was also becoming increasingly a spot for vacationing, as people started using the beach on Waskesiu Lake and cabins began to be built. This new tourism development was encouraged by officials who understood that they had to prove the worthiness of the reserves continued existence by way of dollar signs, rather than sentimentality. It was believed by park and provincial officials that the Forest Reserve had the potential to join the ranks of the country’s national parks, and championed their cause by arguing that a national park would keep provincial residents from leaving the province to vacation in the mountains or in the United States and would thus increase the region’s revenue. The maneuver was successful and on March 24, 1927, Prince Albert National Park was born.  

Although the formation of the park and its early developmental actions point towards a profit-only, oriented sensibility, Waiser demonstrates, like MacEachern, that financial gain was not the only connotation associated with the national parks. Prince Albert’s place in Canadian life continuously evolved and is still evolving. Like William R. Lowry, Waiser places a great deal of emphasis on park employees’ dedication to the preservationist side of the national parks equation. The wardens’, who were typically local men, main job was to provide fire and game protection, Waiser notes. These men took their jobs seriously. “It is no exaggeration to suggest that they were the eyes and ears of the park and that through their tireless efforts, Prince Albert National Park lived up to its name,” (59) he writes. The juncture of preservationist and utilitarian initiatives is effectively illustrated by Waiser with the examination of the character of Grey Owl, who was brought into the park to capitalize economically on growing preservationist sentiments. Growing efforts in the 1960s and later to focus more primarily on fauna and flora preservation often proved ironically destructive. In an effort to save some species, other animals, such as the wolf, were deemed undesirable, thus leading to unnatural, ecological disruption. Additionally, Waiser points out that efforts to quell forest fires in the park actually do more harm than good, as Stephen Pyne also argues, because nature requires these kind of disturbances in order to maintain diversity. Efforts to manage nature in Waiser’s book as well as in many others, seems to always turn out badly, or at least not as well as expected.  

“It is time for mankind to recognize that plants and animals have an intrinsic right to exist,” (101) W.A. Fuller remarks in his essay “National Parks and Nature Preservation,” in Canadian Parks in Perspective. Nature is part of man’s standard of living; exceptional economic output does not guarantee exceptional living standards. If man is a powerful as he thinks he is, which is doubtful, then it is his responsibility to ensure that other living things are able to exist and flourish, he argues. The interconnectedness of all life forms advocated in this early work by Fuller and also advocated by MacEachern, is given increased seriousness by Richard Searle in Phantom Parks: The Struggle to Save Canada’s National Park. Searle is the Manager of Communications and Engagement at Ocean Networks Canada Observatory and the founder of Ekos Communications, Inc., which seeks to “engage, inspire, motivate, and support individuals and organizations with living in harmony with the planet.” The recognition of “that plants and animals have an intrinsic right to exist” and the conscientious practice thereof now has a name: ecocentric equality.  

Searle, whose childhood spent growing up next to Riding Mountain National Park conditioned him for a lifetime of devotion to wilderness and its creatures, is profoundly worried about the ecological integrity of Canada’s national parks. The national parks, to Searle, represent the soul of Canada and their neglect and increasing environmental dilapidation will slowly lead to the parallel destruction of Canada’s character. The problem is that the vast majority of Canadians are blind to the ecological perils of the country’s national parks; mankind is predisposed to ignore problems until they reach calamitous levels. The signs cannot be subtle. They must in your face. “In a world where nothing is quite what it seems to be,” Searle writes, “we are increasingly creating a legacy of phantom parks: places that still look beautiful, but where the essential quality of wildness is largely absent.” (29) Wildness is characterized by biodiversity, and defined, according to Searle, as anything natural that is not affected by humans; that is that which is not tamed, controlled, or domesticated.  

The single greatest threat to the wildness of Canada’s national parks is the tourist industry. Despite Parks Canada promising that nothing will be done in the parks to jeopardize the parks’ ecological integrity, the service continues to run the parks like a business, rather than a public trust. Outside interference, as shown by Lowry and Kopas, on the part of other government officials and agencies also severely wounds the National Park Service’s ability to govern the parks with ecologically responsible tactics. Another problem that parks face is that they are islands, and attenuating islands at that. Parks Canada has no control of, only influence on, what goes on outside of its borders. Mining, predator poaching, pollution, etc. all have negative effects on the nation’s national parks as well as on the outside environment. In order for parks to continue to harbor and nurture biological diversity, corridors must be made by which species can travel from one major piece of wilderness to the next.  

Nelson, in Canadian Parks in Perspective, suggests the restructuring of national parks around the explicitly stated ides of exclusion of facilities, separating some parts of parks from others. Searle also suggests that exclusion and limitation of park visitation is necessary if the wildness of the parks is to be saved. However, because park visitation is viewed as a right, not a privilege, such talk is sure to end in democratic outcry because Canadians are not ready to accept this way of thinking. Searle asserts that the only way that Canada’s wildness can be preserved in and outside of the parks is by way of a complete alteration of Canadian world view. Parks Canada must be a leader in ushering this new world order, inspired by deep ecology principles, into reality. “All that is necessary to protect and restore wildness in our national parks is the willingness to learn how truly to love them, and the readiness to embark upon a profoundly exciting cultural transformation that shifts us from unsustainable and lethal values of anthropocentrism to respectful and caring values of ecocentrism,” Searle concludes. Searle’s pronouncement is certainly a tall order and one that seems impossible in the atmosphere of this day and age. People have not yet been subjected to the catastrophic consequences of their actions and thus are unwilling to change their way of life. Searle’s forced optimism is reminiscent of many environmentalists who hold on desperately to hope that the human world will miraculously wake up and change its ways because without this hope it is all too easy to slip into the shadows of apocalyptic nihilism. On a side note, Searle’s championing campaign for Canadian wilderness does not take into account or address the fact that this supposed wildness is most likely not as wild as he claims, as many argue that Indians began shaping and domesticating nature thousands of years ago.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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