A Conversation with Derek Thompson

Posted March 15, 2012 | Categories : FER Interviews,History,People |

Derek Thompson has over 30 years of experience with the Government of British Columbia. His work concentrated primarily on parks planning and land use management and policy development including Ecological Reserves.  He is also on the Elders Council for Parks[1]

Mike Fenger (MF). I am here with Derek Thompson a long time Parks employee and later on career civil servant with the Ministry of Environment.  I want to find out a little bit about Derek’s association with the environment and his role with Ecological Reserves (ER) and Protected Areas.  Derek thank you for agreeing to an interview.

Derek Thompson (DT).  You are welcome.  I know one of the things you were saying to begin with was how did I come to have an interest in this field?  That question has caused me to think quite a lot about my childhood. I grew up in the United Kingdom and I was really influenced by some of the teachers that I had. We lived near the Cotswolds and on a weekend when I was about 8 years old my parents would put me on a bus which would take me and others up to a little village called Winchcombe.  Where Mrs. Flood and son and her husband lived and we would go rambling in the woods all day and on Saturday.  He was into bats so we would look for bats in the caves and she was just superb at flower identification and that really influenced me.  Then other teachers influence me later in school.  We would go for weekend study camps for biology and geography to central Wales and we would just ramble through the mountains with these obsessed teachers who were into lichens, earthworms and things like that. It was fun and I look back and realized that struck a chord for me it was a big thing. My father when we would go to the seaside would always go rambling in the cliffs and as I got older I would tag along with him.  He was really interested in ocean life and wandering through tide pools and poking around.  We hired a rowboat once and rowed boat miles from shore and his whole purpose was to try and see what was down there.  So I grew up with it.

MF. So did that early identification the outdoors lead towards a pursuit of an education in the natural environment areas?

DT Well for a long time I thought I was going to be a doctor or something like that.  Then my father and one of my geography teachers talked me into pursuing geography, geology and botany at university.  Geography became a tremendous passion and mountain climbing and rock climbing in North Wales and in Europe. These sort of drove me.  It was an adventure thing. Well it was just a love to understand how the world worked from a geologic and biological stand point. We would be driving around and I would be looking at river systems and trying to work out what had happened and how it had gotten to be like that.  I am coming across as a bit of an obsessive here, a geek, it was deep for me.

MF. Somehow we have to get you over to Canada how did that happen?

DT. One of my University professors persuaded me that I should go on with my learning after my first degree. He said you are obviously restless you should think about something like Canada or Australia and I chose Canada because I loved winter and I thought there was more to explore in Canada, more outdoor of course when I got here and discovered the wilderness, it was wow.

MF So did you come right to BC?

DT. Yes I came right across Canada by train in 1971 and that was a great geographic experience. Seeing the whole geography rolled out in front of you in the train window and talking to Canadians.  And arrived in Victoria and I knew within days that this is the place that I wanted to be forever. It was just such an incredible environment here.

MF Did you come here explicitly to go to school?

DT. Yes to U Vic (University of Victoria) to do a Masters in Geography and I then was supposed to do a PhD. Quite by accident I got a summer job with BC Parks to do some research work. And I vividly remember walking into the head of planning after I had been there maybe a couple of weeks and said this is really fascinatingly good stuff can I stay for longer?  And that was it I was never interviewed for a job it was his fault and I stayed forever inside the government.

MF So you never went on to do your Doctorate degree you stayed with Parks?

DT.  Yes I walked away from the Ph.D. and as it happened it was a good decision because our first child was unexpectedly coming along and at that time we didn’t know.  But more particularly I just discovered that working in the environment in BC was just absolutely precious and incredibly interesting too.

MF So as a park-planner was that your first encounter with ecological reserves. Maybe you could tell us a little about what the early days in ER were like?

DT. So I was as a park planner in Kamloops and I vividly remember my boss then regional director calling me into his office one day and saying this fellow Bristol Foster was coming to visit and he was a particularly dangerous person because he had these ideas about establishing ecological reserves.  Didn’t I know that ecological reserves weren’t a good idea?  It was the first time I had encountered ERs having been focused on management plans for parks. I wondered why are they so bad?  So I read the Act and some policy papers that Bristol had written and thought well there is a lot of sense in this establishing some areas for scientific inquiry.  So when Bristol did come to town I spent some time with him at meetings. I was junior at that time and he was head of ERs, I think that got to him personally meeting with a junior.  I could tell there was a lot of, not animosity exactly but a lot of doubts from the resources agencies about what this ER program was about, this was 1972-1973 and there was resistance to setting areas separately aside even inside of Parks at that time.  But even then I felt there was a need to have areas that you could guarantee for a long time that science could be practiced and there would be a need to have a good baseline of information for a scientific basis about ecosystems and management. Parks after all were about a number of other things as well.  So that was my first encounter.  It was one of doubts from senior executives in Parks.  Of course that did tend to underlie the relationship between ER and Parks, unfortunately. It must have been so until the early 80s when Parks and ERs were brought under the same roof. So you can imagine the initial reaction from both sides about how was this going to go and what was going to happen? A lot of concern.

MF. Can we explore that historic resistance because there is resistance today to establishing ERs or we sense there is.  There haven’t been a lot established lately, maybe we could understand where some of that resistance rests to help open some of the doors to new ERs.

DT. Well in this province there has always be resistance to these so called single use areas set aside from all other productive economic activity.  We know that from our involvement whether they are Parks or ERs. I think though in particular with ERs there was the added concern that there was going to a set of international standards imposed on BC and that BC was going to have to measure up and be responsive to some external organizations on what was right and what was wrong.  Government, particularly in BC, has always been proudly responsible for itself and whether it is a World Heritage designations or biophysical areas or whatever it is.  There is a lot of concern about outside people. And then the notion that in the competition for lands and resources in this province, this notion that a particular entity, in this instance the ERs unit, this very small unit had some sort of hammer over everybody was resisted as well.  And I think finally there was a suspicion about researchers and what were researchers going to do and how would we be able to manage them effectively.

MF So some of those barriers are still there.  Do you think there has been a change in the understanding of the benefits of research in natural areas?

DT I can’t speak for very much for the very current state inside government because I have been outside the government since 2003.  But I do feel that by the turn of the century the Minister of Forests really had come to understand the value of research and the importance to the Ministry program, good basic ecological and other research.  The research program had existed for quite a long time and I think the research program in the Ministry of Forests has been quite a supporter of ERs in one way or another and has used them quite effectively.  And I think the value of protected areas in general was now recognized much more than it had been.  How we went from 6% of the province to 14% protected as more people recognized the value of protection.  That said though there is always this concern that hard wiring boundaries and particularly entities into the system. Everybody is out to have flexibility to make decisions into the future.  People are still a bit suspicious about rigidity and being bound into the future and that affects ecological reserves as these are more about permanence than some aspects of Parks because you have to have the certainty of long time lines to be able to undertake effective research in these areas.  And there is a concern still about research that might change the environment as well which is one of those unresolved issues around ecological reserves that some people have had.  But I also think that since the turn of the century we have lost the thread of understanding the value of these areas.  I understand that the research program in the Ministry of Forests is much less than it was and our general management of the environment has changed in terms that government is much less engaged than it was in stewardship. And that is bound to affect entities like protected areas generally and ERs because you are saying more public engagement needs to be there and yet we do not see the public stepping up in quite the way we might have anticipated certainly in the end of the last century.

MF. Now we had some questions about the early days are there some ecological reserves that you visited that had particularly good memories?

DT. Not so much in the early days but over the years and going to places like Gladys Lake obviously can’t fail to impact you.  What is the relationship between this ER and the general wilderness park management we try to do?  And if ERs are truly an ecological reserve for science research purposes or trying to be something else in the case of smaller ERs here on the island that got batted around.  These really are science research entities but they are so terribly tiny, like Mount Tzuhalem, is it a viable sort of unit?  Then going out to the Oak Bay islands and thinking  how can this be an ecological reserve it is really a land management reserve with a lot of natural values but it is not necessarily a research unit, it isn’t really an ecological benchmark, so much as it is a special zone. So I am finding myself going to these places so some of these entities that we set aside as ERs may not truly be what is within the bounds of what we meant to articulate as an ecological reserve. It is a protected area and should be a protected area and some of the park units needed more formal areas designated as research units established inside them.  It is a kind of system which is kind of half here and half way there.  I think that still prevails.

MF.  You were very instrumental in the Parks and Protected Areas Strategy (PPAs) and managing the increase from 6% to 14%.  There weren’t a lot of ERs added during that PPAs period and only one added recently in the Smithers area.  What do you think that the opportunity or even the need for adding more of these is?

DT. I still believe that having an entity whether you call it an ER or a science reserve or whatever but having entities that are there with a guarantee as benchmarks or areas where you are going to have a long history of science research well that is a very important part of the system.  I don’t think we paid a lot of attention to those sort of internal differentiations when we were doing the big PPAs because we were really trying to get large representative areas and small special feature areas identified and set aside. I think in the minds of minds of a lot of us at that time we would be able to come back in a more refined way through management planning so this part of this entity needs to be established with a strong recreational bias this part of this entity for wilderness, this part of this entity for science repository for experimentation for benchmarking whatever.  I think that and I would hope that is what future generations will do. I think that we have a lot of areas that are ideal for that sort of thing.  We just haven’t done the work around it and I think that is one of the next steps.  I am uncertain about whether the current ER legislation or some refinement of that should be undertaken right out the blue.  But in 1985 I fell heir to the ER unit and I felt very strongly at that time that a real thorough look at the legislation and the regulation would bring them into a better harmonization with the whole system that was evolving.

MF. And what sort of changes were you thinking of making?  Allowing more multiple use inside them?

DT. I don’t know about multiple-use. If I had my druthers the Parks and Protected Areas legislation[2] would have described a system that came down in a series of zonation’s including ecological zonation[3] within one really well thought out piece of legislation, both comprehensive and integrated. Really we only got part way into the legislated changes and sort of plunked pieces in without really integrating them in a well done way. And the thing the regulations, needed to be and I don’t know what has happened to them since, but needed to be broadened into the 21st century to recognize the existence of very large Protected Areas system and that ER are part of.   To recognize that this tiny amount within that I don’t think is really sufficient recognition of what we need to have as guaranteed benchmarks to be effective.  We came so far and then we stopped.

MF. I am going to interpret that to be possible advice to government to look over the Parks and Protected area legislation and think about what is better integration of what is already within the system.

DT. I certainly think so it would be difficult to know what priority you place on that.  We still have got important jobs to do just to make sure that we have the lands and resources that we need essentially inside the system fully inside and properly managed, if you triage your problems that is a secondary problem. The problem of getting it fully integrated is secondary to making sure you have what is essential.  We continue to go through a very fast and radical evolution of our environment in this province and we don’t want essential pieces that we may have missed in the first couple of go rounds go through our fingers because our attention was put to try and carve out a piece of legislation.

MF Perhaps some thoughts on ERs and their original goals. They were began in university setting with Dr Krajina who was a real proponent of protected areas.  He basically got a cross section of government senior civil servants, university scientists and others together and they advocated for the Act and began the ER program.  It was convincingly led.  What I am hearing from is ERs in the early days were soon not that warmly embraced by government and still may not be warmly embraced.  Do you have some thoughts on leadership and making a world class protected area system in BC.  How can you finesse that in end of this first decade of the 21st century?

DT A very essential thing and it was the same essential thing for the Protected Areas in general is this issue of public engagement.  I think what we have seen with ERs is a small and very passionate group of people.  The volunteer wardens and the stewardship they want to bring to the system has been incredible an enormous contribution to the system. A very small and passionate group of people and if this is going to go any further there has to be a greater engagement and recognition in the general public.  There has to be a demand that we need more of these things and an understanding of how these pieces are set in the larger system.  How do you grow the volunteer stewardship into a greater general engagement is one question and challenge I think.  In fact the challenge that over rides all of the others. I think the other one is to be engaged on a continuous basis with the key decision makers in government you know the senior bureaucrats and the Ministers.  The bureaucracy is still incredibly influential here perhaps not as influential as it was at the time of Vladimir Krajina and Bristol Foster were there and getting together. But it is still very influential so you need to focus on them and understand what their problems are and think about the modern version of ecological reserves and what a modern vision would be within the context of what the province is trying to achieve now and how it fits into our international commitments to biodiversity and things like that.

MF To ask this question and maybe I am leading you. ERs were largely a Ministry of Environment initiative, it was pretty much Ministry of Environment to the extent that staff were able.  How do you engage other resource agencies in understanding the natural ecosystems and benchmarks and bringing in the universities?  I guess this question is about looking across the agencies mandates to collectively learn something which I think was the original concept that Krajina used. He was stridently critical as a botany professor of foresters but he believed that ERs were for foresters and from that point of view I am not clear that we are even close to that concept yet.

DT. I think that by the 90s we saw a lot of engagement from Ministry of Forests’ people and at least on this file and we had leadership from Forests in land use planning.  But now of course we have a very different mix of agencies and responsibilities.  We have this set of policy ministries and one humongous sort of great delivery ministry which is responsible for stewardship and integration of all decision makers and things like that.  So it is very difficult and on top of that concepts like biodiversity and endangered species legislation and protection have come along since the notion of ecological reserves was first mooted. We have to think through now how this thing fits now with those both the concept and practices a little bit and so how does one apply these to the needs and interests of the decision makers in the Ministry of Resource Management. What argument will work to help the policy ministries to put in place some practical solutions?  I don’t have the answers to that.  I haven’t really applied myself recently to that but I think that is what you need to think about.  You have to recognize that the time has moved on it is a very different take on somewhat the same issues.  You know our whole concept of limits have changed since the 1970s.

MF.  There is one significant and now more legally recognized group and that is First Nations. They has always been a group with legal status but I don’t know if the Parks and Protected areas had engagement outside of the provincial government.  Do you have any thoughts on engagement with First Nations and this added level of complexity?

DT It is a whole extra responsibility that government agencies have got as individuals and a whole new prescriptive on values. Institutively the concept that ERs stands for have some harmonization with First Nations interests but here we get the potential collision of the western science model with the traditional ecological knowledge model.  There needs to be real engagement and discussion with some of the First Nations leadership about how do they see the science proceeding and the notion of long term and benchmarking certainly fits within the concepts that they hold dear. But the ER act never really anticipated that and it is a great example of how things have drastically changed in the way that we approach management in this province.   There is a need to spend some time with First Nations leaders talking about and seeing what would be needed to make an ecological reserves system that would have resonance with them.

MF I don’t know if you have looked at our strategic plan.  We did it for our own guidance.

DT. I haven’t seen it.

MF. Basically one of our roles is to support volunteer wardens, another is to attract research dollars into ERs and we did well and we had donors in the past and some ability to direct research and then another goal was to look at the resilience of the entire 148 ERs and whether they are adequate and where should we be advocating for more and then a goal to do out reach for public understanding and the final goal is how do you keep a non-government organization happy and together so that people show up.  So those are our strategic goals and if you can just spare a minute to think about the next five years and where you think FER should be more attuned.

DT. Those are good strategic goals and as I was thinking about this conversation we were going to have today and in my experience the Friends have be particularly effective with the fostering of the volunteer wardens that is the strength and it’s been the difference between yourselves and other conservation NGOs (Non-Government Organizations).  You have that key of strong base that is wired to people and reality on the ground.  I would hope that you could continue that it differentiates you and it has always been something that the agency could come back to and has benefited a lot from.  Other groups I have been involved with over the years have not succeeded in developing that kind of ground swell.  I think the thing would be, were I in your position, to think about looking forward and how do we renew? How do we attract other people in?  How do we attract different interests?  How do we attract donors?  And it relates to what I said about renewing the purpose and the intent and thinking through what has changed here in BC and what hasn’t changed and what response you need to that to come clear on that and be able to create an advocacy for that new model and seeing if it resonates with people, especially with young urban people.  We are increasingly talking about how to engage this increasingly youthful market, teachers. I always go back to what got me in here and it was my teachers and my family’s interest. So how do you engage again with teachers and with universities? Again the university system has changed dramatically since the 1970’s.  In the 1970’s we had three universities in this province all in the south all in the major urban areas and now we have got universities in most of the significant communities in the province. Young professors and a lot are involved in the environment and resources. Is there a way to get to them and their students really engaged with programs like this and maybe it is not just about ecological reserves.  If ecological reserves are part of a little bit larger packet that relates to the management of biodiversity, research and information and knowledge management.

MF. Many of us were very disappointed when government decentralized ER management.  For FERs having an ER coordinator and a warden coordinator in Victoria was easier and a more effective way for this very small group to engage. It is very hard for us now to deal with nine regions and nine different people. I don’t know how or whether we advocate for an ERs headquarters person again.  Is that a reasonable pitch for us to make to government?

DT It is going to be an uphill push.  When government is consciously going in the other direction to advocate for more of something that they have decided not to do is not always useful.  Not meaning that you shouldn’t advocate for an ER coordinator because if that is one of the essential things that you want and you think that is absolutely key then you need to build a case for it but be aware that you are flying in the face of a hurricane.  I think you really need to ensure that there is an understanding a conscious intent to manage for these values. If that is lodged effectively in those people who are responsible out there in the field it is going to be far more powerful in this organizational set up than it is if it is someone isolated in Victoria who the guys on the ground don’t listen to.  That is the challenge we all are going to have. These nine regional Assistant Deputy Ministers and their teams are going to be very powerful Czars and Czarinas out there and how do we all engage with them across the landscape, you are not the only ones that are going to be challenged that way and who might you join forces with, who have similar interests and needs for advocacy to deal with those people out there because my read is that government is not going to going to back and it will change these things as it always does.  It is forced to do what is happening because of the realities of funding and because of the reality of general intent and it is unlikely to find change in those sort of things.

MF. When you say that government is unlikely to go back I tag on the phrase “to a leadership role on land stewardship” is that too broad?

DT Yes. I was thinking about going back to an organization structure that was more centralized and hierarchical. In terms of land stewardship I am not ready to give up on that.  You have a got position inside of government that is the Chief Forester’s position that is supposed to take leadership on land and resource stewardship. So I would be saying to the chief if he is accepting any advice, okay you have got a stewardship responsibly for much more than forests and annual allowable cut.  You are supposed to be the kind of the resource steward from a land and resource steward perceptive in your Ministry and we think that ER are a greater part of that and we see this part of the of job and this and this and so work it there.  I don’t think that government has made some sort of decision and they are on an irrevocable path away from land stewardship.  I am worried at the lack of planning and the lack of recognition of what are the values that we are managing towards in this province for natural conservation and recreation sort of values.  I see this more as an opportunity for people to advance advocacies rather than a complete abrogation of it. I hope it is just an opportunity.

MF You mention being a regional planner then a planner in headquarters and eventually running the Ministry at the Deputy level. That happened fairly quickly after Kamloops?  When did you become Deputy Minister for the Environment?

DT I was head of Parks planning 1980s and early 90s and head of land use planning in the mid-90s and a deputy in the late 90’s. Looking back on it, it all happened very fast and a long time ago. And I am really glad that I had the early experience in the field because I think it grounded me for those later things that came along and I never thought to be Assistant Deputy Minister let alone Deputy Minister.  When I was asked to do those things I felt that having had that work experience in the field was enormously important to be able to do it.

MF. I am sure that many of your staff were pleased to have someone who had come up through the ranks.

DT. And knew too much about things.  The danger is that you think that you might know too much and you interfere with people.

MF Well I want to thank you for those insights into the early ER and Protected Area days. We want to know if you are still keeping up with changes in conservation?

DT Interestingly yes, I say I retired from government but I didn’t retire from life and I am a lifelong learner. I had some amazing opportunities in the last few years to look at things in the international scene and to see what is going on and what isn’t going on in countries in South America and south east Asia and elsewhere and one of the interest things is they are in the process and have past us, they are lapping us they are doing things in the environment and resource management that we only dreamed of.  Things like the operationalization of payment for ecological services. Things that go well beyond where we were at. The Chinese are putting enormous amounts of energy, resources and money into protected areas establishment and attempts to manage in the face of huge pressures.  They can learn a little bit from us but we can learn an awful lot from them.  Meanwhile BC has kind of stood on its laurels for a little bit.  I hope that we are going to see some re-invigoration.  The public is going to say to the government hey that was good what we did in the 1990’s but we continue to have some needs and duties that we need to see performance on.  I know that there are lots of really excellent people inside the government.  I am so impressed with young people that are coming into government service now their academic credentials and their abilities are way beyond where I was at their age. I am still committed to help them.  I was at the Royal Rhodes University where I show up and talk to them from time to time but my knowledge about the details of what is going on in BC is not anywhere near where it was. I have been away and I am aware today of what is happening in Indonesia.  I will continue to have some involvement.

MF We really want to thank you for this retrospective, fast over view and we intend to use at least some of this to reach a broader audience and deliver a message that maybe we are resting on our laurels.  You have certainly helped us and so have the other interviewees. Wonderful and thank you.

DT. I hope it was useful.

[1] For more on Elder Council for Parks visit their web site

[2] Link Protected Areas of British Columbia Act [SBC 2000] CHAPTER 17

Schedule D

[3] Link to summary of Current Designations and an overview of Class A, B, C Parks, Conservancy, Recreation Area and Ecological Reserves