A Conversation with Jim Pojar

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


Jim Pojar is forest ecologist and well known BC natural history author who also served as ecologist with BC Ministry of Forests as well as with the Ecological Reserves Program at its inception.


Mike Fenger (MF) I am here with Jim Pojar we are sitting on the shores of Oak Bay and behind us is Trial Island one of the Ecological Reserves (ERs. We are here to talk about ERs and thank you Jim for agreeing to share some of that early history with us.

Jim Pojar (JP). You are welcome

MF: I would like to start with Jim’s role with BC’s ER but before we do that we would like to know a little about what drew you to conservation not necessarily ecological reserves.

JP. When I was growing up, when I was a kid when my parents took us out in the forests and the fields on picnics and my mother and grandmother showed us wildflower and other interesting things so that was at the age of 8 or 9.

MF.  So that was became an interest for you went into high school and university?

JP. Yes especially university I always had that interest in the outdoors and in gardening and in wildflowers primarily from my mom and grandmother. But then at university I actually took some classes in biology and especially botany and also on vegetation of the state that I grew up in, Minnesota and getting that firsthand experience and being shown the inside of a flower was a transformative experience at least for me. That was it.

MF. You said you went to school in Minnesota and what brought you to British Columbia?

JP. The Vietnam War, largely but also I wanted to come to a university on the west coast, so I got a Master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and then I wanted to do more but I wanted to come to the west coast and I thought it would be a good idea to be on the north side of the border back in 1970 when I came and it proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.

MF: So did you get another degree from a university on British Columbia?

JP: Yes from UBC in Botany.

MF: And when did you first get linked up with Ecological Reserves?

JP: I think it was 1972. I was there at UBC from on 1970 to 1974. Dr Krajina was there had some graduate students and I knew them and I knew that the ER program existed through these colleagues of mine, fellow students like Karl Klinka and Dick Annas. I go hired as a field assistant to help Dr Krajina and that was during the summer surveying for potential ERs all over the province but especially the north.  So I worked out in the field summer assistant I think it was 72 and 73 with Krajina and others.

MF: Were you Krajina’s field assistant and he was doing this as a university professor or was there actually an Ecological reserves Program at that time?

JP: Not as such at that time, they didn’t have staff in Victoria, they had provincial government contacts or collaborators but it was basically Dr Krajina’s program at that time. He and some other collaborators at the universities had pushed it forward. He had some money at the time and he was able to get fellow academics including Geoff Scudder, Tom Carefoot, Bob Brooke, Keith Wade to go out into the field and do surveys and he was able to hire some summer students including me.  But I don’t I think it was until Bristol (Foster) shifted from the provincial museum that there was a government program with employees whose job was ecological reserves.

MF: You mentioned some of those early people in ER and you just stayed on with them as part of the ER program. The ER reserves started

JP: Not exactly, I worked as a consultant; after I got my PhD in 1974 I worked as a biological consultant for a year or a year and half or something like that. Then in 1975 I heard there was a job available or at least a contract position available with ERs. I applied for it and I knew the right people already by then and they hired me.

MF: Well I wanted to understand, what the goals of the program were and whether they shifted or more or less stayed constant over time?  Can you remember what some of the objectives were at that time?

JP: They were to set aside parcels of crown land and sometimes water to set aside and protect;  primarily for scientific research and secondly to serve as benchmarks against which to measure or assess the effects of management or human use elsewhere on the landscape.  So those were the overriding goals and we had objectives to increase the number of ERs and to try and represent the diverse landscapes and ecosystems of the province better than what we had at that time. It was to cast the net wider.

MF: When you were looking for areas what were you looking for?

JP: We were looking for areas in kind of a two pronged approach. We were looking for areas that were still intact that had not been disturbed by humans, I mean by industrial post-colonial humans, still functioning ecosystems that either represented the ecosystems of the province, natural ecosystems of the province like representative tracts of forests or grasslands or included some rare, unusual and unique and usual features like seabird islands or calcareous orchid fens. So we had sort of a representation goal which was probably more important, and also the goal of trying to protect rare and unusual ecosystems as well.

MF: You must have spent a lot of time out in the natural environments of BC?

JP: Yes that was the best part of the job we went all over the place.  I saw most of British Columbia in those three years.

MF: Are there some things that stand out as good and fond memories from that time and those field trips.

JP: Most of it.

MF: Not to single any one out.

JP: You can’t beat getting out in the field when you are young and still vigorous and the days are long you can accomplish a lot. One of the highlights was going up what then was called the Stewart-Cassiar Road and what became highway 37 after they completed the bridge over the Nass River so you could drive then all the way from Terrace to the Yukon.  One of the summers we did that with my supervisor Dr.Kay Beamish from UBC Botany and Keith Wade from Capliano College and George Otto who was a lichenologist and naturalist Art Guppy and a couple of summer students we went up the road and looked for good representative sites and if we saw something unusual or someone told us about it which was often the case then we had a look at that too.  That was a great way to spend the summer.

MF: One of the Ecological Reserves is in that country in Spatsizi, Gladys Lake is the largest ER.

JP: That was probably the highpoint in my time with ER was getting Gladys Lake protected, partly because it was such a big area, far bigger than any of the other ERs.

It was large enough that it had and continues to have a good chance of preserving a large mammal predator-prey ecosystem.  The reasons for establishing that had more to do with the wildlife, with the large mammals than the forests and other ecosystems though they were part of it as well.   That is what I did I spent a whole summer up in the Gladys Lake ER doing a botanical survey of entire area trying to figure out what the best boundaries would be and staying in a cabin in the bush, Val Geist’s old cabin the one that Ian McT. Cowan had built for him.

MF. I have been there and it is an incredible area.  So you would find these areas and move then from a proposal an ER this must have presented some challenges?

JP: Always did and it still does. The challenge then was once you decided on an area and described it as best you could biologically and with supporting maps photographs and with a rationale. Then you would have to refer it to the different management agencies. Certainly one of the big differences back then there was very little attention paid to First Nations. What they might have thought about it, a lot of those old proposals from what I know no one or no one that I know of talked to First Nations, what they might have thought about it and not as a group not to their representatives.  It was other government agencies that we talked to, that we referred the proposals to so it was forests, mines, water and environment and so forth.  They were so-called agency referrals and if everybody agreed to it would pass through the system and be given an order-in-council and become an ER. But certainly one of the chief obstacles—besides the usual suspects like forests and mines, who of course are always going to be reluctant to give up portions of their so-called land base or resource base–I was surprised and dismayed that in quite a few instances it was the fish and wildlife branch that was the biggest obstacle.  You would have thought they would have been natural allies but ….

MF: And why was that?

JP: Basically because hunting is not allowed in ERs so we would get the line on some of our proposals, having passed all other hurdles; having forests and mines and all other agencies agree, then we would get the regional biologists or some of the folks in Victoria who would say no this is going to “compromise our management objectives” which is usually how they phrased it.  So they were opposed to an ER on the lower Stein, that was long before it became a Protected Areas trying to get some of that nice dry Ponderosa Pine Douglas-Fir Forests on the lower Stein as an ER, no that would “compromise the management objectives” of the regional biologist or the fish and wildlife branch..  So that surprised me but it certainly happened and more than once. 15:03

MF: Having worked with Fish and Wildlife I am also surprised but perhaps shouldn’t be. Some of the challenges now for Ecological reserves is that you can’t lock them in time succession happens, do you have some thoughts on what is appropriate an appropriate level of management in ecological reserves?  I know that debate goes on currently about succession and control of natural disturbances and what is the appropriate level of management for these areas.

JP: I would say still the chief value of ERs is that they are areas that are left alone (as much as possible) by human beings and that includes management which is a human activity. Now there are some ecosystems that are set aside that do require human intervention to maintain them, whether they are some of the Garry oaks around Victoria that may require fencing against grazing by goats and sheep or removal of invasive species or maybe even fire to maintain the openness of the ground cover, the savannah-like conditions, but there are a lot of them where I think you just have to accept what comes as a natural disturbance whether it’s in the form of a wildfire or wind throw or beetle epidemic. You can’t guard or protect these reserves from everything, can’t insulate them from these disturbances. You can try and protect them from other so called non-natural disturbance like dirt bikes or quads or domestic animals or roads or getting a road right-of-way through a reserve, but wildfire and wind throw is going to happen.  Ultimately the disturbances will happen everywhere but the reserve land base will still be there. The trees, the original trees, may not be there but something else comes up that is just the nature of things.  I remember the Morice River ER out of Houston it burned in the Swiss fire back in 1983 and that was a big fire 18,000 hectares.  Then subsequently back in the in 2000s when they were doing the land use plan for the Morice Forest District it was hard to find within a 100 kilometres of Houston any young forest that hadn’t had some management intervention from the very energetic foresters. It had either been spaced or thinned or the burn area had been salvage-logged.  Really hard to find, what Brian Fuhr and I used to call, a “wild young forest”. You would not think that would be a hard thing to find but that really was a hard thing to find up in that part of the province.

So I still see ERs especially in their two primary functions: as areas in which to do scientific research, including monitoring, and as benchmarks against which to measure change elsewhere. Against those two primary functions to me it makes most sense to leave them alone.   Unless there is something that will flip them to a whole new realm or really degrade them and that is a difficult issue.

MF. So if some of the plants that they were originally established to contain are diminishing then that is just part of succession?

JP. Even back then we realized that we could not set aside museum exhibits or museum pieces; just natural succession was going to happen and was already happening as one species of tree was replaced by a shade-tolerant other species or grasslands fill in with conifers in the absence of fire.  We accepted that that was going to happen. But now there is climate change and back then we did not think at all about climate change, at all. So now you can set aside 500 hectares of boreal forest or ponderosa pine savannah somewhere in the province you have no guarantee that in 50 years those areas will have those major tree species or understory plants anymore, because things are changing so fast and the projected changes are so large so what’s the point.  Things are changing so much and will change so much/ It’s  best in my opinion to leave it be and watch what happens and don’t start messing around because there are all sorts of other areas in the province where we are messing around.

MF. So are we watching what is going on?  You have been an ecologist for a long time are we paying enough attention to these ER so see what is going on if they are benchmarks.

JP. Not nearly enough. There are some like the seabird islands which receive regular inventories and monitoring. The government cannot be trusted in any way, if you are talking about a long term commitment to monitoring.  It is just not in the nature of government to commit to anything like that long term that involves costs and especially if you have to hire people to do it, public servants to do it.  23:00

MF. So if the monitoring doesn’t fall to government are there others who could do it?

JP. That is what I was going to say volunteer wardens and naturalists in general to be the eyes and ears of the forest and the meadows. You must have people especially local people where these ERs are in their backyard or in their sphere of recreation just to periodically check in these ERs to see what is going on otherwise no one will.  Parks staff have more than enough to do with everyday Parks and the park users. ERs are kind of an extra chore which has been put on their plate and there are fewer and few Parks staff to take care of a much greater land base than there was 20 years ago (meaning 1991). So really that is where Friends of Ecological Reserves and wardens and just interested naturalists come in and they can pick up that ball or assume that role because you can be darn sure that government won’t in my opinion.

MF.  You worked for the ER program for a number of years you said you started in the 1970s.

JP. Yes three to four years as an employee.

MF. Did the program continue after?

JP. Yes the program continued

MF So you worked for ER for 3 or years?

JP.  Yes. But I continued to work for ERs when I was working for the Forest Service and we made several new proposals and I made sure when the Parks and Protected Areas strategy rolled around our longstanding ER proposals from 25 years ago like the Khutzamateen were back on the table.  Took us 25 years but we finally got that one, it was originally an ER proposal.

MF. It is not an ER.

JP. Yes but at least it is protected as a grizzly bears sanctuary. So yes I was only with ER for 3 years but I continued to support them when I was working for the Forest Service.

MF. Do you feel that the ER program is completed the network? There is no ER program but Parks staff managed current148 ERs.   Do you have thoughts on whether the system should be expanded?

JP.  There should be more.  The ER system should be expanded partly because some parts of the province are not adequately represented by ERs and some things we never knew about for example I never knew there was karst up around Houdini Creek. Good name for a disappearing Creek.  It is up towards Atlin up in that part of the province and other things that come to light that we just didn’t know about that could be rare or unusual or again there could just representative samples ecosystems.  But really these days I am thinking that what we need to do is re-evaluate the entire area of protected ecosystems including ERs and decide which ones would be best to monitor as benchmarks to try to track changes that are happening because of climate change.  ERs are a logical choice if they are representative and not too inaccessible and it is not too hard to protect monitoring installations, whatever that might be. ERs would be logical choice but maybe there are portions of existing parks or other protected areas that would be good monitoring stations as well.  These days I would base my first scan or selection on physical features.  So-called enduring features.  So that is a big change for me as I am a plant guy.

MF. So what is an enduring feature can you give us an example?

JP. Bedrock geology and landform that are not going to change as climate changes or they won’t change much unless there is a landslide or something. The biota will change on these enduring features as species shift their ranges and they will reassemble in new ecosystems.  But the physical surface, the template, for the reorganization of the biota will not change that much, except maybe for permafrost that will change a lot like up in Fort Nelson. So I would make my initial scan based on enduring features.  And fortunately that was part of the Parks system plan back in the 70s they did have a landform bias, but ER were mainly selected mainly on the biota vegetation and animals and other things.  I have changed my thinking in that regard.

MF. If that is advice to government broadly and generally I wonder if you have some advice for Friends of Ecological Reserves. We have a little strategic plan that we did. Our first emphasis is to help the wardens program, eyes and ears for government to look in on ER and you have mentioned that.  The next one is to promote and encourage science within ER. The third one is to support and complete the network ERs  and the fourth one is make people aware of ER and last one is have bunch of friends who will show up and have fun together. Where could we put emphasis

JP.  We already talked about reassessing the coverage of ERs in the network but also to get some more research into ERs.  To me when you are trying to convince a researcher to work on ER a lot of them don’t care.  They can go to an old field in the Fraser Valley and study mice.  They don’t have to go to ER they can generate reams of scientific papers just looking at mice in old fields.  But there are some researchers who have an affinity for natural ecosystems and protected areas.  To me it is a matter of finding out who they are and trying to support them. An obvious example is Dr Tom Reimchen. It was back in the 70s I don’t think a  group of advisors and planners working on research directions for ecological reserves would have thought that stickle back fish was a research priority. But it was great that Tom Reimchen was there working on an evolutionary showcase on Haida Gwaii and on stickleback so it was good that Tom was there .  Find the most interested and interesting researchers and give them support them instead of developing a strategic research plan. You can try that but I would rather look for researchers who are keen and they like the idea of doing it in an ecological reserve and you support them. You give the money to the people who are really good and let them do what they think is important.  And now you give it a climate change component.

MF Other there are other things you would like to say?  I have put the questions I wanted in front of you

JP. In terms of enjoying and engendering support there is nothing like going out in the field with other like-minded people visiting ER and seeing what they have to offer and having a nice time enjoying each other’s company in a really nice setting and then talking about it later. To me that is the way to develop support for natural areas, get people to visit them and then they become attached and could become stewards of the area.

MF. We are missing quite a few wardens in rural areas of BC. We do a good group here.  Well thank you so much Jim and leaving something for the Parks Elder archives Thank you so much.

JP. You are welcome it was my pleasure.