A Conversation With Briony Penn

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


Briony Penn is an award-winning writer, a geographer, an adjunct professor and lecturer and lives on Saltspring Island[1].

Mike Fenger (MF) I am here with Briony Penn to learn about the history and legacy of Ecological Reserves and her role with that. What we would like to do first though is find out what interested Briony in the environment and led to her involvement with conservation.  Briony welcome.

Briony Penn (BP). Thanks it is nice to be here. Well I think it was really and for many people it was having a really important mentor in my life when you are little. That takes you outside and shows the natural world in a way that kind of enchants it for you. For that really is the hub. Both my grannies were very keen outdoors and nature people and honestly from whenever I remember I was outside and had a real interest in nature especially wildflowers.  Both grannies were very keen on wildflowers and so I was always out with them learning the names in the Garry Oak meadow.  It was a time that that Garry oaks and that ecosystem hadn’t been defined as such it was just these wonderful wildflower meadows that I grew up in.  And of course every spring they would burst into bloom. I loved the color I loved the smell. I loved the trees. I loved the fact that I could go and escape into these trees and hide from my brothers and have a little sanctuary, I think they would come with me too.  I think having places that you can go to that feel safe and that are beautiful and you feel happy and you have got adults around you that support that place that you are in. You know I never had any adults in my life say oh don’t go outside, oh it’s dangerous. I never had any of that so I consider my childhood really privileged because I had supportive adults that said go outside and go and look at this isn’t this interesting, oh come and share this.  If I had gotten things I was curious about or anything they would go oh isn’t that interesting let’s go find its name, let go find out more about it, why don’t you find out more about it and that sort of thing. I think that foundation as a child, it wasn’t just the Garry oak meadow it was also the shoreline and I had a father that was very interested in the shore line and loved mucking around in the intertidal. And so I think those influences were really important.

MF So then that drew you later on into environment at University. You have multiple degrees, you obviously pursued this.

BP. I think I have actually been an activist since I can remember because of those Garry oak meadows that I love so much I was watching them get destroyed because Victoria was expanding really rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s and I couldn’t stand it beautiful meadows I played suddenly getting bulldozed. I remember writing my first letter to the editor when I was ten, which I am quite proud of actually, saying, there was going to be a hospital proposed, not where the hospital is now but the VGH (Victoria General Hospital) first site for the was right in the middle of the Garry oak meadow and I wrote a letter saying this is a terrible place to do it if you want people to be healthy then you mustn’t put hospitals in places that are healthy and happy already or something to that effect though in children’s’ language. I think children are intuitive they know that if there is a healthy functioning ecosystem that is a healthy happy place and don’t mess with it and I think I instinctively picked that up and adults reinforced that. So I was an activist pretty early on then just spent the rest of my life getting the degrees in order to continue to say what I had always been saying since I was ten. Well really a PhD D is just really so that I would be more legitimate and people would listen to me.

MF.  Did you do you doctorate in Victoria?

BP I did an undergraduate degree at UBC and then I did my Doctorate at Edinburgh University and that was in Scotland and that was useful because Scotland pretty much destroyed all of its native forests and native ecosystems. They’re at the stage they were cherishing what little they had left and they were into restoration.  So it was easy of me to extrapolate back because Scotland which had places names like Glen of the Beaver and River of the Elk and hardly anything left there. And so I could see down the road that British Columbia was rapidly going towards a Scottish example and we really should be saving these before they get to that stage.

MF That’s great and let’s move and talk about your early days with Ecological Reserves.  You are listed on our LOG newsletter as an honoury member and you been active long before I was involved.

BP. Well when I got back from Scotland, it was 1991, and I was looking around for organizations to throw some time and energy into because I felt very strongly about what I had seen in Scotland and that really what they had done in Scotland we just couldn’t do in BC. And during my thesis I had interviewed Bristol Foster, he was one of my interviewees because I was looking at the real question of conservation as a land use in my thesis. Like how could “to log” be the highest and best use of land? I was looking sort of at the progression from common law to statue law in Scotland and how it was translated into BC and how we could improve our legal infra-structure around conservation. And so I interviewed Bristol and was really impressed with Bristol and in those days he was the head of the ER unit.  And I remember arriving and Bristol had just resigned, I had an interview with Dr Foster and then I was notified that oh Dr Foster was no longer the head of the unit he had resigned and it was in the front page of the newspaper, “Dr Foster Resigns “ and his reasons for resigning were that the current government was not honouring the ER concept in its’ entirety they were deemed to not wanting to complete it, not wanting to really implement, not want to make it what it should have been, which would have been a world class system.  So when I came back with my Doctorate in hand back to BC I thought I am going to get involved and I met Trudy Chatwin the chair, a cousin at the time a wonderful naturalist and a scientist and so it was a great group of people to land back in my native country having been away for eight years. So I would be surrounded by Bristol, Trudy, Vicky Husband and all these wonderful people that were very dedicated to the conservation of ecological reserves and the whole concept of representative ecosystems and the whole rise and importance of biodiversity.  And that is how I got involved. Yes in those days it was very exciting there was still an expansion, the Khutzamateen reserve had gone through.  There was a real desire to try and see better representative ecosystems in the grasslands and Garry oak ecosystems. And that was for me a huge interest because it was easier enough to conserve the areas that were on crown land but how are we going to get representative ecological reserves that were on private land but that were under represented on the crown land system.  And so I put a lot of my emphasis into the grasslands both coastal and interior grasslands and into public awareness and getting public educations and things like that.  So those were my interests at that time.

MF So at that time were you a member of the board and attended FER board meetings and was Vicky president at that time?

BP Vicky had just finished being president and she had moved on I guess to Sierra Club but had just worked on the Khutzamateen project and some of the other sort of high profile victories.  She was still there and still on the board but Trudy was chair at that stage and that was fun too because Vicky you know had left a big void and it was fun to step into that vacuum and start filling it up with projects and other things.  Because Vicky’s big passion was for the coast and for me I really wanted to see these grasslands involved.  That was one project that I feel like I contributed most, I wasn’t responsible but I helped a little which was the protection of the Mount Maxwell ecological reserves it was the largest Garry oak area in British Columbia that was still tact at that time and it was surrounded by provincial parks so there was a buffer.  So I worked really hard for a few years and for just that one being able to provide some of the little impetuous on that.  That was a great one.

MF Well I know there was a project that still has your name on it and it is just one example of the place mats.  Tell us a little more about the place mats.

BP Place mats. Yes you heard me talking earlier about wildflowers. So this is really about public awareness and my back ground and even though I was a PhD in geography and biogeography and that sort of area.  But wildflowers is what I love and I thought that was the mechanism in which I got interested in conservation and I wanted to help raise awareness around FER and often flowers is the way that people get interested.  Flowers are meant to attract, usually insects but humans are attracted to these    too.  We are attracted to these beautiful things so we set up a whole lot of painting parties. First we did the Garry oak meadow (placeman), then we were on to the Douglas fir forest (place mat), then we did interior grasslands (place mat) and then we did end up with the alpine flowers (place mat).  That was wonderful because you connected with all these wonderful artists; Alison Watt, Mark Hobson and Peggy Frank and people that. And oh we had people who had never painted but learned how to paint and that was fantastic too.  We got Evelyn Hamilton, who hadn’t painted much, be we got her painting that is enough of an accomplish right there.  These were really exciting people and Donald Gunn too was one of the painters and we got Fenwick Lansdowne to come in and he painted with us too.  So it was a great way to raise awareness. I think at the meadow lark festival we did a retreat and helped help raise funds for that and raise awareness about the importance of flowers and those delicate grassland flowers.  I guess the other thing that was real pleasure to work on and because I was trained as a cartographer was making maps.  I had been working a lot in Britain on the concept of community mapping and how if you make illustrated maps with artistic flare it is a map that is made from love so people are attracted to those maps. So I loved seeing maps of areas that were under threat we if go back to the old LOGs had disappeared when I was not with Friends.  Areas that if we said we have to save these areas and you know I look back and one of the things, it is quite a coincidence but every time I made a map of somewhere it ended up saving it.  So I have this delusional belief maps have this magically quality.  If you map it, it will stay there.

MF Oh that is great.  Can you remember some of the goals when you were involved with Friends and what/where some of the effort went?  The wardens program was alive and well.

BP. Well that was is really interesting because for a while it was all about we have got to protect all these ERs under threat because every month there was a new ER that under threat and so it kind of felt like you were trying to put out fires and then we realized well the people that are defending those reserves are the ones that are on the front line people, the wardens and they are not getting enough support because it was at a period when government instead of fully supporting and endorsing the ER program was starting to ignore the ER program.  I mean you know that is what was originally pointed to so instead of a government totally support something it was starting to ignore it.  So the wardens themselves were one of the first victims and they started being not being supported.  So we realized as an organization that one of the things we really should be doing is supporting those people that are out there protecting those reserves because those are ones that raise the alarm bells when something is happening.  You know they are out there in the middle of winter trying to prevent them being destroyed by snowmobilers or whatever the issue was. So that is when there was a real emphasis to try and get support for the ER wardens the volunteer wardens, the volunteers wardens.  Oh there were some great people who really worked hard on that one.  I guess there were so many fires starting so when the environment started slipping off the agenda of government everything started going down at the same time.  Provincial Parks were being poorly managed and the budgets were dropping, so now ERs were basically dumped and ignored.  We were starting to see erosion in staffing in Forest and Ministry of Environment.  So I think for a lot of us in the environmental movement it was a case of oh my God there are so many fires we are trying to fight where should we put our priorities? Where should we put our time? So many things we need to do to engage the public we have got to get them loving these places too.  How do you do these things when you are just a little group of band of people that are all struggling to survive.  We are all just volunteers and we are all exhausted, a whole lot of tired people.

MF So was any effort at that time spent promoting and expanding new ERs?  We talked about the wardens program and looking after existing reserves and making sure they had the support and the love I guess (respect) of the staff of Ministry of Environment.  But then there is also the creation of new ERs and wondered if you had any thoughts on completion?  It got to a certain point and it sounds like you would think it is an incomplete system although it might be better than some other provinces.  Any thoughts on ecological reserves and where to forward looking where to for ecological reserves and maybe expanding them?

BP Virtually every naturalist ecologists from Leopold up have been saying forever and every elder is saying that life cannot go on if we limit the world to a little one percent of little ER or even 12% in parks it us just not going to happen.  We have to create a boarder ecological ethic right across the landscape. And so that means we have to be innovative with all the tools we have. So certainly the ecological reserves program is key and pivotal as it puts nature right at its most important priority saying in this area is where we need to maintain processes but we have got to figure out all the matrix in between.  And so not only do we have to expand the core protected areas but we have to expand on the notion of what we do in the areas in between. So I think ecological reserves have never been as important. You know you look at climate change and these shifting climatic envelopes and the little subtle variations of temperature can essentially take an alpine meadow say turn it into a subalpine forest by virtue of a few degrees of warming.  We have to understand what is happening and we have to be able to adapt to a chain of very rapidly changing landscapes.  And we have done no planning around it, well we started a little bit, but research programs in government and they basically have been disbanded.  So we can’t do enough and fast enough.

MF One of the primary reasons for ER is to attract (researchers) and understand natural areas. I am wondering if you have any ideas on how to attract researchers and the research community?  You mentioned the government has less people doing research. 

Your thoughts on …

BP attracting researchers ?

MF Attracting researchers to ecological reserves specifically but also more broadly the whole idea of understanding natural systems?

BP Well it’s a huge problem because I have been on the fringes of the academic community for the last twenty years and the real problem in the academic community is none of the research is not linked to industry.  Virtually all the grants are coming through to them are linked to some specific industry question. So do we have any researchers left that are completely committed to sort of solving societal problems?  I don’t know?  I look around I look in the biology departments do we have people that are skilled in ecology, taxonomy and some of these important disciplines? I am not seeing them. I am seeing a lot of young students in biotech where the money is. But again government has to step up to the plate.  Government has to allocate money to these institutions in order to solve some of these big societal questions and it’s not doing it.  There isn’t recognition that these are important. There is a perception that money is tight, except it’s not tight when it comes to fighter pilots and fighter jets, but it is when it comes to survival of life on earth. You know what is it that creates oxygen and filters water and captures carbon? I mean what could be more important? Yet we have diminishing budgets in the academic community.  Then again I think it is a government question and it is a question to the public who ultimately are government.  Do we or do we not think these are important questions of our time?  And also it comes back to awareness.  It comes back to how many young people are out there in the mud when they are little connecting to the natural world and getting the connection and it’s not that many.  It’s such a complicated and complex problem that begins with early awareness and education those areas have been hugely lacking.

MF. From the research question I guess it is back and thinking about some advice to government right now at this time.  What is it that government could begin to towards improvements?

BP. I think there are few things that should be happening.  I think there were some early initiatives to link science with social science where essentially you ask a question and you involve a wider community of researchers.  Those that are interested in solving the questions also those interested in disseminating the information. Participatory research or community based research where you have instead of the links being to industry the links are to non-profit organizations like Friends. Instead of Encana sponsor some research it would be FER linked.  FER don’t have a lot of money it’s all volunteer and people like you or I.  But if government could recognize the role of engaging the academic community with community research.  Some very interesting questions come up as you have non-profit organizations that are interested in some societal questions. Interested in long term questions that affect the health of society over the long term.  It is not industry’s’ job to ask long term societal questions.  Industry’s’ job and businesses job is to ask questions to know how to sell something sooner and meet their quarterly returns.  So you have to have got to have somebody asking the (societal) questions.  I came from work in Cuba where there is no question that gets put in front of the academic community that hasn’t come from a pressing need that comes from the local community.  So let’s say if you come from a community that is really hungry and they can’t figure out how to grow tomatoes in their particular region well they ask the question. They approach scientists and they approach the social scientists. The scientists solve the problem about seed selection and how to adapt and whatever about growing tomatoes and the social scientist crowd helps them with the question of distributing and disseminating that information and they understand how that information moves.  I think we are in the same place. I think it is an emergency here. And I think that we need to have social scientists and community groups all sitting down together framing the question, coming up with some answers and then learning how to move it into the hands of the people that need it.

MF. So more access to the academic community from the local level

BP. Yes

MF To solve the problems in their own backyard.

BP. Can you imagine if all the people that are involved with FER were actually involved in framing the questions that go to the scientific community?  That is the way it should be.  I mean why isn’t it?  Instead of somebody in an ivory tower who is getting the research money from a particular industrial source, because that is the only way they can get it.  The questions are much more restricted.  The questions come from a collaborative situation with people that are engaged in (societal questions). Why have we set up ERs in the first place? I mean there has been a lot of thinking; I mean the original people like Krajina and the original ecologists that were conceiving these ideas. They didn’t come out of nowhere.  I mean we did used to have research institutions that asked very provocative questions and got some answers when it wasn’t looped to industry.  We are not getting those provocative questions any more so they have got to come from somewhere.  So in a flash you could have a much more vital academic-community relationship.

MF Well that certainly is a very interesting area for us to explore and we have funded in the past people in the past people like Tom Reimchen who have helped with three spine stickle in Drizzle Lake and also the Kermodi bear conundrum and why there are some many on certain islands and so on. Those kinds of natural research questions don’t get a lot of attention, as you say.  So any way we can think of turning that around (is appreciated). I am here also trying to crystal ball a little bit into the future to get some good efforts for FER for as you say we are very small. We have a small shoulder to put to a big wheel and so maybe one area where we can (something).

BP. It could be a small step but it could be huge vital step. Where there is an allocation of institutional grant money.  It’s a community-based research allocation it is not just 5,000 dollars it is really committing and getting young people out there and understanding what is happening.  Climate change is the biggest, whether you believe it or not, it is the thing it is going to concern everybody and nothing else is going to be as important.  And here we have the perfect laboratory because we have, these little islands of species that we should have amazing baseline inventory done in them.  We should be able to know exactly what is happening.  We should be able to say oh my god in the last thirty years have you noticed that, you know, the prickly pear cactus distribution has expanded and these are indicators of increasing drought or increasing temperature. If we were smart we would not have thrown away all that initial impetus that was coming.  Can you imagine when you have young researchers in these areas and they are out there and they are healthy happy people, because they are out there doing important research that has relevance in society.  These people are also great citizens they are out there doing good work. My biggest problem teaching these kids is there isn’t going to be any work for them.  There isn’t any meaningful work for them as ecologists or botanists or anything.  We have got rid of all demand for people who observe nature.  Who hires anyone that observes nature anymore and that has understanding of what is happening, and it’s crazy.  So the more we can get people observing, they are our eyes they are our early warning system, they are what keep society stable.  If we don’t have them then we are all asleep at the wheel.

MF. Yes you certainly are talking to the converted and Friends is looking and it is a matter of priority and time. Some of these interviews are a little bit self-serving for Friends to try and figure out (effective effort) but also to learn a little about where we have come from to figure out where we are going. That is a tough one to do a change to that extent.  I am wondering if you are still keeping up and what kinds of things (you are doing) you are teaching environmental sciences, obviously very active in the environmental movement or environmental education.

BP. I went into media and politics because I felt like these are two driving forces of public opinion and is there any way that we can start to bring content into media. And bringing nature into politics it is a big job there is one is advocating much for nature in politics.  It is very difficult to bring it onto the agenda.  It is difficult to say the word.  You try and get nature into a policy statement and it hardly makes it through the first level of policy resolution meetings.  Sorry there are much more important topics and its politics and there is affordable housing, daycare, fighter jets and all those things fight their way to the top and you lose nature.  Yes I am doing what I can.  But a lot of me goes back and yesterday I spent time with a whole lot of kids mucking around looking for nests.  Because kids, there are so few children who spend any time outside or have a really deep connection any more.  It is terrible what we have done to our children, not giving them the confidence and the comfort of being out. And the fact that we have destroyed a lot of the opportunity for children to play happy we have scared them into submission, annihilated any opportunity for them in the places they could play we drained all the wetlands and it increasing hard for kids to get that connection, especially if they are less privileged.

MF. Have you any thoughts when ER program really ended First Nations were not a part present in the political landscape as they are now.  And if you have any thoughts on working with First Nations with ideas around conservation and in the form of conservation and ERs?

BP. Well funnily enough I am working, it just dropped it off, and working with the Tsawourt First Nation with some of the elders and the young people.  And we have come up with and we are creating interpretative material that is for the reserve and adjacent lands, so it is a kind of a co-management project. But we are using all the FN names of things and their traditional uses and within the 13 moons calendar concept.  So you get this beautiful glimpse of the year in the life of that landscape.  Because if it is March it is the month of the frogs and it is May it is the month of camas.  So just even in the name of the month you are learning a whole lot about that landscape.  And so I am working with elders to do kind of a marrying of western science and traditional ecological knowledge and turning them into interpretative materials that are really accessible both for FN themselves and for Quinnita? us guys, in Cowichan it translates into the greedy humans or the greedy people.  And we are using art again and the teachings and these take time to build but they are so rewarding, they so rewarding.  It is about getting to know a culture and language that evolved around a particular landscape.  So I think one of the recommendations that I would make would be to – in this instance we raised all the money for their reserve lands and but also adjacent land and work these communities are really improvised and often in debt and they are going through long treaty processes and ending up nowhere and there are whole bunch of other issues.  And just going into communities and saying how can we help? This is one of idea “Salax”? FN came up with and it has been a total joy to work on.  When I get to go out with elders and point at something “ka’ku’ka” and then I will try and say it and they all laugh, my pronunciation is so terrible, but just hearing the language the, these disappearing languages. Hearing the names of animals and plants and learning them, sort of applied ethno botany.

MF. In your view did/would FN be supportive of these so called scientific benchmarks where we go out and monitor and learn about change?

BP. Yes. I think every community has a group of people that has got a real interest in it. The other thing that is so interesting is, well what I have learned, most these landscapes are so interesting. If you want to go to a Garry oak meadow, why are there flowers in those meadows because they were culturally modified landscapes.  So at one level there is sort of a contradiction to the Ecological Reserves notion of no meddling from the humans because in fact it was the meddling that created that diversity. It was the women bringing in certain plants, they gardened those meadows because they were harvesting bulbs, they aerating the soil were sort of acting like grizzly bears digging bulbs soil and creating these vibrant meadows and when you stop that kind of activity the meadows don’t do as well, it is very clear or there are invasive species and you have to harvest them out.

MF. We have had this I guess conundrum of ecological reserves set up in an area and succession continues and some of the plants, the understory plants being moved out, if you like, through over story shading.  Have you any thoughts specifically on managing succession in ERs?  And then slightly different but similar thing sort of thing. The question of management of exotic species?

BP. Well you know having taught in the restoration program is the School of Natural Restoration at University of Victoria, restoration is an expanding art and science and adaptive management and it is an ever-learning experience.  My experience over the last 15 years is that working with elders when there is a deep understanding, long, long, long tradition of how that little ecosystem worked and how you harvested a certain plant and how you maintain that population. Well it is anything how you manage the salmon berry patch or how you manage a camas meadow. I mean there was a lot of science that went into how they kept and maintained those plants in order to stay alive and that is thousands of years of trial and error.  So have a little understanding of that disturbance regime as a process I think is as important as understanding a fire disturbance regime or a flooding disturbance regime or any other disturbance regime, is understanding the human disturbance regime.  And I really think the more we kind make relationships with FNs and embark on some kind of co-management task and build capacity both ways.  I mean look at most of these communities they are struggling their elders are getting old and their language is getting lost. It is just as hard for them to get young people off their iPods it is for us to get our kids. You know we really need to support each other there are just not enough people out there that know anything that we shouldn’t be getting together.  I find that I have way more in common, way more in common with old fisherman and elder women than I do with my neighbours who come from the city.  We got to stick together those who are interested in this topic and learn from one another and help spread the concept that this work is really rewarding and healthy and it thrills you and really thrills you to your soul you know. Good work

MF. Learning from elder’s knowledge is not something that has been in radar or discussions at our Board meetings so that is really a new and welcome angle for us.  It might help us on areas like Mount Tzuhalem where we are currently struggling to find out what the right is thing for the ecosystem if we want to keep some of the plants that it was originally set up for. 

BP. Yes because there is encroachment. And you are fine if there are still little pockets of it.  I just think of people like Arvid Charlie, a Cowichan speaker, he is Penelakut.

I just sat the other day and was talking with him for hours about the herring spawn.  And where they used to go and what used to be and how you approached herring. It is just this whole body of knowledge that is around like the protocols about how you dealt with a herring spawn and how you dealt with herring fishery and what you did. You would not be allowed to make a single sound when you were in a herring spawn area, you would to be so silent you would not want to put the fish off they were, doing which was an important part of their lives.  And similarly there is not much memory left about camas management but Tzuhalem was a camas management but that Tzuhalem was a camas area and a root crop area.  And what did they do?  Well there are ethno graphic accounts and there is elder’s skills that would certainly be able to provide at least some starting points.

MF. And removal of exotics, broom and gorse? It is a pretty easy decision to make in an area like an ER?

BP. Well yes, well that is an interesting thing too, I think never before in the history of the world has there been the volume of invasive that are arriving on our shores.  There are certain things out of the realm of people’s experiences prior to contact.  I mean no one ever had these issues to deal with so you have to take that into account.  I know that with traditional burning now the number of exotics increases. That ecosystem just isn’t used to so many grass species and introduced grass species, gorse and broom and god knows what.  I think there are principles that you can apply and again I think it is little bits of trial and error but we live in highly modified landscape now. We got to be thinking talking and trying because who else is thinking talking and trying?  You know we have to try something because could we end up in a landscape with broom, starling and cockroaches as well.  Are their cock roaches in Victoria? I am waiting for them to come.

MF. Well I know you have other things to do today. It has been really nice to hear some of the history and approaches and thought on current management and thank you very much.

BP. Thanks for inviting me.