A Conversation with Trudy Chatwin

Posted March 18, 2012 | Categories : FER Interviews,History,People |


Trudy Chatwin  is currently working with Nanaimo regional office for Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations as the Species-at-Risk Biologist for Vancouver Island.

Mike Fenger (MF). I am here with Trudy Chatwin who has a long history with ecological reserves and conservation and the environment. We want to get a sense of how Trudy got interested in conservation, ecology and the early days of the ecological reserves program in BC. Then shift the conversation to thoughts about conservation today and then some thoughts towards the future. Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview.

Trudy Chatwin (TC). You are very welcome Mike

MF So tell us about you earliest recollections of what drew you to the environment and a career in conservation?

TC. Well that started quite early on my grandmother recalls when I was first learning to speak maybe three that I could name rhododendrons in her garden.  So I have always had a great interest in plants and nature and animals as well.  I grew up on Mount Tolmie in Victoria and I grew up in Camas meadows. That started it. I used to play outdoors, just go off and play with my dog because there weren’t that many neighbours at that time.  Now that woods that I played in is called University Woods which is a woods in name only.  These are things that I look back at there is no camas meadow where I grew up either.  That evolved into always loving to be in the outdoors, being in the outdoors club and moving on in biology. It is fascinating because there is so much to know and how wonderful the field is really

MF Did you take a degree at the University of Victoria?

TC Well what really started me was that I was really quite exceptional in biology and I had a teacher in Oak Bay High School, Mr. Hunt and I just loved biology and I went right on and started at University when I sixteen or something.  I was in vertebrate zoology with people like Mark Hobson[1].  I didn’t really like university maybe I started a bit early so I went off and did other things. I worked in Haida Gwaii then I went to Selkirk College and took a two year course it was called Wild land Recreation and Resource Management.  After that I came back to Victoria and that is when I started working for ecological reserves in 1977.

MF. Tell us how you first found out and were included in that ER group and so early on.

TC. What had happened was that I had been really keen on protection of Gwaii Haanas or south Moresby as we called it at the time that lived up in the Queen Charlottes. I had gone on this kayak trip.  I was 21 I had left from Skidegate down to Ninstants (Anthony Island) and back.  That really opened my eyes and at time we met Frank Beban who was doing the logging down there.  They were going to put a log dump in Burnaby Narrows.  From then on I worked in concert with others and that was my introduction to working on conservation and looking at natural areas conservation. I was part of the South Moresby protection group alongside of Guujaaw and Tom Henley and wrote letters to the Premier and so forth and that took 15 years. I was involved in the early stages and may be a little bit involved in the end in protecting Gwaii Haanas.  I worked with Vicky Husband at that time and we went to see the ministers and talk about protecting sea birds and so forth.  So then how I got hired on is I had gone to see Bristol about this because I knew that he had worked there[2]. Then I got hired on as a summer student after I had finished the two year program at Selkirk College and that was 1977 and there were lots of jobs around then. And so I got hired. It was a wonderful we did sea bird surveys and I worked with Jim Pojar and we did this trip up to the north, actually we met you, I don’t know if you remember you were working in the Stikine at the time.

MF Yes I remember seeing you and Jim and Bristol at Glenore and being very impressed with the mist nets and the bat catching.

TC.  We would just go out in this eco van and we would bump along on these gravel dusty roads or not even a road and now you would take a four wheel drive on.  And we would run up these roads and look around and it was really fabulous to see all the rivers, canyons, mountains. Stone Sheep and Dall sheep.  We went up to the Tatsenchini too and crossed the Tatsenchini river just by walking bare feet to see some guy that had made contact with Bristol about setting aside ER in that area.

MF. And at that time there were no Parks and Protected Areas Strategies so that ERs were a unique designation that could be used to establish natural area?

TC I was just enthralled because here was an opportunity. You could go to these areas and get these topographic maps. That was one of my jobs was running down to the map office. Then Jim would draw an area to look after the fields work propose it and then my job to refer them to the lands branch and refer them out to the various agencies and get support for them. It was my job to learn how to craft letters. Jim Pojar was absolutely excellent at being a mentor and Bristol too. So that was really great that you would negotiate these areas with various people.  Some of the funniest things were that some things would get caught up in the lands branch files. These files would be piled high on their desk and to get ecological reserves moving along Bristol would go and buy Rogers chocolates and put them on their desks to move the files along.  At first I was a matter of learning how.  After I few months after working there I could move the ER along to establishment because there was only Bristol and Jim and they were not into the bureaucracy so much. I was able to do that.  I think we got 27 ER established just by getting the paper work through.  It got harder and harder to move things through. I worked there for three years.  And there was sort of more and more requirements. I notice that within government now it is becoming that way.  You have got to take the opportunities when you can. Sometimes there are these little windows and it doesn’t matter which government is in power there is some sort of window. You have to seize those opportunities do things when you can and create conservation at a time when there is enough public pressure or something.

MF. So when you were in the field were you doing the plant and animals?

TC Well Jim is such a fabulous botanists and I learned quite a bit from him. How it generally worked out Jim did the botanical observation because we used to fill in these International Biological Program forms.  Bristol and I did the birds and wildlife inventory.  I am a bit of a generalist so I put it all together and I had taken geomorphology. So we made a team and we often got other people to come in botanists that worked over the years with us.

MF. The area you were looking for.

TC. Systematic?

MF. Well I wondered what the goals were? We interviewed Bristol and Jim and to get your idea when you are driving down the road or you are in the office what were you looking for?

TC At first what it seemed to be a lot of scientists, various people even like yourself that would be out in the field that would make suggestions. That is why we went to see you I think and naturalists in the field that would suggest things. Someone would write into ER and we could make contact and go and visit those people.  There was of course Vladimir Krajina who was involved when I was there. He would phone up. The idea of ecological reserves was to protect representative and special ecological examples in BC. This was probably the first place there was the idea of representation of forested types and forested ecosystems. Then there was also the special part of it like protecting sea bird colonies, the largest seabird colonies in BC. That was quite remarkable really. We were able to propose a few more sea bird colonies.

MF I know that looking at the system today there are 27 marine ER and some very significant ones.

TC Some of them like Triangle Island, Beresford and Sartine and Cleland Islands (Cleland Island was ER #1) those were protected early on because there was involvement with Wayne Campbell at the Museum that was how that started really. He and Bristol were good friends and they worked together to protect them.  Wayne suggested them and it wasn’t that hard to get those seabird islands, because no one else at that time had any idea that they were more than just rocks in the sea.  So those were ones that were easier to get.

MF So it was much more than just looking for wildflower areas.

TC Yes.  We wanted to protect areas like habitat for Stone sheep and BC has 70% of population we wanted to protect wildlife as well and special places.  We went to canyons and great places for wildlife.

MF I wanted to hear some of your thoughts about management.  The idea of setting aside and area and then succession happens or invasive species come along. So what are your thoughts are on management of ecological reserves and management in the light of climate change. Can we and should we manage them or should they just be left and watched?

TC Even in those early days we looked at fire as a natural ecosystem process and we wanted to have these fire management plans. One thing that makes them unique from parks is the idea for research capacity. They really were set aside for research and educational purposes.  Parks were set aside for recreation and conservation.  When we started recreation was a higher priority in parks than conservation.  Hopefully the tide is moving to Parks with priority on conservation.  For ERs the idea was that they were started by scientists, research institutions and Dir. Krajina, the advisory group was mostly scientists, though there was a lawyer involved Andrew Thompson.  So the idea was they were set aside for research.  The idea was that you could manipulate them and that was thought of as part of their goals.  Some ERs were set aside as places to study succession, but some of them were set aside to conserve rare species. In light of what you do in management setting them aside is the first step. Drawing a line around something is the first step but you always have to manage these things.  There are always problems in them. As Bristol used to say they are islands in a sea of change.  In particular Mount Tzuhalem I see as a real example of an island in a sea of change.  It is only 17 ha and it is surrounded, over the years I have gone there and been terribly upset about the development that has gone around that little gem.  And it is a gem and it is set aside for some of the rare species in it and the Garry oak meadows in that area. Over the years you can notice that there is some non-native species and they have been successfully managed in that area. The broom has really decreased. Douglas-fir in growth is a problem throughout our grasslands in BC and it is considered one of the threats.  Look at the species that are protected, the rare species delta balsam root, absolutely beautiful, that is the best population of delta balsam root, gorgeous things. Look at those species they require light and they require these warm south facing areas. Even the Aster curtis as well another little flowering plant and these are plants of the meadow they are not plants of the forest.  Because we are changing it ourselves by not allowing fire to come there with frequent burning to reduce the in-growth in then some sort of active management was considered necessary to maintain those species at risk.  You can set areas aside, and now I work on species at risk and there is a great rush to put in this critical habitat thinking that will protect things, but really that is probably the first step we have to look as is what is the best management and that requires some consideration of ecology and adaptive research management too. Then when you do some manipulations you want to monitor it and understand whether this working and then adapt our methods to it.  You can’t be afraid of changing things, ecological reserves were supposed to be places that we do that in.  That was their goal I think in the beginning.

MF I know that the volunteers and ER warden on Mount Tzuhalem who were instrumental in removal of the broom.  Broom had really taken over I think they took our helicopter loads of broom. You went to from staff on Ecological Reserves Program to a volunteer for Friends of Ecological Reserves.  How did that happen?

TC When I was working there I think I had the idea of a Friends program because we realized that we needed some public support for this program.  It was Bristol’s idea and I wrote it up and then Lynne Milnes got it going first, got the volunteer ER wardens program going.  I think they got some funding and it was allowed.  I worked some years on ERs but then I went away to Africa, to Tanzania and then I came back and had my children.  I was actually involved from the very beginning.  I remember writing letters because of group of us got together and I think Lynne was still working at the ecological reserves so I got involved.  When I came back from Africa I became involved and was president for a while and worked on newsletters.  I think I was president for about three years and not sure.

MF. Were you also one of the artists for the place mats?

TC Yes I was one of those.  That was lots of fun doing those.

MF. And you were with Friends for a number of years?

TC As a director for maybe five years and president for three actually I can’t remember it was for quite a while, a lot of work mostly those newsletters and I loved the field trips too.

MF. I want to turn from reviewing the past and think about the present and maybe looking to the future. You have history with ERs and volunteering and if you have any thoughts and advice on where to go from here. Advice for Friends, advice for government, these are public places and some thoughts on what government might do to help ERs, from a policy or monitoring management or whatever you think is appropriate.

TC I could start with what I see as the role of Friends of ecological reserves

MF. Sure.

TC Now I work in government and I really appreciate the both the support and also the pressures that are put on by non-government organizations. I think they are super important elements for balance in government.  You have been in there and we are put in the middle and often time we don’t please everyone or most of the time we never please anyone and then maybe we have got it partly right at that point.  We struggle because we have a lot of pressure from industry to do development, to do forestry, mining and urban development and there are so many pressures on biodiversity in BC and on our small little protected areas.  So to my mind it is critical to have Environmental Non-Government Organizations (ENGOs) keeping up the pressure and I know that it is a lot of work and it is can seem very difficult and there are factions within ENGOs but to my mind it is very important that they carry on and work. I really appreciate the work that Friends (FER) does to maintain our biodiversity and also to keep the warden program going.  I am not sure if anyone does that so much now in Parks. A little bit of support I guess.

MF It has been regionalized but there is no coordinator so about 70 wardens work with area supervisors in the regions.

TC They are great and some of the ERs are pretty remote and management of them is difficult for the parks people to actually get the staff have.  Sometimes area supervisors do not know all the ins and outs of ERs so the watch dog part of being wardens is super important.  But I also think FER needs to be supported too because in any volunteer organization it takes a lot of work to manage it; to keep volunteers and to keep them informed and happy and knowing that what they are doing is appreciated and also to compile the data whatever comes in and help them compile what comes in that can be used for management and inventory and monitoring.  So I see that Friends and those wardens as super important and should probably be supported more.  I see there should be better support for more Parks staff on the grounds to be able to look at them and manage them.  There are so few Parks staff that are actually on the ground to be able to look at these areas and manage them.  They spend a lot of time doing bureaucracy, permits and things like that that it is difficult for them to get involved with too much management.  There is a dichotomy between how provincial parks and ecological reserves are managed is how our national parks are managed.

MF That is in levels staff or levels of attention?

TC. Yes levels of attention and conservation programs in Parks and ER so that people can get involved.  That would be my greatest wish I guess.

MF. You said it was more difficult as time went on to establish ERs do you feel the system is completed with regard to ecosystem representation or rare areas? You were there for three years and we now have 147 ERs, five ERs were subsumed into National Parks as was the case in Gwaii Haanas and Gulf Islands National Park Reserves.

TC. When I first started in 1977 it was a bit more ad hoc for instance if Dir. Krajina knew of an area then go and check it out and then were you able to protect it. At that time there was less pressure and as time when on we had to make cabinet submissions and getting them through cabinet was more difficult.  One of the things that came up was the systems plan. Hans Roemer was involved in doing the systems plan. I think Jim Pojar started it and it was a listing of everything in BC and at the same time the Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification was going on with the Ministry of Forests Research Branch. It was really being developed.  We really have a world class system.  I feel in BC we should be very proud on our ecological classification system.  That provided the basis for the systems plan. When that was stated he really didn’t look around much for more areas. I work now on the Identified Wildlife Strategy and it is a similar process to refer things out and negotiate on the boundaries.  That gets more difficult as you get into areas of high resource value, higher timber value or where you want to mine. It just becomes more difficult with certain players and companies who have better access to government officials.

MF So in some areas there is low or no representation from an ecological point of view it is an incomplete system for the diversity that we have?

TC Definitely, we are the most biologically diverse province in Canada we hold the biodiversity dear so we have a responsibility to protect that.  We have a Protected Ares system that is 15% now but we still work on protection as it is important. These are areas that are critical and areas that we can go back to study.

MF You have mentioned that you are working for government and I have asked others if they are keeping up with conservation.  You are still involved actively involved with conservation as your career.

TC. Yes it is my career; it is my life to see species and areas protected. I can’t imagine not being involved.

MF. Just to get back to advice and Friends of Ecological Reserves and looking ahead. I heard FERs needs to continue to support the wardens and I also heard FER needs to continue to put pressure on the civil service to keep the concept and awareness of ERs in scope for them.  Is that a fair summary?

TC Yes but I would add that the civil service is limited in what we can do.  As an outside organization you can carry on political pressure something that civil servants can’t do. Perhaps civil servant can apply a little bit of pressure but not very much.  One thing that I am working on right now that would be important to Friends of Ecological Reserves is Eagle heights west of Shawnigan Lake. This has a very undisturbed pocket grassland with rare plants and surrounded by some karsts.  Its fire history lead to a most beautiful Douglas fir forest, definitely one of the most beautiful I have seen. I have been there with Hans Roemer and Adolf Ceska.  Beautiful Douglas-fir and a lovely representative forest it is part of a parcel owned by Island Timberlands.  It is the highest acquisition priority on Vancouver Island but there is not that much money in government now. It is owned by Island Timberlands and they are company that is out to make money so they are not going to give it up for nothing.  So the more pressure that you can excerpt helps to protect those areas.  We are not complete at all there are still these beautiful little gems out there.

MF I know when we talked on the phone earlier we talked about the concept that ER areas had been set aside for research and I know for a while FER did have grants from foundations and we were able to support some research projects.  Have you got any ideas on how to attract funds or research for the existing ER system?

TC There are many brilliant students out there and you might think of working with us (government) as occasionally we have a little bit of money to fund some research or have some projects.  Maybe we could pool resources as now you often have to have matching funding so it has to be collaborative process doing research funding now.  We do have some ideas looking at adaptive research in terms of some of those questions earlier.  Mount Taum for example is also having Douglas-fir encroachment issues too.  There is a committee on Mount Taum on Saltspring collaborating with BC Parks and they have some Federal funding money to do some species at risk there.  So those kind of collaborative projects looking at the removal of Douglas fir in those areas and looking at the rare violets and Scoulers taxus and having that long term monitoring.  The Saltspring conservancy so also involved.  Having the tools and pooling your efforts is probably the most important thing to do and being involved in those groups.  When I think about the research we obviously want to save rare plants and what is the best way to do it.

MF I have come to the end of what I wanted to ask you and I am really glad we have caught you as you are extremely busy.  So thank you very much and is there anything else you would like to leave us with and other thought. I will leave the last word to you.

TC Keep up the good work. I think it is important to support the young students because and then they become the leader of the pack. That is how I started probably all of started on some summer work project.  That could be another recommendation to government because there is not very many of those.  Especially in my office there is not very many young people and that young people get to experience these things.  I often feel that I lived in the best of time as many of these places and even our children won’t see them.  Right now I am involved in this western Bluebird re-introduction team as part of the Garry oak recovery team and we are trying to get enough funding to bring back blue birds to Vancouver Island.  They went with the Syd Watts warden for the Mount Tzuhalem ER I think that was in the early 1990s and we saw western blue birds nesting, Syd pointed them out on Mount Tzuhalem and those birds have become extirpated from this area not only in my life time but in my children’s life time.  So I think the work we do is really important.  We are losing biodiversity as we speak.  There are places around Victoria were we used to heard screech owls all the time and now they are gone. So we lose these little things and we lose them semi gradually and we don’t really notice but we need to have that long term perspective like we have ourselves to notice that these things are gone and to tackle actions to reverse these things.

MF It sounds like you are really active and we are really glad that you are there and Friends will probably be talking to you in the not so distant future.

TC I am sure you will.

Links to  Trudy Chatwin research and references on this website

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