WendyFrancisInterview by Chris Gertschen

Wendy Francis, Program Director, has been involved with Y2Y (Yellowstone to Yukon) since its inception. She chaired the board from 2003-2005 and was interim Executive Director in 2002-2003. Educated in law and biology, Wendy previously held positions as Director of Conservation and Science at Ontario Nature, Interim Executive Director at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and Conservation Director for CPAWS Calgary-Banff. More…

CG:  What brought you to conservation?

WF:  I grew up in the 1960s, when playing outside was not only the norm, it was mandatory! We were simply not allowed to play inside on a nice day. I knew all the semi-wild places in my neighborhood, and loved to climb their trees and explore their wetlands. As a family, we often camped on weekends and holidays. Later, we rented cottages in northern Ontario and experienced the great freedom of being able to wander the forests for weeks on end. My Dad, who grew up on the prairies, was an avid naturalist and hunter and often pointed out different trees and animals to us. I believe I inherited my love of nature from him.

I remember learning about the plight of the whooping crane in my grade 9 science class, at a time when only a few dozen individuals remained. To this day they are still a symbol to me of the need for careful management and stewardship of the natural world.

As a university student in the 1970s I remember thinking that environmental protection must be the most important issue facing humanity. However, it was still many years before I became active in conservation efforts.

That came in 1986, when I learned about the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and started volunteering on their campaigns, at that time mostly focused on fighting development in Banff National Park. In 1996, I became CPAWS’ first paid conservation director in Calgary, and have gone on to a 15 year career as one of Canada’s conservation leaders.

My strong belief in the need to manage our activities better so they do not harm wild species and natural processes now has many dimensions. I still thrive when I am outdoors and spend virtually all of my vacation time hiking or backpacking in the parks and wilderness areas of western North America. My understanding of the spiritual value of the natural world has deepened as I have come to see nature as evidence of the magic and energy of Creation.

CG:  Would you tell us about some of your current projects?

WF:  I manage a wide range of projects throughout the Y2Y region. Here are just a few of our most active and successful projects.

Cabinet Purcell Mountain Corridor Project: Y2Y initiated and manages a collective effort here involving more than 60 organizations, agencies, tribe/nations and scientists. The corridor encompasses portions of western Montana, northern Idaho and southeastern British Columbia. It is the southern extent Photo by Wendy Francisof the contiguous grizzly population in this part of the continent; and the populations here are small, fragmented and endangered. The goal of the project is to create the landscape and social conditions that will allow bears to expand from Canada back down to the Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem of central Idaho. Our partners, with Y2Y’s support, are implementing a wide variety of activities to make this happen: transporting bears into the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem; educating communities about how to live safely and avoid conflicts with bears; promoting new protected areas, such as the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness; purchasing private lands in key wildlife corridors across Highway 3 in British Columbia and Highways 2 and 200 in Montana; removing and restoring access roads on national forest lands; and much more.

Muskwa-Kechika Management Area: This large area of northern British Columbia is unique on the continent. It is a 16M acre complex owned by the province within which 5M acres are in parks or protected areas and 11M acres are managed for sensitive resource use. A public board with representation from all those having an interest in the region is 01-toad-river-615funded by the provincial government to oversee management decisions. Concerned about diminishing funding and fading public support for the M-KMA, Y2Y is in the final stages of preparing a comprehensive assessment of the conservation values of the greater Muskwa-Kechika Ecosystem. This study examined the areas of greatest biodiversity in the M-KMA; the areas used for movement by sheep, caribou, moose, and mountain goat; and the areas likely to be most impacted by climate disruption. We overlaid these with maps of existing protected areas. This information will be used by land managers, First Nations, conservationists and others to recommend future management approaches to this important landscape.

Highway 3 Linkage Zone: Highway 3 is Canada’s southernmost highway, which snakes its way through southern Alberta and southern British Columbia. It crosses over the Rocky Mountains at a place called the Crowsnest Pass. The two-lane highway receives increasing amounts of commercial and private vehicle traffic and wildlife mortality, along with personal injury and property damage, has become a significant issue. Y2Y worked with partner organizations and scientist to complete a study of the locations of high wildlife-vehicle collisions. We recommended mitigation options for each location (e.g., fencing, overpasses, signage, reduced speed limits, etc.) We are now in the process of meeting with provincial transportation agencies, decision-makers and community leaders to advocate for the necessary policy and funding commitments to implement these recommendations.

CG:  It is probably like asking someone which is their favorite child but if you had more time to work, where you might spend more time?

WF:  If I had more time, I would spend it on direct advocacy in support of conservation. I’d like to spend more time advocating for the protection of grizzly bears in Alberta. The population is small (fewer than 700 bears) and fragmented. Although they were listed as Threatened by the Alberta government last year, and a recovery plan has been in place for more than five years, little has been done to change the on-the-ground management of activities in core grizzly bear habitat. I think a widespread effort to engage Albertans, who care about bears and nature, would push the government to do more.

I’d also like to spend more time advocating for new protected areas. There are great opportunities, especially in northern Canada, to work with First Nations and the public to call on provincial and territorial governments to create more parks. Past history has taught me that it’s very unlikely that we will be successful in modifying industrial practices, including road building, on unprotected public lands. The demand for resources, especially energy, is just too relentless. Therefore, the best chance we have for protecting wildlife and keeping places for people to enjoy wild nature is in large protected areas.

CG:  It seems to me that there are too few conservationists who are trying to do too much.  And there are a whole lot of us who care but don’t really know what to do except send money to an organization 1000’s of miles away.

It seems clear that there are not going to be any windfalls of cash to hire more folks so I wonder if there aren’t some ways of broadening the bases and finding ways to work at the grassroots level.  I don’t really know any way of doing that except outreach and education.  It seems to me that conservation really takes place at the community and regional level with issues that are relevant to the folks there.

CG: I’ve been also looking at how environmental education is practiced and I see the same sort of globalization or national effort but not much community effort.  If we believe, as I do, in Baba Dioum’s idea that: “In the end, we conserve only what we love.  We will love only what we understand.  We will understand only what we are taught”, teaching and learning about the places where we live is really critical to conservation.  And it is sad to me that there really just is not much going on regionally or at the community level.

WF:  Yes, outreach and education definitely are a part of the puzzle. Y2Y works with a number of organizations who are focused on that aspect of trying to change things. Some are working with folks in communities, helping to change behaviors that are detrimental to wildlife. So for example here in the Bow Valley an organization called WildSmart sends volunteer “ambassadors” out on the trails to teach people how to behave when hiking in bear country.

Another approach is to get into the formal curriculum in schools to catch kids when they are young and try to instill an environmental ethic. My friend Gareth Thompson runs the Alberta Association of Environmental Educators which is an umbrella organization for teachers who focus on the environment.

Other organizations like the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Friends of Scotchman Peaks offer opportunities to get out on a guided hike in areas that are threatened or ecologically valuable.

And many, many conservation campaigns have an outreach component. For example, this summer Y2Y has a student who is travelling around southern Alberta with information about the Flathead campaign and getting people to sign onto a petition that will go to the Canadian government.

So, as with all aspects of this work, there are some good things going on, it just doesn’t seem to be enough, as you say.

There needs to be a massive societal change to address all the factors that are leading us down this path of biodiversity/ecological integrity loss. I honestly don’t know how to accomplish that. I just try to do my little bit to make a difference.