Meet the Team: Chris Smith Parks Coordinator
In this blog series we will be profiling each member of our team at CPAWS Northern Alberta to help our audience get to know us better! This post introduces Chris Smith, our wonderful Parks Coordinator, who has been at the helm of many of our most prominent projects over the last few years including our Bighorn Backcountry campaign and our Defend Alberta Parks campaign.
What is your background (education, experience, where you grew up/where you’ve lived)?
I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving to do a Bachelors of Science in Forestry at the University of New Brunswick, double majoring in Environmental Studies. I then I went on to do a Masters of Science in Forest Ecology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, concurrently with a Masters in Environmental Management at the University of New Brunswick.
The main bulk of my thesis research was on transboundary protected areas in Central Europe, specifically Bavarian Forest National Park in Germany and Šumava National Park in the Czech Republic. Because it had to be both focused on a European and a Canadian project, I also looked at the transboundary water commissions between the United States and Canada. To boil it down, my research was mostly focused on how human administrative boundaries impact ecology, whether it’s administrative boundaries between counties, provinces, or countries – and how those artificial divides can have quite substantial impacts on management on the ground.
The best quote I ever got from my forestry program is that ‘forestry is not about managing the forest, it’s about managing people and their expectations.’
In my career so far, I’ve had seventeen different jobs! One of my favourite positions was an internship I did with the European Forestry Institute. I was in charge of writing a chapter for the German Federal Government on behalf of the European Union on forestry among the different member states. Basically, I was trying to harmonize all their different forest inventories to give a unified picture of what the state of managed forests versus unmanaged forests was in Europe. It made me realize a lot of the intricacies and difficulties involved when dealing with how countries define what counts as vegetation, define what counts as a forest, and how they utilize different ways and metrics of monitoring. The end result was a high-level picture that ended up being so aggregated that it barely resembled the actual conditions on the ground, which highlighted the many challenges of working between multiple different administrative bodies.
That was a really interesting moment in time, especially working at such a high level – it wasn’t even a national level, it was a regional European Union level. It raised interesting questions about the value of having a centralized inventory and management system versus letting individual administrative entities like provinces do it by themselves. How does that fragment the landscape or create barriers for researchers to investigate large migratory animals such as caribou? Caribou don’t care if they’re in Alberta, Saskatchewan or the Northwest Territories, but those administrative boundaries and the decisions that get made at those political levels are huge in terms of their recovery. It impacts all levels of wildlife management and landscape ecology.
It’s an interesting research theme to try to reconcile the systems that people set up versus how nature works, and get those things to actually work together.
The best quote I ever got from my forestry program is “forestry is not about managing the forest, it’s about managing people and their expectations.” The forest will do just fine without anybody managing it – it’s about what we want out of the land base, what we want from a particular species, what we want. We’re managing our expectations, not necessarily the entity we think we are.
What motivated you to get into conservation work?
What really did it for me was working on the industrial forestry side of things. One time we were laying out a forest cutblock where there was a several-hundred-year-old western hemlock that was at least 2 metres wide at the base. I asked what they were going to do with it, and they said they were going to turn it into wood chips as there were no mills that could handle wood of that diameter in the area. And I was like, “Why? You can turn anything into wood chips. Why not leave it?” I questioned why they couldn’t just leave the tree there and let it be a shelter tree or a seed source, especially since the harvest block was already on its second rotation and this particular tree had been passed up the first time. It seemed like such a waste of what could have been a beautiful wood product or left as an important legacy tree in that part of the forest. That really hit me with a bit of disillusionment, along with other experiences, and made me question whether we were managing our forests as well as is often claimed. There are some amazing and very well-meaning people who work in industrial forestry who I truly admire. Unfortunately, I feel that too often conservation considerations are seen as merely an inconvenient constraint on forestry operations, and I worry that maybe we’re not always prioritizing the right outcomes if we’re truly managing for the long-term health of our forests.
Another event that really pushed me towards conservation was when I was working in New Brunswick, I heard about a forestry logging road being laid right through habitat that contained a series of migratory bird nests. From what I had heard, they had known the nests were there, but it was cheaper to pay the fines for destroying the habitat than to reroute the road around it. To me, that was abhorrent. I knew I couldn’t be a part of that system, and that’s what drove me to conservation.
Working with some conservation organizations, I also often saw a lack of understanding of the industrial side of things. The arguments being made were never going to convince companies to change their practices because they were just not feasible. They might say, “Oh, well just don’t harvest any timber anymore” – well, we’re a timber harvesting company, so we would just go bankrupt. Yes, you want to get your conservation points across, but you have to do that in a way that’s cognisant of the barriers and challenges that the people you’re trying to convince have – recognizing where your compromise points can be, and where you need to draw a line.
So it wasn’t one moment, but a lot of little moments that slowly shifted me towards more of the conservation side of things as I did more roles in different places.
Working with CPAWS, we have a huge amount of flexibility to approach issues we feel are important, as long as it’s within our mandate. That is incredibly liberating and it feels incredibly empowering, relative to most other positions I’ve had.
What’s the day-to-day like in your role with CPAWS NAB?
Initially I was hired to work on the Bighorn Backcountry campaign. I started out as a volunteer, but given the fact that I’d worked as a park ranger in that area, they brought me on to lead the campaign within our chapter. Concurrently, I started branching out more into work with some of our partner groups – the Fish and Forest Forum that the Alberta Wilderness Association holds has a number of different stakeholders who are all concerned about the interaction of forestry and conservation in Alberta, so I represent our chapter on that forum. I’m also a representative on the Healthy Landscapes Forum, which is working to integrate ecosystem-based forest management into more traditional forestry activities. With most of the representatives being from industry or government, we were invited to give the perspective of the conservation community on new research ideas being proposed.
I am also our lead on Jasper National Park. Our main projects have been on mountain pine beetle and the sensitivities around forest fire risk and human safety, but I’ve also worked on human-wildlife mitigation measures on Highway 16, the new 10-year management plan for the park and any additional problems that come up involving the park.
I’ve been co-leading our parks campaign (pretty much everyone on our team is on that one!), where I provide a lot of the technical background, including legislative and legal components as well as historic context. I also do a lot of the technical analysis on our projects that address landuse planning and other issues on public lands in Alberta.
You want to get your conservation points across, but you have to do that in a way that’s cognisant of the barriers and challenges that the people you’re trying to convince have – recognizing where your compromise points can be, and where you need to draw a line.
What’s your favourite part of the role you have now?
The amount of freedom to pursue the issues we see, with as much vigor as we can muster for it. When you’re working for industry or government, you’re often hobbled with how much influence you can actually have over a decision or the amount of advocacy you can actually do when you see something you don’t think is right. That can be very frustrating when working in those positions.
Working with CPAWS, you have a huge amount of flexibility to approach what we feel is important to tackle as long as it falls within our mandate. That is incredibly liberating, and it feels incredibly empowering relative to most other positions I’ve held in the past.
What is one of your favourite Alberta species?
Bison. Actually, when I was working in New Zealand with a few of my colleagues, we were like “which animal do we think each person represents?” And everyone was like, “oh yeah Chris, you’re definitely a bison. You’ve got the shaggy hair, and you’re slow but very methodical.”
I like bison because I feel like it’s a very iconic keystone species – sociologically, historically and ecologically in the prairies in general and Alberta specifically. They changed this entire landscape. We have forests encroaching now on old grasslands because there’s no longer large herbivores roaming the areas. And the huge role they played for First Nations across the prairies – it’s basically what allowed them to live and flourish so successfully in the prairies before colonial settlers arrived. It’s such an iconic species and I don’t think it gets enough love – even the fact that many people still refer to them as buffalo!
But don’t ask me if I love plains bison or wood bison more. I don’t want to make the other one feel bad, I don’t want to choose favourites!
Where is one of your favourite places to get outside in Alberta?
I would say I’m very partial to the Eastern Slopes in and around Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg, just because I spent so much time out there as a ranger and really did get to know the area over that summer.
But I do have a soft spot for the Edmonton river valley because I probably spend the most time there out of any natural area in Alberta. And I absolutely love that we do have green spaces in our urban centres here. I believe it’s important for so many reasons. During my work with RiverWatch, I had the opportunity to experience the river in such a unique way. You see it in a completely different light going by water versus just going along the land. There are so many different ways to experience the river valley, and it’s so accessible.
When you are not doing conservation work or outdoorsy things, what else do you like to do?
I’m a very avid chess player. I pretty much play daily, and I used to be a very competitive! I earned over 30 medals and five trophies in chess in my younger years. I still do it recreationally, and when they get the chessboards set up in Churchill Square again, I would love to go out there on my lunches and just play with random people.
What got me back into it after a long hiatus was a random person carrying a chessboard on Jasper Ave. He asked me, “Hey man, do you want to play a game of chess?” And I was like sure! We sat down on a bus shelter bench and played a game, and I got crushed. I was like, “This is embarrassing, I know I’m better than this!” That was about two and a half years ago and I’ve gotten back into the swing of it since.