John Hassell You became the president of Ontario Nature’s board at our last annual general meeting. What vision do you have for your term?
Brendon Larson We did some soul searching at a board meeting about a year and a half ago and ended up reaffirming our general direction after determining that there is no need to add or subtract any programs at this time. So, in a sense, my vision is a fairly pragmatic one of strengthening the budget and putting some governance mechanisms in place. Beyond that, I would like to see an increased emphasis on our Northern Connections and Nature Guardians programs.
JH As an assistant professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, how do you instill a conservation ethic in your students?
BL I try to share my experiences in the natural world and how important those are to me, and then get my students to reflect on their own influential experiences. I have found that students often come into the four-year program aware of the issues we face, and keen to address them. Later, many become more despairing as they delve more deeply into the issues. When I teach their final course before graduation, I like to set an optimistic tone so they leave feeling empowered and part of a community working to make change.
JH What first got you interested in nature?
BL When I was about six my father took a bird-watching course and we got into birding together around Point Pelee. Later, we started exploring with botanists and learning about plants. As time went on, we learned the names and characteristics of a growing number of species, including the rare ones. I spent a lot of time walking the woods of Essex County, where I saw how landscape fragmentation causes environmental degradation. Essex County has two percent forest cover, yet people are still allowed to purchase woodlots and then clear understory bush to create yards. This is an example of where we need strong policies in place to protect what little forested land remains.
JH The International Year of Biodiversity has just ended; what has come of it?
BL Any gains have been fairly minor. There was some bigger stuff before, like the boreal commitments, but unfortunately we have not seen a massive step this past year.
JH Why is protecting natural areas such an important endeavour?
BL We are intricately involved with nature. Creating wilderness areas separated from humans is no longer a plausible solution. This means we need to think in terms of connectivity along the lines of Ontario Nature’s Greenway Initiative in southern Ontario to protect and restore a landscape connected through natural corridors.
JH You have said we need to pay greater attention to human interaction and values in conservation. Please elaborate.
BL Because my childhood was oriented toward natural history, my initial training was exclusively in the natural sciences. Motivated by a conservation ethic, I wanted to figure out how it all worked. Increasingly, however, I found that studying the natural sciences alone cannot accomplish conservation outcomes. The pivotal step is to get others to care and to make policy. So I realized that, in the work for my PhD, I needed to delve directly into how we value, perceive and frame the natural world.
JH What do you believe is the greatest environmental challenge in Ontario?
BL Our biggest challenge is the combination of habitat loss and climate change. Human activities are decreasing the ability of ecosystems to respond to global change. To address these complex and interrelated problems, we need to employ a systems perspective and examine the associated values.
JH What is your favourite place in Ontario?
BL My favourite spot is the Niagara Escarpment, the Bruce Peninsula in particular – actually, anywhere on the Canadian Shield.