Harestad draws praise for resolving conflicts

Mar 06, 2003, vol. 26, no. 5
By Stuart Colcleugh

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With his generous grey beard, mischievous eyes and infectious smile, you would scarcely guess that Alton Harestad has helped to define and resolve some of the most ferocious resource management disputes in British Columbia's history.

Yet for the past 20 years, the SFU wildlife biologist has played an indispensable role in researching habitat inventories and setting ecosystem priorities in the province's old growth forests.

“He's kind of an indicator species, to use his terminology, of how conservation biology is evolving in a way that tries to link the biological with the human,” says World Wildlife Fund Canada regional vice-president Linda Coady.

As environmental vice-president for MacMillan Bloedel and later Weyerhaeuser during the 90s, Coady worked closely with Harestad to develop locally and internationally acceptable resource management plans in Clayoquot Sound and other areas with important environmental values. “Alton is a scientist,” says Coady, “but he also understands how conservation is linked to broader decision making in our society.”

Harestad's research and other activities, and those of his students, have helped draw attention to the plights of Vancouver Island marmots, marbled murrelets, spotted owls, wolves and a variety of other less celebrated, but equally threatened or endangered species.

It's not enough just to preserve wildlife and its habitat, says the east-end Vancouver native who earned a PhD in forest ecology at UBC before joining SFU's faculty in 1982. “You have to produce the absolute best science you can, based on solid, unbiased data. And the data must be collected in a reliable manner with relevant input from every stakeholder involved.”

Harestad tries to instill the same commitment to good science, objectivity and professionalism, conservation ethics and stakeholder collaboration in his students, many of whom have graduated to play major roles in Canadian wildlife conservation.

Marilyn Fuchs, for example, was recognized for her leadership of the Garry oak ecosystems recovery team as the 2002 biologist of the year by the Association of Professional Biologists of B.C., an award she says partly belongs to Harestad. “I don't know if I would have continued my studies if I had not come across his path.”

“Alton is my mentor,” says wildlife consultant Rich Weir, who along with fellow biologist and former Harestad student, Helen Davis, is working to save the endangered yellow badger in the grasslands of the Thompson and Okanagan valleys. “He shows his students, by example, how getting things done for wildlife conservation is sometimes more about people than science.”

Like Harestad, his students are helping to pass on the same basic message he conveyed during the PBS documentary Earth on the Edge a few years ago:

“If people around the world don't learn to change, then you're toast. You can't take, take, take, take. You take a bit, and the ecosystem can sustain that. But at some point, you just can't take it all.”

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