Eric Balke

Coordinator at South Coast Conservation Land Management Program
MSc in Ecological Restoration, 2017

“The traditional view of ‘buy land, set it aside, and it’ll be good for wildlife’ is no longer enough. There are all kinds of challenges with policy, managing people, ecology, and climate.”


Eric graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Biology program in 2012. Between his co-op work terms and other odd jobs, he found himself working in biotech, public health, and behavioural ecology research, aquarium maintenance in Saudi Arabia, and even studying orangutans in Sumatra. After hearing about the MSc in Ecological Restoration program, he was attracted to the blend of practical field applications and strong academic backing, and was soon accepted into the program’s first cohort.

Investigating tidal marsh recession

Eric found his applied research project through a presentation he saw at the Pacific Estuarine Research Conference. Since 1989, some 250 hectares of tidal marsh vegetation died and converted to mud flats throughout the Fraser River delta front. In partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada and BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), Eric developed a research project to investigate why this was happening. 

With high salinity as the proposed cause for marsh recession, Eric conducted a reciprocal transplant experiment between Sturgeon Bank and a reference site at Westham Island, transplanting three-square bulrush within and between both sites. Although there was some evidence for high salinity, many transplants died unexpectedly, smothered by an untimely algal bloom. Not to be outdone, resident Canada geese finished off most of the remaining transplants, securing themselves as Eric’s nemeses. He’s since learned not to underestimate them.

Networking opportunities, hands-on skills, and new perspectives

While in the program, Eric especially valued the many connections to ecological restoration practitioners in the area. Being able to reach out to those working in similar areas and facing similar challenges has helped him immensely throughout the program and his career. He also appreciated being taught direct, hands-on approaches for addressing ecological problems, such as cabling large woody debris in streams and designing and implementing planting plans. Eric also feels he gained new perspectives through the program. For instance thinking “what does a fish feel?” allowed him to better design features such as refuges from predators, appropriate water temperatures, and high- or low-flow areas.

Managing BC’s conservation lands

After graduating, Eric was hired to be the lead biologist on the Sturgeon Bank Recession Project, continuing his research. He’s also devoted some of his time to serving on the board of directors for the Society of Ecological Restoration’s Western Canada chapter, mainly helping to organize conferences. These days, Eric mainly works as the coordinator for the South Coast Conservation Land Management Program, a multi-agency initiative which draws on its partnerships to better protect conservation lands throughout BC’s south coast. As the program’s point person for FLNRO, Eric is in charge of managing 11 Wildlife Management Areas spanning 37,000 hectares. Managing so much land sees him juggling responsibilities such as invasive plant management and restoration prescriptions, infrastructure maintenance, trail building, sign installation, garbage removal, grant reporting, enforcement, and public complaints, all while trying to expand partnerships and build the program.

Ecological restoration as a management tool, and the shift towards resilience

Eric tends to see restoration as a set of tools for understanding ecosystems, their threats, and how to maintain their services and function. To him, it’s more about management than restoration in a traditional sense, something others are acknowledging. “Hardcore restoration to what was there before…nowadays, I’m not even sure if that’s possible. The traditional view of ‘buy land, set it aside, and it’ll be good for wildlife’ is no longer enough. There are all kinds of challenges with policy, managing people, ecology, and climate,” he explains. 

As well as growing pragmatism, Eric is excited to see increasing emphasis on ecosystem resilience, particularly in coastal ecosystems. With climate impacts accelerating, there’s huge opportunity to act now and strengthen long-term resilience. Projects which protect coastal communities by accreting sediment and buffering against storm surges, for instance, are gaining traction. He’s currently involved in a 9-year project to create a “living dike” in the Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area, adding sediment to the foreshore salt marsh to facilitate resilience to sea level rise and attenuate wave energy.

Advice for new students: learn a good pitch, and get out and volunteer

One thing Eric advises is learning how to secure funding for projects. “It’s how the world goes ‘round,” he says, “Money helps with reconciliation, acquires land, creates opportunities, and so on.” A lesson that has stuck with him is the importance of articulating the need and opportunity for a project. “I look at it as arrows in a quiver,” he says of making a good pitch, “Some people you’re going to win over with an emotional argument, some with a logical argument, and some with dollars. You need to tailor your argument to your audience.”

Another thing Eric advises for those interested in pursuing restoration is to find something you’re interested in and go volunteer. “Find specialists in an area you like, reach out, and ask to join them in the field for the day,” he suggests, “That is an opportunity to have the undivided attention of an expert and learn valuable concepts and practices.” In Eric’s experience, this approach has even led to job opportunities. “It’s all about that foot in the door,” he laughs.