Since she was young, Katie Morrison has been passionate about contributing to the protection of the environment, but as conservation director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, she says that Alberta is not the easiest place to do this kind of work. Morrison’s appreciation of the environment started where she was born in a rural area near of Winnipeg.

Morrison’s passion about the environment dates back to her childhood. As a curious child, Morrison shared used to spend time outdoors with her family. Photo courtesy of Katie Morrison. Some of her daily playtime outdoors was spent running through fields, climbing trees or picking up frogs. With a very outdoorsy family, especially her father, Morrison would often go camping and horseback riding.

When a university career fair came to Morrison’s high school, a University of Alberta environmental science booth caught her attention. Although she had never heard of this field as a career, it made sense to her given her interest in the outdoors and environmentalism.

A life-long passion

While working on her conservation biology degree at U of A, Morrison’s summer jobs involved fieldwork, such  as bird surveys, vegetation sampling and elk habitat surveys. However, conservation activism was more important to her at the time.

According to Morrison, her experience as an environmentalist also made her “more aware of the social issues around conservation.” Photo courtesy of Katie Morrison.

“I did belong to the environmental science students association and we did sort of awareness raising things,” Morrison explains. “I was into protests and organizing rallies and things like that, which I’m not as involved in now, but at the time that was a way I felt I could get  my voice heard through more of the environmental side,” she says.

As Morrison focused more on her schooling and her fieldwork, her activism made room for “hardcore science.” She got an internship at La Tigra National Park in Honduras where she spent the next year and a half doing biologically based research. 

Her time in Honduras was some of the work she’s most proud of. Morrison’s work started to figure out in what ways the indigenous community in the park could contribute. Some non-governmental organizations told her “not to bother dealing with certain communities” about environmental issues, because they would not cooperate and wanted nothing to do with park management.

Morrison developed strong relationships with the people of Honduras while she worked in La Tigra National Park. Photo courtesy of Katie Morrison.

But Morrison ended up gaining the trust of those same communities. They were the groups that gave her the best response to the work she was trying to get done. They let her know about their thoughts and concerns in regards to the environmental state of their land and how they wanted to help with managing the national park.

Back in the city

The next chapter in  Morrison’s life started in Calgary, where she did environmental assessments for big developments, especially in the oilsands. She would often go to remote places and get dropped off by helicopter to do wildlife surveys. Even though it was interesting scientific work, she says it was hard for the conservation side ofher, because she knew most of the areas would be turned into mines.

Morrison has done fieldwork in places so remote she would get dropped off by helicopter. Photo courtesy of Katie Morrison. “I didn’t think I could make the difference in that role that I wanted to be making on a higher level…. I just wanted to be able to influence the overall picture versus the small picture,” Morrison says.

That feeling led her to do a master’s degree at the University of Calgary. She returned to Honduras, where she conducted “more social science research around people’s perceptions of forests and conservation, as well as how to better integrate livelihood issues and conservation issues.”

Morrison says that work helped her to be part of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society as conservation director – which she sees as a “real split” between hard science and activism.

“[My job] really does allow me to do both and I feel like I’m making a difference in the landscapes that I care about,” says Morrison, who now does less fieldwork but does a lot of travel and “work with experts, but also [work] with communities, industries, municipalities and governments, all on these conservation issues.”

A rewarding experience

Some of Morrison’s proudest moments include the relationships she’s been able to build during those travels. She explains that sometimes it’s difficult for ranchers and conservationists to work together when they have opposing views on how land should be used.

Morrison says that conservation is a “really long game,” but that the results are very satisfying. She explains that the best moments are when she sees that her contributions have made a difference.

However, there is an area southwest of Calgary that has the attention of “environmental groups, ranchers, landowners, municipalities, stewardship groups” that are all part of the Porcupine Hills Coalition.

The affiliation is aimed at land use issues – like motorized vehicle recreation and how quads or dirt bikes are damaging the land. “Being able to create and maintain those relationships has been really powerful,” Morrison says.

Another remarkable moment for Morrison was being a part of the creation of the Castle Provincial Park, Alberta’s newest provincial and wildland park in Southern Alberta bordering British Columbia and Waterton Lakes National Park.

Even though this has been a process spanning 40 years, seeing results of some of her contributions counts as another proud moment.

Morrison says that conservation is a “really long game,” but that the results are very satisfying. She explains that the best moments are when she sees that her contributions have made a difference.

Katie Morrison’s previous out-of-office work led her to do fieldwork in rural Alberta and Honduras. Photo courtesy of Kate Morrison. Graphic by Ingrid Mir.However, she says that the toughest part of the job is that conservation is not a top priority for people due to Alberta’s economic downturn. She argues that the province hasn’t prioritized conservation for many years.

“On a lot of conservation issues we’re not starting with a blank slate, we’re starting with really complex social and environmental uses of that land,” says Morrison.

She recognizes that there are other uses for land and that conservation does not mean pushing everyone else out of the land. “It’s not about shutting down any other industries or economies, it’s about looking at what we need on that landscape.”

It’s because of her life-long passion for the environment and conservation, that Morrison hopes to continue her work towards saving the landscape she has grown to love.

ktoporkova@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this piece is Ingrid Mir, and can be reached at imir@cjournal.ca