Though he is certainly too humble to admit it, University of Waterloo alumnus Dr. Stephen Woodley could be considered the godfather of modern protected area management policy in this country. From his time with the Faculty of Environment to his leadership as Chief Ecosystem Scientist with Parks Canada; our nation has seen few people as dedicated to ensuring our protected areas stay that way. Today, Woodley has taken his work global, as the Senior Advisor of Biodiversity and Climate Change for The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Woodley possesses a sense of duty to our national parks that extends far beyond science. As a man who has visited more parks than many of us could name, he balks at choosing one as his favourite. “I always say no when I am asked that question. There are places that are truly inspirational, but there are so many of them,” he says. Listing Nahanni as a highlight, he then takes the time to endorse lesser-known parks such as Torngat Mountains National Park, and gladly offers the correct spelling of Kejimkujik National Park to ensure that wooded gem 200 km south-west of Halifax gets its due.
An east-coast native, Woodley followed up an undergraduate degree from Mt. Allison and Master’s from the University of New Brunswick by working in several Maritime conservation areas. It was while at Fundy National Park in 1987 that he decided to continue is education at Waterloo.
“At that time Waterloo was the place to be. It was a big centre for studying protected area management and innovations, globally. So I jumped at the chance,” he explains. Though he didn’t have his PhD, Woodley did some teaching and research with the newly-formed Heritage Resources Centre, and at the urging of Prof. Gordon Nelson, Woodley eventually earned his doctorate. “Actually, what he said was, ‘If you don’t do your PhD while you are here you are an idiot,’” recounts Woodley.
From there it wasn’t long before Woodley was offered a position as a forest ecologist with Parks Canada. He held the position for five years before taking a leave of absence to join a ministerial panel charged with developing a strategy for park management. Their ground-breaking report made multiple recommendations that seem elementary today, including launching a science program, and monitoring ecological integrity.
With those recommendations came funding, a more robust parks program, and for Woodley, an interview for the position of Chief Ecosystem Scientist. For many, such achievements would be enough for two careers, but for Woodley bigger challenges awaited.
Having recently accepted a senior advisory role with the IUCN, Woodley now travels all over the world to work with governments, NGOs and businesses helping to preserve our natural heritage. It’s something he feels is not only good for the well-being of the planet, but for our own personal health.
“Did you know that the most commonly prescribed medications in Canada are anti-depressants?” he asks. “Research has shown that going out into nature is equally as beneficial as taking anti-depressants.”