Wendy Francis: Legacy in Conservation
Ask Wendy Francis what she’s most proud of in her career, and she won’t hesitate for a second.
If you drive along southwestern Alberta’s Highway 22, she says, you’ll pass a stretch of beautiful rolling hills and a unique montane landscape called the Whaleback Ridge—a region that was proposed for a major gas development in the early 1990s. “We did everything we could to protect it,” says Francis. “We worked with the media, made post cards and little booklets, and we debated with various ministers and the Alberta Premier at the time, Ralph Klein.”
Thanks to more than six years of tireless work from Francis and other partners, much of it volunteer, the region is now protected as the Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park. It was a long and difficult fight but, thankfully, it had a happy ending. “Every time I drive that highway I look at those hills, and I know they’re going to remain that way forever,” she says. “That’s amazing. It’s probably the best legacy I’ll ever leave.”
Francis, who is preparing to leave Y2Y by the end of December, is looking back on a career in conservation that has spanned almost 30 years, with much of that time dedicated to protecting and connecting the Yellowstone to Yukon region.
“I remember that first gathering in 1993 when Y2Y was still just an idea,” she recalls. “We were a bunch of conservationists and scientists that bought into this idea of connecting Yellowstone to Yukon, but we had no idea how to make it happen. We talked about what everyone was doing and how we could work together. We also asked a lot of questions: what science would we need to do and what maps should guide us? Who else do we need at the table to get this going?”
Although Francis is concerned about climate change and the state of nature conservation today, she truly believes the Yellowstone to Yukon vision is one of the planet’s biggest hopes. “Our greatest strength is inspiring others,” she says. “We’ve inspired conservation initiatives around the world that point to Y2Y as an example. It got others thinking at this bigger scale.”
Francis has held several positions at Y2Y over the years. Before becoming Interim President late in 2014, she was Program Director, an Interim Executive Director on two different occasions, and she chaired the Y2Y Board between 2003 and 2006 while in Toronto working as Conservation Director for Ontario Nature.
All of this came after more than a decade of work at CPAWS in Calgary, at first on a purely volunteer basis, and then as the group’s first Conservation Director from 1996 to 1999. Those early campaigns with CPAWS involved a mix of grassroots organizing, outreach and policy work. The latter came naturally to Francis, who practiced law and consulted to pay the bills during those early days of conservation volunteering.
“We ran a lot of successful campaigns strictly as volunteers,” says Francis. “We fought excessive development in Banff National Park, and we successfully stopped any further development in the Wind Valley near Canmore, Alberta, which was part of the initial Three Sisters proposal.”
Asked what initially got her interested in conservation, Francis goes all the way back to her earliest memories growing up in Ontario. Her family would spend summers at a cottage near Algonquin Park, where she and her siblings would spend all day outdoors. “I credit my dad with getting me interested in nature,” she says. “He grew up on the Prairies, and was a hunter and an amateur naturalist. He would always point things out like beaver dams and the names of different pine trees and things like that.”
With her childhood steeped in nature, and coming of age in the environmentally heady days of the early 1970s, it was almost a given that Francis would turn to conservation. “I remember having the conscious thought, probably when I was about 19,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to work to protect the Earth. I’ve always felt it was the most important thing for humanity to be working on and I still think that way today.”
So after more than a quarter century dedicated to conservation initiatives, does Wendy Francis have any regrets? “As far as my career goes, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I feel very lucky,” she says. “I’m just grateful I was able to do this work. I think we are among the very fortunate few who get to do something that they really care about. We get to do work that actually makes a difference in the world.”
As for what’s next, Francis says she’s looking forward to spending more time in nature. After a break she will look for part-time contract work on conservation campaigns, but the work will have to be “closer to the ground,” she says, back to her roots in conservation campaigning. Y2Y hopes to be one of her clients once she's had a good rest.
“I know we’re fighting an uphill battle, but I truly believe we have to keep doing this work,” she says. “Even if we’re just witnesses to what’s happening and speaking out and saying our truth, I think that’s very important. The Earth would be worse off without us.”