Ecological reserves

What are ecological reserves?

Ecological reserves are areas selected to preserve representative and special natural ecosystems, plant and animal species, features, and phenomena. Scientific research and educational purposes are the principal uses of ecological reserves.

Ecological reserves are established for the:

  • preservation of representative examples of British Columbia's ecosystems;
  • protection of rare and endangered plants and animals in their natural habitat;
  • preservation of unique, rare, or outstanding botanical, zoological or geological phenomena;
  • perpetuation of important genetic resources; and
  • scientific research and educational uses associated with the natural environment.

How did they originate?

Between 1964 and 1974 Canada participated in a decade of research known as the International Biological Program (IBP), a worldwide endeavour involving 58 nations. A subcommittee for the Conservation of Terrestrial Communities (IBP-CT) was created, aimed at the establishment of a system of representative terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems around the world. In Canada this was largely funded by the National Research Council, and involved the description of biologically important sites on standard international check-sheets. Nearly 1000 check-sheets were completed in Canada, placing this country at the forefront of IBP-CT efforts, along with Australia and the United States. Many such sites were identified in British Columbia, and these became the nucleus of our present ecological reserves system. The IBP check-sheets are still an important, and in some cases, the only source of descriptive information for many British Columbia ecological reserves.

An effective conservation program, however, requires more than identification and description of important ecosystems. The lands must be legally and permanently set aside if they are to serve their intended long-term function. Since most public lands in British Columbia are under provincial jurisdiction, provincial government involvement became necessary to carry the program forward.

The Government of British Columbia, encouraged by the late Dr. Vladimir Krajina (former professor at the University of British Columbia) and other scientists, agreed in 1968 to form an Ecological Reserves Committee to advise on the selection of potential reserve sites. A year later, the government formally embarked on setting aside ecological reserves under the Land Act. In 1971, the Legislature gave unanimous approval to the Ecological Reserve Act. With this act, British Columbia became the first province in Canada to formalize and give permanent protected status to ecological reserves. Quebec, the second to do so, established a similar act in 1974, and New Brunswick in 1975. Other provinces have since enacted similar legislation, or use other legislation such as Land, Park and Museum Acts for designation of natural areas.

On May 4, 1971, British Columbia's first 29 reserves received protective status by Order-in-Council, a conservation landmark for the province. A full-time ecological reserve coordinator was hired in 1974, regulations related to use and protection of the reserves were enacted in 1975, and a volunteer warden program put into effect in 1980.

The benefits

Ecological reserves are established for the maintenance of biological diversity. They assist in developing and promoting an environmental consciousness and provide outdoor laboratories and classrooms for studies concerned with the natural environment. Ecological reserves are benchmarks against which environmental changes can be measured.

As many ecological processes are as yet poorly understood, today's scientists cannot predict some of the questions that will require research in unaltered ecosystems. Ecological reserves keep our options open for the future. A system of ecological reserves is a "genetic data bank" which may hold the key to new discoveries in forestry, ecology, agriculture and medicine.

Their role

Ecological reserves contribute to the maintenance of biological diversity and the protection of genetic materials. Appropriate research and educational functions are the primary uses of ecological reserves. They are not created for outdoor recreation and should not be confused with parks or other recreational areas. Most ecological reserves, however, are open to the public for non-consumptive, observational uses. Parks and ecological reserves, although serving somewhat different purposes, complement one another. Together they provide a wide range of opportunities for people to experience and learn from the natural world.

Managing and protecting ecological reserves

Ministry of Environment is responsible for the management and protection of ecological reserves. Plans are developed to provide the protection and management to ensure long-term maintenance of the ecological reserve values.

All consumptive resource uses, such as tree cutting, hunting, fishing, mining, domestic grazing, camping, lighting of fires and removing materials, plants or animals, and the use of motorized vehicles are prohibited in ecological reserves. Most ecological reserves are open to the public for nondestructive observational uses such as nature appreciation, wildlife viewing, bird watching and photography. Visitors are asked to co-operate in caring for these areas. Some sites, such as seabird nesting colonies, are so sensitive that access is only allowed under ministerial order.

Ministry of Environment staff are assisted in the protection and management of ecological reserves by volunteer wardens. Wardens contribute their knowledge, enthusiasm for conservation and their natural history expertise to the protection of specific ecological reserves. The wardens serve an invaluable role in the long-term protection of British Columbia's ecological reserves. The ecological reserve warden handbook [PDF] provides a description of duties and responsibilities of volunteer wardens and their status and functions in managing the reserves.

Volunteer ecological reserve wardens

Visit the Friends of Ecological Reserves to familiarize yourself with ERs that either need a warden or might be of interest. (Even in areas that have wardens, additional wardens help to increase attention to these ecologically special places). 

Research and education in ecological reserves

Scientific research is one of the principal functions of ecological reserves. Many types of research, particularly in the ecological field, require the establishment of permanent plots or observation stations to which the investigator can return to over time. Such types of research and other basic research related to the study of natural processes are encouraged in ecological reserves, provided it is not detrimental to the values of the ecological reserve. Researchers often prefer to use sites that already have an existing stock of research data upon which to build. Past research has established a foundation of data upon which new research activities can be built.

Ecological reserves also offer opportunities for a wide range of educational activities ranging from simple observation and nature interpretation to the teaching of complex ecological processes. Under permit, all levels and institutions of education may visit all but a few very sensitive ecological reserves. As surrounding environments are progressively altered by human activities, ecological reserves will assume an ever increasing significance for the demonstration and study of original ecosystems.

How are ecological reserves established?

Prior to the 1990s, members of the public submitted proposals for ecological reserves to BC Parks for review and consideration of the significance of the proposed area under the Ecological Reserve program. Proposals were reviewed by a number of government ministries and agencies to ensure conflicts were not present. Where values were considered significant and land use conflicts were resolved, the proposed area was designated by provincial order-in-council under the Ecological Reserve Act.

In the 1990s, the provincial government embarked on a province-wide program of land use planning. At the regional and sub-regional level, round-tables were established of government agencies, First Nations, public stakeholders, environmental organizations and industry representatives. These tables worked to determine land use designations over set geographical areas. Included in the decisions were the selection and designation of protected areas and the type of designation that they would receive (Park, Ecological Reserve or Protected Area) in order to meet the goals of the Protected Areas Strategy.