Partner Series: Get to Know Chris Elder, Program Coordinator for ALUS – Vermilion River
Written by Michelle A. Gordy
Chris Elder hails from Calgary, where his career journey led him to owning his own small business as a house painter. However, as time went on, he says “I couldn’t imagine myself painting when I was 50.” Realizing “it was time for a change,” Chris then sought career counselling, and surprisingly to him, Science, specifically Environmental Science, kept coming up as a theme. As a high school student, Chris never thought much of Science. He took the courses he had to, to get by, but the subject never intrigued him before. So now, this theme of Environmental Science keeps coming up, and Chris decides to start taking a few science courses; but what really sparked his interest was his time volunteering with Nature Conservancy of Canada. Chris reminisces that “At that time, here, they did some really interesting stuff. We did butterfly surveys, amphibian surveys. There were some vegetations surveys…and some seed collection… a lot of interesting citizen science…and I really liked it!”. With his newfound love of field work, his ambitions grew, and Chris decided to start looking into some colleges, eventually settling on Lakeland College in Vermilion, where he says he really liked that Lakeland offered such a hands-on approach to learning and Vermilion had “a good, small-town feel”.
Chris, his wife, and three kids left the big city for a big change in a small town. At the age of 40, he began the Conservation and Restoration major in the diploma program at Lakeland College and then moved into the degree program, earning his bachelor’s degree in Applied Science. This was a good path for him, and it turned out to be the perfect program, not yet knowing what his interests really were. At this time, plants started to pique his interest, or as he says, “plants really did sort of jump out at me, and I became one of the ‘plant people’”. Near the end of his degree, Chris completed his practicum with the County of Vermilion River in their Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program, and this led to him
becoming a full-time coordinator there.
In his position at ALUS-Vermilion River, Chris works to coordinate landowner projects for conservation and restoration and the implementation of beneficial management practices (BMPs). In doing this, he says “some of the best afternoons are getting in a producer’s farm truck and we go driving around their land and…they show me their ALUS project ideas and then they also show me other stuff too…It’s really cool just hearing their stories and seeing what they’re interested in and what they want to talk to me about. I always leave the farm having learned something new because the landowners know so much about the land and how to manage it. Most of the time, I’m just there to give them support and encouragement for what they are already doing, and a offer little technical advice on how to make improvements.” Chris works with the landowners to develop a proposal for projects-on-the-ground and presents them to the County’s Partnership Advisory Committee for approval and budgeting. Once the landowner’s projects are approved, Chris assists them with field measurements (his second-favourite days) and ensuring the project will go smoothly and that annual payments are arranged. The landowners are then the managers of their own projects, and Chris states, “they really take ownership of it.”
When asked about how partnership with the VRWA has been beneficial to his work with ALUS, Chris remarks on the many combined landowner projects that have been implemented through the partnership because sometimes, “[the landowners] applied to the watershed [VRWREP] and brought ALUS along…and then there were some [projects] that I brought to the watershed. So, it has worked both ways, which is nice.”
The decision to go back to school and start a new career is never an easy one, but it can often put you in a unique position for opportunities. “It’s the funny thing about being an older student at college, you have as many friends who are professors and administrators as students” remarks Chris. These friendships allowed Chris to meet people who would introduce him to opportunities to be involved in local conservation within the Vermilion River watershed. For instance, he was friends with the Chair of Environmental Sciences at Lakeland, and this led to him attending a meeting with the Vermilion River Watershed Alliance and later becoming a student representative on the Board of Directors. Chris was instrumental in the early years of implementation of the Vermilion River Watershed Management Plan and in conducting a water quality study on the river. Now, years later, Chris continues to sit on the VRWA Board, but as the NGO representative for ALUS Canada – Vermilion River and as Secretary for the VRWA Society.
The VRWA would like to thank you, Chris, for your outstanding dedication to improving the state of the Vermilion River watershed. Thank you to ALUS Canada and the County of Vermilion River for continuing to be outstanding partners in our efforts to implement beneficial management practices, in helping landowners to implement their projects, and for the wisdom you bring throughout.
Michelle A. Gordy, Ph.D. is a Watershed Planning Coordinator for the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance.