Tribute to Irving Fox

🕔Dec 04, 2006

British Columbia has lost a distinguished conservationist and a remarkable human being. Irving Fox, born December 7, 1916, passed away July 20, 2006, just short of his 90th birthday.

My first recollection of Irving was at the Kemano Completion hearings, held in Smithers in 1984. The Department of Fisheries & Oceans had assembled a blue-ribbon panel of 9 experts to take public submissions and answer questions about Alcan’s proposal to divert the Nanika River and increase its take from the Nechako River in order to boost power production at its Kemano site. The panel included engineers, planners, hydrologists, fisheries biologists and the like.

About half way through the hearings a small, white-haired man shuffled to the front with a great armful of ring binders. He spread them on the lectern in front of him and introduced himself as Irving Fox. He said he didn’t want to make a submission as such; he just wanted to ask a few questions. Then, by a series of incisive and probing queries, he proceeded to demolish, and render practically speechless, this entire panel of “experts.”

One particular line of questioning I remember well; it was about the lack of meaningful rainfall data. The water budget for this huge project was being set on the basis of only 35 years of rainfall data. The rather glib answer came back from the panel that, as the area had been settled quite recently, they only had 35 years of records to go on.

“Nonsense!” said Irving, “When I faced a similar problem I used tree ring data to fill in the gaps.” By correlating the width of tree growth rings with the records available Irving had been able to extrapolate the rainfall data back several centuries. In so doing he had discovered some quite disturbing long-term rainfall cycles that could spell disaster on a project such as this.

“Why was this not done?”

Open mouths from the panel!

And thus the interrogation proceeded. What I found amusing about the whole exchange, however, was the manner in which the panel addressed Irving. At the beginning of the questioning they prefaced their answers with “Mr. Fox.” This later changed to “Dr Fox,” and finally to “Professor Fox” as the tenor of his questions sank in. It was a visible dawning of recognition that this was not Irving Fox, country yokel from Smithers; this was Irving Fox, Professor Emeritus of UBC!

From his great technical mastery, my first impression was that Irving was some sort of engineer. When I got to know him, I learned he was a Planner (M.A. in Public Administration) and that prior to retiring to Smithers he had run a popular graduate program at UBC in Resource Management. His record before that was impressive: certified teacher at age 17, staff member on the Hoover Commission, vice president of Resources for the Future, Nixon nominee to head up the newly formed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and founding director of the Westwater Research Centre at UBC.

Despite his erudition, Irving was not one to stand on ceremony. Once, when invited as keynote speaker to a large conference in Toronto he showed up in cords and an old sweater. It so happened that the conference centre was experiencing heating problems at the time and a plumber had been sent for. When Irving presented himself, he was escorted down to the boiler rooms instead of the stage!

In 1983, Irving and wife Rosemary retired to Smithers. It was a place they found by accident, having been weathered-in here while on their way to a backcountry skiing trip in Tatlatui Park. They bought a lot on the side of Hudson Bay Mountain and built their own home, living in a pre-constructed garage until their house was complete.

In retirement, Irving did not rest on his laurels: he became extremely active in local and provincial land use and environmental issues. Besides appointments to a multitude of boards, panels and round tables, he served for several years as President of the Spatsizi Association for Biological Research where, largely due to his prestige, he was instrumental in obtaining large grants from various US corporations and charitable foundations. He helped spearhead and chaired Wildlife 87, a large symposium of provincial significance held in Smithers as a centenary celebration of the establishment of Canada’s first wildlife sanctuary. Irving arranged a series of seminars on local forestry issues which ultimately evolved into the Bulkley Valley Community Resources Board, which is now held up as a model for the rest of the province.

Irving was an accomplished canoeist and outdoorsman, having canoed most of the wild rivers in Northern Canada and the US, including the third successful navigation of the Thelon River in the Arctic. Being short and extremely well balanced, he could actually stand up in a canoe to read the waters ahead. Incidentally, when planning his Thelon expedition, Irving found himself on an extremely busy schedule with his professional work in Arlington, Virginia, which meant he could only train for the trip in the early mornings. To practice for the portages, before breakfast he would take his canoe on his shoulders and walk a few blocks around his suburban home. This eccentric behavior did not go unnoticed. One day Irving’s daughter was taken aside by a classmate and quizzed intently as to her father’s mental state and whether he had been acting strangely lately; these early morning rambles had the neighbours quite worried about him.

His passion for canoeing and wilderness hiking extended well into his 80s. In 1990 my wife and I accompanied Irving and Rosemary on a 10-day backpacking trip in the Spatsizi Wilderness Area. Although 73 at the time, Irving still carried a 50-lb pack. As he weighed all of 130 lbs wet through, this was almost half his body weight. However he always prided himself in being able to carry a half to a third of his weight.
When Irving turned 80 in 1996, a large party was held for him at the Driftwood Hall in Smithers. Irving entered the room like a prize-fighter, waving his fists in the air. He was still a bundle of energy and still at the peak of his intellectual powers. His advice was still sought by governments on large projects, and he was still travelling extensively, often by bus, to sit on various Boards and Commissions. Three of his former graduate students came up from Vancouver to attend that birthday celebration. They all gave moving tributes to Irving’s great gifts as a teacher, mentor and friend.

It is fitting that Irving paddled a local lake and brought his canoe deftly into dock just days before he drew his last breath. His final visitor was his trusty dog, Humphrey.