James (Thor) Westvick Thorsell
December 5, 1940 – August 30, 2023
James (Thor) Westvick Thorsell was born to Arnold E. and Irene (Westvick) Thorsell on December 5, 1940 in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, and grew up in Edmonton. Thor passed away on August 30, 2023 at Rockyview Hospital in Calgary with friends and family at his side.
Thor’s passion for adventure, as well as his unwavering integrity and dedication to conservation directed his career. He held a B.Sc. from the U of Alberta, a M.A. from Western University, and a Ph.D. with a specialization in parks management from UBC.
In 1967, Thor completed one of the first backcountry user surveys for Parks Canada, A Trail Use Survey: Banff and Yoho National Park. His survey inspired Brian Patton and Bart Robinson’s first edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide -- to which Thor also contributed – and informed his proposal for the Great Divide Trail that eventually spanned National Parks in Alberta and British Columbia. His love of the Rockies also led him into a brief foray as co-owner of Storm Mountain Lodge, along with his good friends Glenn Sather and Graham MacDonald.
Ultimately, the pursuit of further adventures sent him far beyond Canada. After completing a Ph.D. with a specialization in parks management from UBC in 1971, Thor went on to work internationally as a researcher, project manager, lecturer and trainer, supporting efforts that inspired the next generation of protected area managers from Dominica to Tanzania. In 1983, he joined the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Head of the IUCN Protected Areas Programme, and later headed the World Heritage Programme for 15 years. Throughout his 20 year career with IUCN, Thor contributed to field missions in over 800 protected areas in 90 countries and conducted 150 natural site evaluations. In a recent tribute to Thor, UNESCO Director of World Heritage Lazare Eloundou Assomo highlighted “the immense contribution he made to the safeguarding and conservation of our shared natural heritage – notably through his pioneering systematic approaches to monitoring and evaluation processes of newly nominated natural World Heritage sites”. After retirement, he continued to serve as IUCN Senior Advisor and a Member of the IUCN World Heritage Panel.
By 2000, Thor had returned to Banff, where he met Nancy Knechtel. Their shared interest in travel, hiking and enjoying life together led them to remote regions of China, Antarctica, Patagonia, Galapagos, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Thor and Nancy eventually shifted to winter in Mexico, first in Ajijic and later in Loreto Bay, Baja. In summer, they split their time between Banff and their cabin on the edge of the Columbia Wetlands where they enjoyed countless evenings birdwatching from the balcony in the company of friends.
In his final years, Thor continued to pursue biking, hiking and many other activities, enjoying the company of friends and family. Alzheimer’s wore away his independence, yet he still recollected his many adventures and his love for his partner, Nancy Knechtel, who passed away in 2020.
He will be remembered for his boundless energy, wicked sense of humour, love of the outdoors, unwavering integrity and dedication to conservation, and his warmth as a friend and colleague.
Thor is survived by his brother William Thorsell, sister Corinne Thorsell, and nieces Joanna and Christa Couture, as well as Nancy’s daughters Anya and Kirsten Knechtel.
We wish to thank Thor’s network of family, friends and caregivers for their support, as well as the Rockyview Hospital staff for their care. Special thanks to Lyle Wilson for his ongoing efforts.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation in memory of Thor to the conservation or environmental organization of your choice. As per Thor’s request, a gathering of close friends and family will be held.