Joseph Storr Lister was the only son of Joseph Storr Lister, a former Yorkshire lawyer, and his wife Maria Margaret Crowe. His father was appointed inspector of roads at Mowbray and as a tree lover planted several avenues and groves of trees along the roads around Cape Town. The younger Lister was educated at the Diocesan College, Cape Town, and was taught horsemanship by his father. He finished his schooling in 1869 and, at the invitation of his brother, a Major in the Indian Army, travelled to India that same year and from May 1870 worked on a tea plantation at Darjiling, against the Himalayas. After passing the lower-standard examination in Hindustani and an examination in land surveying and levelling he was appointed in 1871 as assistant forest ranger under the conservator of forests in the Punjab, B.H. Baden-Powell, a brother of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell who won fame at Mafikeng during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). A friend of his brother, Colonel Elliott, described him at this time as active and strong, an excellent walker and a practised horseman, fond of shooting and other outdoor activities, steady, principled, and well-tempered. He served at several Himalayan forest stations, but because of his lack of formal training in forestry could not advance to a senior post. Later an article by him on "Tree-planting in the Punjab" was published in the Cape Monthly Magazine (Series 2, Vol. 16, December 1877).
After attacks of typhoid fever Lister was sent to Britain in 1874 to recuperate and from there obtained the post of superintendent of plantations on the Cape Flats. Taking up this post in January 1875 he undertook drift sand reclamation by spreading city refuse to stabilise the sand and sowing Port Jackson willows and other tree species. This economic method of reclamation converted wasteland into a valuable asset, yielding a steady revenue from the sale of wood for fuel. From 1876, at the request of the magistrate of Worcester, he developed a plantation of eucalypts in a swampy area near the town. The timber was later profitably sold to De Beers Consolidated Mining Company, thus encouraging the development of commercial forestry. By 1878 he had a staff of eight rangers.
In 1881 a Forestry Service was finally created for the Cape Colony, with the Frenchman Count De Vasselot de Regne* as superintendent of woods and forests. Lister continued in his post and established an arboretum and a nursery at Tokai, at the foot of the Constantia Mountain, where he experimented with the planting of a variety of trees. Among others Pinus radiata was planted there and despite initial failure proved that this important species could be grown commercially. He also established successful stands of eucalypts or pines at Beaufort West and Kluitjeskraal, near Wolseley. In 1884 he compiled Practical hints on tree planting in the Cape Colony (17 p.), which was published by the Department in English and Dutch editions. In May 1885 he married Georgina Johanna Bain, daughter of the road builder Thomas C.J. Bain*. They eventually had one son and five daughters. That same year he was promoted to conservator of forests, Western Division.
In 1888 Lister was transferred from Tokai to King William's Town as conservator of forests for the Eastern Conservancy. Here he reorganised the forestry staff and had district forest officers appointed. At Port Elizabeth he applied his proven method to stabilize the drift sands which threatened to fill the harbour. It was one of his most notable career successes. Though his training and experience had been mainly in plantation forestry he took a keen interest in the indigenous woods of the Border region and their wildlife. Later he reopened these woods to cutting under a system of management based on a book by De Vasselot. The latter regarded his work highly, and the friendship between the two survived the Count's departure from the Cape in 1892. During his sixteen years with the Eastern Conservancy Lister tried his best to protect the forests, but was more successful in establishing plantations of exotic tree species. This work was most ably continued by T.R. Sim* from 1894.
Lister's contributions to forestry were recognised when he was awarded the Imperial Service Order (ISO) in 1903. In October 1905 he was appointed to the newly created post of chief conservator of forests in the Cape Colony, at first in an acting capacity. At this time an independent Department of Forestry was created in the colony. The next year he helped to establish the South African School of Forestry at the South African College. His official reports describe his investigation of many forestry matters, such as the extent and value of crown forests in the Transkei (1893), the administration of Transkeian forests (1898), and the organisation of the Forests Department of Natal (1902) and the Orange River Colony (1903). He undertook an inspection tour of the forests of Natal and Zululand in May-July 1902 and a summary of his report to the minister of agriculture of that colony was published in the Natal Agricultural Journal (1902, Vol. 5, pp. 603-612). After the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 he was transferred to Pretoria to become the first chief conservator of forests of the Union, a post he occupied until his retirement in 1913.
Lister was appreciated by those serving under him for his ability and the firm but just manner in which he managed his responsibilities. He was a quiet, friendly and considerate person, and a good administrator. The suburb Listerwood in Port Elizabeth was named after him.