Next 10 years of Columbia Basin Trust must include learning

By Graeme Lee Rowlands and Monica Nissen

Like many in the Columbia Basin, we recently received an invitation to comment on the Columbia Basin Trust’s Draft Management Plan. Once finalized, it will guide activities of this nearly $100M per year entity for the next decade. As residents who have dedicated our lives to educating youth about the environment, we were pleased with the plan’s high-level environmental focus but concerned there is no recognition of the role education plays in long term success.

A Healthy Natural Environment (one of six focus areas in the draft plan) depends on all of us, especially the next generation, learning about ecosystems and ecosystem stewardship.

Language in the Healthy Natural Environment focus area centres around “ecosystem enhancements” and “efforts to conserve Basin lands” with nothing on education to support these goals.

This emphasis matches the rationale the Trust has given for its decision last year to end financial support for longstanding environmental education programs that reached more than 10,000 youth per year. According to Trust staff, input from Basin residents in 2020 (when the Trust wrote its last management plan) indicated a desire for on-the-ground ecosystem projects. Faced with limited resources, the Trust decided it had to choose between on-the-ground ecosystem work and environmental education.

We, too, greatly desire on-the-ground action to enhance and conserve ecosystems. And we also know that long-term stewardship of our environment depends on people who understand how ecosystems work and how we can have a healthy relationship with nature. We need both education and stewardship!

This understanding is currently missing from the Trust’s Draft 2024-2034 Management Plan. Adding language to the plan about community-led education will set the stage for Basin residents to integrate these mutually supportive priorities.

Additionally, educating youth (and all of us) about the environment is essential to achieve the other goals included in the plan.

The “Engagement and Connection” focus area highlights the overall need to support youth and the importance of “[coming] together as neighbours connected to the same river system.” It also specifically calls for building an understanding of the Columbia River Treaty, its impacts, and the history that led to the Trust’s creation. Accomplishing this will require education.

The “Strong Communities” focus area includes support for “healthy childhood development, including activities for children” and opportunities for Basin residents to “lead healthy and active lifestyles.” Outdoor learning in and from nature is one of the very best ways to accomplish this.

Photo: Julie-Anne Davies

Notably, this section also highlights “opportunities for Basin residents to learn about and access affordable, locally grown, healthy food.” This is a great example of both learning and doing that should be mirrored throughout the plan.

The “Climate Adaptation and Resilience” focus area calls for the Trust to “inspire optimism and commitment” as it works to make the Basin more resilient to climate impacts. Building the emotional resilience and intellectual capacity of our youth through climate education is an essential piece of this puzzle, as is learning about how our society can stop contributing to the problem.

Critically, education is also essential to strengthen relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, another of the plan’s focus areas.

Over the past several months, the Trust has hosted 23 community meetings and open houses, 11 pop up events, 10 zoom meetings, three regional symposia, and more through its Our Trust, Our Future Public Engagement Process. Along the way, we know that more than 1,000 Basin residents joined us and other learning partners in highlighting community-based environmental education as a top priority for the next decade.

Including environmental education would not only reflect many Basin resident’s priorities, but would strengthen the entire plan.

The Trust is asking for feedback by September 20th. We encourage readers to learn more about what’s else is missing from the plan and then provide feedback to the Trust, sharing the need for environmental education to be part of our shared vision of the future.

Graeme Lee Rowlands lives in Golden and serves as Wildsight’s Director of Water and Climate. Monica Nissen lives in Nelson and serves as Wildsight’s Education Director. As part of a wider team of educators across multiple organizations, they have provided more than 100,000 Basin youth (plus lots of adults) with provincially and nationally acclaimed, community-based environmental education, much of which was made possible in partnership with the Columbia Basin Trust.

Monica and Graeme workshop curriculum for teachers alongside the Columbia River.