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Putting Stewardship into Action with Saanich Parks

I had a wonderful chat with Katie Turner this morning via Zoom. She is the Park Stewardship Coordinator with Saanich Parks and she oversees two of their stewardship programs: Pulling Together and Park Ambassadors. I've been greatly impressed with the restoration work I've seen done, particularly along the Colquitz River and some of its tributaries. So I wanted to know more about these programs.

Pulling Together

I started by asking her about the Pulling Together program.

Some of the invasive plants targeted for removal are Himalayan Blackberry, Scotch Broom, English Ivy, and Daphne Laureola. Once these plants have been removed, the area is restocked with native plants. This is the restoration component of the Pulling Together Stewardship program.

Katie pointed out that many of Saanich's parks were once over run with invasive plants. But that's becoming less the case because of the volunteers who participate in the Pulling Together stewardship program.

"There's no doubt about it, volunteers do an incredible amount of good work in Saanich Parks," she extolled. In 2019, they contributed approximately 18,000 hours spread among 42 of the 173 parks within the District. Unfortunately she didn't know off-hand the total area that has been restored, but from my observation, it appears significant. She also noted that the program is just getting back up and running after being shut-down for a few months due to COVID19.

Saanich Parks has several kinds of volunteers, according to Katie. There are people who are prepared to make a longer-term commitment to the restoration of a park or area and those who prefer just to drop-in from time to time. The former group are called registered volunteers and there are about 200 of them. "They are the backbone of the Pulling Together program," she says "Without them, we simply couldn't accomplish as much." As well there are requests from school, youth and church groups or church groups to do stewardship in the parks.

To become a registered volunteer requires completion of an application form and there are some good reasons for doing so, as Katie explained.

For those who prefer to just show up, Katie suggests contacting her and she'll send you a calendar of when and where the work parties are happening. If you do drop in, a lead steward will get you to sign a waiver and give you some orientation as to what's needing to be done. The lead stewards have the most training in things like best management practices in ecological restoration.

So why do people volunteer with Saanich Parks stewardship programs? "There are a great many reasons why people join us," she says. "It's a great way to meet people, especially if you're a newcomer to the area, and to learn more about the nature of the region through direct hands-on experiences. I also think it's a great stress reducer, being outside, working in nature."

For teachers and their students, getting involved with these restoration projects is a great way to meet some of the educational goals set forth by the province.

"Every year, our stewardship programs have grown hugely," Katie says with no small degree of excitement, "so there's definitely a strong desire within the community to do things for the environment. And all this is supported by our Saanich council which is really great."

"Every day when I check my emails there are people wanting to volunteer. I must have a least 100 waiting for me to find them somewhere to get involved."

"However, there's still tons of work to do," she adds quickly, noting once again that there are only 42 sites within Saanich's 173 parks undergoing restoration. Starting new restoration projects in other parks is something she's considering but these have to be approached carefully.

Park Ambassadors

Turning to the Park Ambassador program, Katie explained that it was one of their newest volunteer programs and that these volunteers have a unique role. They are only operating in Mount Douglas Park at the moment as part of a pilot program. Katie says Saanich Parks hopes to expand the program to other parks eventually.

Essentially the Ambassadors serves as the "eyes and ears" for the park. They walk the park on a weekly basis and fill out a report on how many people they encountered and any things they noticed that needed attention.

"While doing their rounds, the volunteers engage with park visitors, welcoming them to the park and providing information about its trails and the natural history," says Katie.

Ecological Restoration

Returning to the theme of ecological restoration, she underscored just how important it is for the region. Although Greater Victoria is blessed with an embarrassment of natural beauty, the region has also suffered a significant degree of environment degradation. For Katie, engaging in restoration work is not just about doing good for the environment and native biodiversity, its also about doing good for ourselves by restoring our connection with the land.

"It's so powerful that the United Nations has declared 2021 - 2030 as the Decade of Ecological Restoration," she emphasized while noting that in the weeks to come Saanich Parks and its partners will be rolling out events and activities to celebrate the Decade. So stay tuned!

Natural Intelligence

In line with their stewardship programs, Saanich Parks has also launched another initiative called Natural Intelligence. It aims to increase "nature smarts" for the native plants and animals around us and how we can co-exist with them. among the District's residents

As our conversation came to a close, we agreed that stewardship was a clear and concrete demonstration of behavioural change. It's quite one thing for people to say they care about nature, it's quite another to actually show it by helping to restore a degraded ecosystem or by being the eyes and ears for a particular park.

Stewardship programs such as those run by Saanich Parks are also an excellent means of connecting people with nature that is nearby, nature that is found within and around the Greater Victoria region. It only makes sense then that Saanich Parks is an important partner in the Greater Victoria Naturehood initiative.

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