By Caroline Schultz
Over the course of Ontario Nature’s 80-year history, we have fought numerous battles for conservation. With you, we have witnessed many wins for the environment and also, regrettably, some losses. As the voice for nature in Ontario, we find ourselves preoccupied with the most immediate conservation battles of the day: fending off development to save significant habitat; crafting a rescue plan for an endangered species; pushing government to implement genuine protection for fragile ecosystems and at-risk wildlife; and, most challenging of all, forging solutions among disparate stakeholders that will, ultimately, reduce our ecological footprint on this province.
But our efforts are not undertaken at the expense of the big picture, a vision for the future of Ontario in which the natural wonders of this province are safeguarded and the needs of people and wildlife are met so that both can be sustained. Who will carry out this vision? Who will take on tomorrow’s environmental battles?
Our response is that one of the most important decisions we can make today is to cultivate an ethic of conservation in the next generation of environmentalists. This is why Ontario Nature created Nature Guardians, a program designed to raise environmental awareness and an appreciation for nature among young people. We know that when kids are given the opportunity to explore and connect with the natural world, their physical and mental health improves and school grades get better. We also know that the lack of such outdoor experience – a reality for many children – has been linked to childhood obesity, decreased attention spans and fewer coping mechanisms for stress.
Through our program, kids tell us how they are affected by the natural world and how they plan to confront the ecological challenges before us. For example, on the last day of Earth Month this year, five teens participating in the Nature Guardians program took action by organizing five simultaneous events planting trees, cleaning up shorelines and restoring trails. Afterwards, they posted comments and pictures on the Nature Guardians Facebook page, using social media to inspire and encourage their peers to follow suit. This is what youth leadership looks like.
At Ontario Nature we are handing the conservation torch to a culturally diverse and very passionate group of young people. Whatever career path they end up choosing in life, our best possible investment is giving kids experiences that will pay off in a powerful dedication to nature in the decades to come. As Anne Bell, our director of conservation and education, says, intimate contact with nature gives kids “moments that are filled with colours, sounds, smells, emotion, surprise, awe and wonder.”
In Denis Seguin’s cover article for this issue of ON Nature (page 28), he quotes one teen as saying that the Nature Guardians program has made her question the way she lives. It’s amazing, she adds, to see kids rising up and taking a stand. We, too, are amazed. If you share our awe for our young guardians, please support this program. Doing so will not only help with the day-to-day business of protecting wild species and spaces, it will also, amazingly, help realize the enormous potential in tomorrow’s environmental stewards.