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Environmental Health – Part 4: The Power of Volunteers   by Karen Munro, M. Sc., Environmental Scientist

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

I have focused on particular aspects of watershed health and touched briefly on the power of individual or group action in protecting the land and water we love through the previous three parts of this series. Now I can discuss the power of ordinary people to make a difference.

I have had the amazing privilege of watching a stewardship movement grow and mature in British Columbia and help in my own way. There are parallel stories throughout North America, for example, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Virginia, Michigan, and probably worldwide.

The British Columbia streamkeeping program www.pskf.ca began in 1994, with guidance and support from the public involvement program of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). The DFO community advisors, who at that time mainly help small groups with local salmon rearing facilities, found that the volunteers wanted to do more to ensure the fish they raised had adequate habitat to thrive in once released from the hatchery setting. They saw survival problems (water quality and habitat, see Parts 1 and 2 of this series) and realized that while they could increase the number of salmon fry through the addition of hatchery fry to a stream, this couldn’t guarantee a return of adult fish. They wanted to do more. On the government side, there was a strong acknowledgement that laws and regulations were not enough to maintain salmon stocks, and that interest and cooperation at the community level was essential. DFO sponsored development of the Streamkeepers Handbook, a training manual on methods for lay people to take care of local streams, based on sound scientific practices in stream assessment www.pskf.ca/publications. Volunteers began surveying streams, organizing cleanups and public awareness campaigns, and restoring habitat.

Like Alice’s Restaurant, streamkeeping has grown into a movement. There are thousands of volunteers in British Columbia, growing interest in other parts of Canada) and similar organizations elsewhere. Support, training, the Streamkeepers Handbook, supplies, networking and videos are provided through the Pacific Streamkeepers Federation, with one part time coordinator and a volunteer board of directors. Groups are organized at a community or watershed level, with few or no formal rules. DFO continues to provide support for the program through community advisors and funding of the part time coordinator position. Other than that, it is a grassroots movement. Knowledge and participation has helped people become stream advocates and has built partnerships among strange bedfellows because people focus on a common purpose.

Our group, the Northshore Streamkeepers, has three criteria that guide group activities – Is it good for the stream? Does someone want to do this with you? Is it legal (do you need a permit)?

There are amazing stories of volunteer work, typically requiring much cooperation among community members, local businesses or industry, various levels of government, and funding organizations:
  • fish ladders have been built to create passage through culverts to upstream habitat;
  • habitat has been restored (off channel habitat, spawning and rearing areas, native plantings, buried streams have been daylighted);
  • streams have been surveyed and valuable information provided for land use planning and conservation;
  • salmon have returned to streams after decades of absence;
  • festivals are held to invite the public to learn about and appreciate local streams (Rivers Day, Earth Day, Oceans Day, Coho Festival, salmon sendoffs, salmon welcome homes, and many more);
  • people have become advocates for streams, lobbying local governments over land use planning and environmental by-laws, requesting provincial and federal government agencies;
  • volunteers have become creative about informing and engaging the community through festivals, artwork, theatre, and music
It’s not just about salmon, but they are wonderful icons of the west coast, and we are happy to use them as the bait to fish for volunteers. Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, school groups, fishing club members, conservationists, professional biologists, and a multitude of just plain folks are happy to call themselves streamkeepers.

When I feel a little down about the power of a group to protect a stream, when, for example, there is news of another fish kill caused by human carelessness, I recall the story of the Rouge River in Michigan (www.rougeriver.com). It was so polluted by industrial effluents that it used to catch fire. By 1994, citizens in the watershed, in cooperation with local and state authorities, focused on cleaning up the water. Considerable progress has been made in diverting sewage from the river and in treating it, in dealing with industrial discharges, and in community-based monitoring and awareness programs. The Rouge doesn’t catch fire any more and there are reports of gulls fishing in the river.

There are lots of resources and weblinks to follow. You can start with these: