The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: The role of education, curiosity, and exploration in conservation

Though conservation is about protecting nature, it is ultimately a human endeavour.

Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats are complex and intricate natural systems, composed of uncountable species, relationships, and communities that have evolved together over millennia. Prior to settler arrival on this landscape, First Nations peoples fostered those relationships and built new and prosperous ones, ultimately enhancing local biodiversity. Since settlers’ arrival however, political and economic interests have shifted humans out of the ecosystem. 

According to Parks Canada social scientist, Stephanie Coulson, rebuilding relationships between humans and place is essential to establishing a culture of conservation.

What role does education play in protecting and conserving CDF forests and associated ecosystems?

Environmental education is believed to play a significant role in the process of instilling and fostering environmental empathy and conservation values. There is an oft-repeated quote the summarizes the ethos of environmental education:

In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught (Baba Dioum, 1968, International Union for the Conservation of Nature). 

One of the reasons this belief is so firmly entrenched in the world of conservation is because it is actionable. We can develop and implement environmental education and outreach programs, count the number of attendees, and measure our perceived progress towards the cultivation of an environmentally-sensitive society. I applaud everyone who contributes to these types of initiatives, because their passion comes from a place of love and optimism for the future—and the world needs more love and optimism for the future. I am an occasional environmental educator myself, and it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. I love working in the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) zone, which is such a unique and culturally- and ecologically-rich ecosystem. There are few experiences as awe-inspiring and humbling as standing beside an old-growth western redcedar or coastal Douglas-fir tree.

Shauna Doll walking between two Douglas-fir trees.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

However, it’s important to recognize that environmental education is only one piece of the puzzle. What we really need is to spend more time in nature, witnessing and reflecting on our place in the world. We need opportunities to be curious, to be enlightened, and to be challenged. We need moments of awe and the chance to feel both infinitesimally small and part of something greater than ourselves. Some of these feelings can be achieved in structured or group settings, but many of them are best achieved when we are alone in nature with our thoughts. This independent, unstructured time in nature is both vital and difficult to come by, especially in urban areas, for a variety of reasons: lack of access to natural space, lack of perceived safety, lack of socially-supported independent mobility for children, and lack of free and unstructured leisure time in this busy world of work, school, and extracurricular activities, among other things. Environmental education can do a bit of work to fill in the gaps, but isn’t a replacement for independent nature exploration. 

There is no easy answer to this question, but I do want to point out that we are incredibly lucky in this region to be in such close proximity to both urban services and immersive, high-quality natural spaces, and with weather mild enough to afford year-round experiences in relative comfort. Not to mention the diversity of this landscape: an interwoven tapestry of forests, wetlands, beaches, meadows, and marine ecosystems, all within a zone with extremely high potential for biodiversity. 

The other critical component in this process is social environment. Environmental education is most effective if it’s supported in the home environment by peers, friends, and family members who demonstrate conservation values themselves—which is why it’s vital to ensure that we’re taking opportunities to educate and connect with people of all ages, and especially parents. 

Child looking at the base of a tree.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

How do we instill a conservation ethos or a “culture of conservation” within the populations living in and around the CDF zone?

Based on the discussion above, I propose that a culture of conservation exists when a community is made up of people who consistently spend solitary and reflective time in nature. These experiences shape personal values, which in turn shape social norms—or perceptions about what “normal” and “acceptable” attitudes and behaviours look like within a community. 

Once social norms are established, a culture of conservation has the potential to be self-perpetuating. New arrivals to the community, who observe social norms related to conservation values, are confronted with the choice of adhering to or rejecting those norms… and because of the human desire to belong to one’s community, most people will choose to adhere. So the question becomes, how do we effectively support people spending time in nature in order to establish this baseline culture of conservation?

People walking through the forest.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

We can provide:

  1. Tangible support by reducing barriers to access, such as providing safe, reliable transportation options. Capital Regional District regional parks outlines a list of regional parks accessible by public transit, for example, to support car-free individuals.  
  1. Informational support about available offerings, to allow individuals to choose to spend time in a natural space that aligns with their abilities, comfort level, and desired activities. We can also provide information to help individuals undertake those activities safely and with minimal environmental impact.
  1. Affirmational or self-esteem support by providing accessible and diverse opportunities for individuals to develop or improve skills related to outdoor recreation, which can increase confidence and comfort in natural spaces. We can also help a more diverse range of people feel like they belong in natural spaces by showcasing people of different abilities, cultural backgrounds, or other minority characteristics engaging in outdoor reaction. Accessibility guidelines for access to natural spaces is one example of this type of support. 
  1. Emotional or companionship support, by investing in programming (like volunteer programs) that provides opportunities for individuals to connect with each other to share their experiences, learn collaboratively, and strengthen relationships with like-minded peers.

This list is only a starting point. We can also serve as role models and sources of encouragement to the people in our lives. If there’s someone in your life that needs to spend more time in nature—invite them! Social norms within a broader community are powerful, but social norms within established peer groups are even more so. 

Woman looking up at the forest.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

How can we do better in these ecosystems? What needs to change?

First and foremost, we need to listen to and learn from First Nations and Indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples lived in this region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European colonizers, and many communities continue to live in alignment with Natural Laws that prioritize nature’s well-being and recognize the reciprocal relationship of caretaking between humans and the natural world. These Natural Laws stem from teachings that emphasize the connectivity between all elements of the natural world—including humans—and the responsibilities we have as stewards within these systems. These beliefs are often imbedded in language; what we call the Southern Gulf Islands, for example, W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples call ṮEṮÁĆES, or “relatives of the deep”. In this way, the language itself helps speakers position themselves in relation to the world around them. We should be looking to Indigenous Elders, language speakers, and knowledge holders, to learn what a true “culture of conservation” looks like in practice. We should also be looking to Indigenous science and technology in our efforts to transition to lower-impact, sustainable ways of living and being on the land and waters, and learning from Indigenous stewards when it comes to working towards conservation goals. 

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is working collaboratively with local First Nations on a variety of initiatives, including forest restoration on Sidney Island, sea gardens restoration, and coastal sands restoration. Indigenous management tactics like prescribed burning are being explored in priority areas like Eagle Islet, which will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent article in this series. Outside of the park reserve, Indigenous technology like reef fisheries are being revived in traditional sites with promising results. These types of projects—sometimes called “eco-cultural” projects—are restoring both Indigenous stewardship practices as well as cultural teachings, and I am honoured to support this kind of work. I think it’s some of the most important work I’ll ever do.

People in a canoe in the ocean.
Photo by Alex Harris.

The public education system is another good place to make progress. Experiential, land-based learning is a fantastic way to begin fostering conservation values in children, and I am excited to see the growth in and demand for nature programming in schools. I would love to see Nature School (also called Nature Kindergarten) become a standard inclusion in public education. Another area of opportunity is working with new arrivals to Canada, who are quite often unfamiliar with the natural environment in this region and may not feel safe, comfortable, or welcomed into natural spaces at first. If we’re trying to build a culture of conservation, it needs to be inclusive of people with a diverse range of experiences and personal preferences. 

Finally, First Nations, government agencies, NGOs, and private landowners should continue to work collaboratively within the region to achieve ecosystem-level conservation of the CDF and associated ecosystems; one example of ongoing collaborative restoration within the CDF region is the SḰŦÁMEN QENÁȽ,ENEȻ SĆȺ forest restoration initiative on Sidney Island. In such a densely-populated area, these kinds of cross-jurisdictional partnerships are necessary to achieve conservation at a biologically-relevant scale, and to minimize ecosystem fragmentation as much as possible. Finally, to improve the success rate of collaborative conservation efforts, I can’t help but advocate for enhanced inclusion of social scientists and human dimension specialists alongside ecologists and other natural scientists. After all, conservation may be about nature, but it is a human endeavour. 

About Stephanie Coulson

Stephanie Coulson is a social ecologist based in W̱SÁNEĆ traditional territory (Sidney, BC). Currently, she is working for Parks Canada as the Partnering and Engagement Officer for SḰŦÁMEN QENÁȽ,ENEȻ SĆȺ, a forest restoration project in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. She has an academic background in protected area and outdoor recreation management, and her thesis research explored parents’ rationales for facilitating (or not facilitating) unstructured outdoor play for children in the Capital Regional District. She is passionate about Indigenous-led conservation, food and land sovereignty, and collaborative conservation processes, and is in the middle of converting her backyard into a native food forest. 

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.