By Steve Hubrecht

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The Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) is withdrawing funding for local and regional environmental education programs in the Kootenay region and halting its large environmental grants program. The move has been greeted by disbelief among Columbia Valley residents connected with nonprofit environmental eduction programming and initiatives and they are urging local residents to make their voices on the matter heard.

The decision stems from public consultation undertaken by the CBT in 2020, much of it done digitally while COVID-19 related ‘bubble’ measures were at their height. The CBT’s current management plan runs from 2020 to 2023, so several Columbia Valley nonprofit organizations are set to be affected quite soon, and indeed some say they’ve already felt the squeeze.

The Pioneer spoke with the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN), Wildsight, the Lake Windermere Ambassadors, the Columbia Outdoor School (which operates Blue Lake Camp at Whitetail Lake near Canal Flats), and Groundswell Network Society. They outlined implications ranging from losing 50 to 60 per cent of funding for important education programs to having to rethink or postpone projects while searching for alternate funding sources.

Representatives of the groups repeatedly used words such as “grief”, “devastating”, “flabbergasted”, “disappointment”, “frustration” and “uncertainty” to describe their own reactions to the news, and had similar descriptors for the feedback they’ve gotten from those who benefit from their programs.

“The reaction is always shock when they hear the news,” said Wildsight executive director, Robyn Duncan.

The CBT’s environmental education funding has typically been on an ongoing, operational basis, while the large environment grants programs is usually (though not always) used more for standalone projects.

“Environment education programming did not emerge as a major theme in 2020 when the Trust engaged with Basin residents on the plan,” said CBT communications director, Delphi Hoodicoff, speaking to why the decision was made. She added that, on the other hand, projects involving direct on-the-ground action to restore ecosystems and to support climate resilience were a big theme of that consultation, and that consequently the CBT has developed new programs tailored to those priorities.

Hoodicoff said the CBT must make difficult budget decisions, and “when new programs are offered, funding for past programs often needs to be reduced or concluded so that limited resources can be used to meet the objectives of the Columbia Basin Management Plan”.

She confirmed that the CBT’s agreements for environment education programs with CBEEN and Wildsight will finish at the end of the current school year. The multi-year funding agreement with the Lake Windermere Ambassadors (which funds 20 to 25 per cent of its lake water quality monitoring efforts and its watershed education programs) is set to end on April 1.

Ambassadors program coordinator Amy Baxter said the group’s board of the directors is “worried about the sustainability of our organization without the CBT large environment grants program.” She added the Ambassadors are glad there are still other grants available for ecosystem enhancement and restoration projects “but these types of projects only account for a portion of what the Ambassadors do each year.”

CBEEN executive director, Duncan Whittick, Groundswell board member, Laura McKinnon and Wildsight’s Robyn Duncan each separately expressed puzzlement that the 2020 consultation indicated environmental education was not a top priority, given that these three organizations are seeing all-time highs in program participation over the past few years and have been expanding their offerings to meet this demand.

According to participation numbers given by all five groups to the Pioneer, they collectively had thousands of people (many of them school-aged kids) take part in their programs, camps, workshops and other initiatives in 2022. 

Among the many programs that stand to be affected by the funding changes are CBEEN’s Ktunaxa language course and other Indigenous language courses, Every Child Matters Year-long Learning Challenge, and Wild Voices for Kids program; Wildsight’s EcoStewards, Beyond Recycling, and Know Your Watershed programs, its two-week Columbia River Field School, and Go Wild! youth wilderness trip; and the Lake Windermere Amabassadors’ community-based water monitoring, community cleanups, free kids’ summer camps and boat launch outreach booth. 

Columbia Outdoor School executive director, Todd Hebert, said he’s bewildered by the funding changes, if for no other reason than the sheer importance of environmental education. “We are constantly bombarded with information from credible scientific sources about climate and environment related issues and we need to properly prepare our youth with the skills to make informed decisions.  Removing education programs does not allow them to have hope and vision and the ability to make changes for the future,” he said. 

Both CBEEN and Wildsight have already made adjustments to deal with the looming changes.

CBEEN has  “been working hard to squeeze our pennies, and extend this (current school year) funding out for as long as possible, and so as a result people are already starting to see the pinch of this. We are already having to charge more for things like our children’s programs, Indigenous language programs, Truth and Reconciliation programs and other support programs,” said Whittick, adding CBEEN has already closed down its workshop support programs.

This year Wildsight is “delivering only 50 per cent of our normal programs due to reduced funding,” and has cancelled its year-long Nature through the Seasons program, said Duncan.

Whittick, Duncan, Baxter, McKinnon and Hebert all urged residents to come to one of the two CBT community engagement sessions being held in the Columbia Valley next week, first on Monday, April 3 in Invermere at the Columbia Valley Centre with an open house from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and what the CBT terms a ‘guided community conversation’ from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m, and then again the next night on Tuesday, April 4 in Canal Flats at the Canal Flats Civic Centre (once again an open house from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and a guided community conversation from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m). Those unable to attend in person can take an online survey or attend a Zoom meeting. Find out more at https://future.ourtrust.org/whats-happening/

“There is an opportunity for residents to share that these are, in fact, important to our community,” said Whittick.