By Steve Hubrecht

At their annual general meeting last week, Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) officials faced questions from the public about cutting back funding for programs, including one query in particular about no longer giving money to outdoor and environmental education.

The topic has been bubbling in the Columbia Valley since last spring, when the CBT announced they would stop funding for environmental education programs. That created no small uproar in the valley, as it directly impacted several local nonprofit groups, including the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN), the Lake Windermere Ambassadors and Wildsight. Residents turned out in droves at a community meeting in Invermere to voice their displeasure at the move. 

The issue flared up again last week (as reported in the Pioneer), when the CBT released its 2023-2024 draft management plan. Local outdoor education advocates were shocked to see the plan included no mention of education at all.

The CBT’s annual general meeting was held Thursday Sept. 14 in Kaslo but residents (and the Pioneer) were able to attend virtually. CBT president and chief executive officer Johnny Strilaeff and board chair Jocelyn Carver spoke for the first half of the meeting, while the second half of the meeting was dedicated to questions from residents (both in-person attendees and digital attendees). Most of the questions centred on the CBT’s financial position, but one touched on the topic of program cuts in a general sense.

“For every new program that launches, we have to reduce or even eliminate other existing programs,” replied Strilaeff, adding “those are difficult decisions . . . it’s complicated. There’s no specific formula.” Carver added that board decisions on which programs get prioritized are based on public feedback.

Shortly thereafter came another question, outlining that more than 1,000 people across the Columbia Basin region spoke out in the spring in favour of outdoor education, and noting that the CBT’s just released annual financial report mentions a surplus of $10 million in total, and that water and environmental initiatives specifically were $1.5 million under budget. The questioner asked if some of that surplus could go to environmental education and queried if the board could commit in a general sense to funding outdoor education.

“I think it’s a bit premature to even address that question (about committing to outdoor education funding),” said Strilaeff, adding the answer should become clear “at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.”

Strilaeff said the surplus shown in the report does not take into account the CBT’s debts that need to be repaid or loans done in partnership with Columbia Basin business. 

“This (surplus) has a lot to do with timing,” he continued, adding that the CBT often enters into agreements with partners but the details are not sorted until after the financial year cutoff date. As a result “in any given year, you see some variability,” said Strilaeff, adding that in 2022 environmental and water initiatives were in fact over budget “and that was also due to timing.”

He did concede that “yes, environmental education is a priority, but it is one of many different priorities across the region.” The input during the public meeting last spring is “part of the broad bucket of input” that the board will consider, he added.

Strilaeff acknowledged that some long-running environmental education programs had to close as a result of CBT’s funding cuts, but characterized this as “a small number.”