Fearsome green force of 14-year-olds on Salt Spring Island

A group of youths, all 14-year-olds from a North Langley church group, along with three leaders, David Clement and TWU student Jennifer Rumley, pose for a photo during a work bee on Salt Spring Island. - submitted photo
A group of youths, all 14-year-olds from a North Langley church group, along with three leaders, David Clement and TWU student Jennifer Rumley, pose for a photo during a work bee on Salt Spring Island.
— image credit: submitted photo

Around the campfire the night before, my son Luke spoke words of encouragement to the group of 14-year-olds in his North Langley Community Church youth group.

He talked about how we often hear about environmental problems in the news, but seldom get to do something about them. Tomorrow was their big chance.

We were on Salt Spring Island in early May. A light drizzle fell as we got out of the vans near the summit of Mt. Maxwell. Back in 2009 an accidental fire had burned on Maxwell. Since fire is historically very important in the Garry oak ecosystems we study, I’d jumped on the chance to set up some research plots.

Now the study was finished, these energetic 14-year-olds had the job of cleaning up my ecological research toys. Under a permit from BC Parks, I had set up 24 plots to see how deer grazing affected vegetation after a fire.

In 2010, Trinity Western students working for me had fenced off  12 of these four-metre by four-metre plots with two metre high fencing.

The team’s mission was to dismantle all 12 exclosures, including the iron posts that held them in place. The dismantling operation would not be too difficult, except for the fact it involved descending hundreds of feet down a steep slope, followed by climbing back up carrying the posts and 16-metre fencing rolls.

After returning with the first six sets of fencing from the burned area, I held a short strategy conference with Luke and another youth leader, Morrison Bartsch.

Knowing that four of the remaining exclosures were far down the slope, we thought we should just do the two easy ones and call it a day.

However, the third youth leader, Aaron Chan, would have none of that.

When would there ever be another opportunity to take down the fences, he asked.

Morrison addressed the kids and explained Aaron’s conviction that this was our team’s chance to go above and beyond the call of duty. The rain got a little harder about then, but it did not dampen the group’s enthusiasm.

They worked until late afternoon hauling the fencing up the steep slope.

When the team had heaved every last scrap of fencing up the mountain’s slope, Aaron congratulated them: “Just for that, tonight…” and paused before saying “you get to have hotdogs for dinner.”

Indeed, no tangible reward other than basic campfire food was forthcoming. But this rugged team already had already been rewarded richly in inner confidence built on that mountainside.

The scientific lessons I learned from this five-year study will help us better understand how to restore Garry oak meadows. But there are many other lessons here, too — like “never underestimate a 14-year-old.”

David Clements is a professor of biology and environmental studies at Trinity Western University.

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