Donovan Toews and Michelle Lefebvre are a part of something big.
The UFV student duo stand in a forest beside a school playground on a rainy day in north Mission.
On the other side of a fence separating Donovan and Michelle from the yard, students run back into the dry shelter of the recently reopened Stave Falls Elementary.
Donovan moves to inspect the bramble of his environmental nemesis: the invasive Himalayan Blackberry. Michelle crosses a creek and stops to observe bird signs on a tree.
They are at home in this alternative classroom beside the school.
“Our future is the education of the younger generations,” says Donovan, a BA student majoring in geography and minoring in communication. “And if we help them understand the importance and role of the environment, as they grow and become more involved in the community, as they start getting older and start voting and becoming leaders, they will be able to use that knowledge to make real change.”
They’re helping create that change by advising the school in its development of an environment-focused curriculum: Donovan by invasive species removal and restoration of native plants, and Michelle through her extensive knowledge of birds.
There are countless lessons to be taught in and around those brambles and bird signs.
Set in 10 acres of land just south of the Mission Municipal Forest, a reconstructed Stave Falls Elementary is completing its first full school year after a decade-long dormancy. Re-emerging as a result of community lobbying, the improved site offers a focus on outdoor education, forestry, and Indigenous culture.
“Our staff chose to have Michelle and Donovan join us on the first growth planning day we had in September,” says Elena Di Giovanni, principal of Stave Falls. “Everything was foreign and new and really overwhelming: 10 acres of forest, a small staff coming from very different places. And we converged in this beautiful library and mapped out a plan together.”
Di Giovanni and her staff had a long list of immediate needs. The teachers at Stave Falls were placed only a few weeks before classes started and the school was already growing very quickly.
The Mission Municipal Forest is the oldest continuously operating community-run forest in all of Canada.
Within that 10,000 hectares of land is Stave West, a large, 50-kilometre square area that has a great amount of demand placed on it from recreational users. The area includes high-value lakes and the foreshore flats, a scenic waterfront along the west side of the Stave reservoir where dropping water levels expose extensive sandbars and the lake bottom.
How do you operate a working forest with visitation increasing to the level of many B.C. provincial parks? And how do you balance all of the stakeholder needs on that land?
The Stave West Leadership Team was born from a vision of the stakeholders to try and find a way to attract families and desired users back into the area, to turn it into an educational space, and begin taking steps towards reconciliation with First Nations.
That process has been successful. More policing and security, public education, new campgrounds, and more use by families have deterred some of the worst of the activities, and culminated in the creation of the Stave West Master Plan in 2015.
And there’s the Stave Falls Elementary partnership, where Donovan and Michelle have already made an impact.
“We’ve had a lot of movement around this in a very short period of time and a bottom-up approach to engagement with the forest,” says Rhodes.
With the living inventory UFV is helping create, the list of potential partnerships goes on: the Fraser Valley Mountain Biking Association could ally with students who need environmental assessment experience for new trails; the Back-Country Horsemen of B.C. could team up with GIS students for some of their mapping projects; there’s a strong need for plant identification and cultural use mapping where UFV Indigenous studies students and biology students would both be valuable.
Rhodes sees no limit to the potential for educational experience in the community.
Donovan fell in love with plants years ago when taking a biogeography course at UFV. It was his first real introduction to how vegetation works with the geography of an area and environment, and it quickly turned into a passion. Part of that enthusiasm was the challenge of tackling invasive species.
Michelle found her way to these Stave Falls Elementary woods because of her love for beaked and feathered vertebrates. This UFV senior geography student is an avid birder.
Donovan’s removal-and-restoration plants management plan will act as something of a guided evolution of that learning ecosystem, and it will also provide an ongoing lesson for the students.
“I’m making sure they’ve got some clearing spaces so that they can have a group of students standing around with a talking point,” he says.
Michelle’s bird habitat management plan fits naturally alongside Donovan’s project in the interconnected scheme.
“A bird can tell you a lot about the environment,” she says. “If it’s full of invasive species, you’re going to get fewer bird species there than you would in a natural environment.”
Michelle is creating a booklet of the most common birds at Stave Falls Elementary. That inventory will help her successors develop a learning curriculum around birds: How to do math with birds, identifying seasons with birds, talking about climate change using bird trends.
That generational handoff is a key part of the program, with needs from the same stakeholder addressed by different faculties over time, building on previous work.
“It definitely starts at the roots,” says Donovan. “They have an idea of the end-product, but they need the people to design and implement and start actually building it up from the ground.”
That’s why it’s useful to get UFV students involved, he adds, so students can take what they’ve learned at school and actually put it to use.