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GREEN SCENE: Nature, by the numbers
With a world increasingly challenged by many environmental problems, including that of global warming, I sometimes worry that people remain distracted and fail to notice the forces of nature that bind our world together are becoming increasingly frayed and weakened.
Thus, I was much encouraged by a survey conducted for Environment Canada that showed a high proportion of Canadians appreciated and understand the value of the natural world.
This recently published study (available at www.biodivcanada.ca) examined the awareness and attitudes towards nature expressed by 24,000 Canadians throughout 2012/’13 and showed, nationally, 92% of Canadians were aware of the term “species at risk” while 76% of us had heard of biodiversity. Slightly fewer people were aware of what “ecosystem services” are; these describe the many vital services nature provides us, including producing oxygen, creating fertile soils and purifying water through the water cycle. Apparently, 14% of all Canadians donate money to protect species at risk on an annual basis.
The survey also indicated that approximately half of Canadians had chosen to live in places in part because of the access provided to nature. In B.C., this proportion was higher than the national average, with two thirds of respondents indicating they chose to live, in part, in places that offered access to nature (developers, take note!).
More than half of those surveyed stated they had chosen to purchase products that were more environmentally friendly, such as bird-friendly (i.e., shade-grown organic coffee) or recycled toilet paper. While this was an encouraging finding, it was not clear if making such purchases was done on a consistent basis.
An astonishingly high number of people — almost 90% — indicated they participated in some form of a nature-based activity in the past year. Admittedly, the criteria for such activities were broad and included picnicking, gardening, reading about nature or viewing nature-focused media. In B.C., only 29% of us had camped in the past year, although 76% of us claimed to have gone hiking. The category of hiking included less rugged activities such as nature walks, which likely accounts for the high proportion of participants. Some people would consider hiking to be a specific activity with a strong uphill component that often takes participants into alpine ecosystems. About a fifth of B.C. survey respondents had gone birding or fishing in the past year while those who hunted accounted for considerably less of the participants (7%). In this survey, golfing was, to my surprise, included as another nature-related activity in which 21% of us had participated. Agritourism, which I assume includes trips to local farmers’ markets, had a participation rate of 24%.
These rather broad categories for nature-based activities also probably account for the high number of days that B.C. residents appeared to have participated in such activities. For example, the average number of participation days for B.C. residents was about 130 days per year. Given that a typical B.C. year consists of a high proportion of rainy weekends, I can only assume that much of the nature-based activities in this survey must be indoor ones or consist of short neighbourhood walks or, possibly, filling up the backyard bird feeder. Birders, a generally dedicated group, spent over 120 days per year bird-watching while anglers spent only about 30 days fishing.
Economically, spending on nature-based activities in B.C. contributed $7.5 billion to the economy, with annual expenditures of $2300 per person. Most of this money was spent on transportation (21%), accommodation (8%), food (11%) or the purchase of equipment and payment of fees (27%). Sometimes, it can be a challenge to enjoy nature and, at the same time, minimize fossil fuel emissions.
I was surprised to learn that 13% of those surveyed reported they had volunteered for a nature-related activity in the past year. This could have been something as simple as participating in a shoreline cleanup or planting native plants.
I have to admit, however, that I am a little doubtful of these numbers. Whenever I have been involved with volunteer nature activities, we typically have 15 to 30 volunteers show up — not the hundred or so that would be expected if 13% of Tri-Cities residents volunteer for nature at least once a year. I suspect the criteria for “volunteering” in the survey included things such as participating in annual events such as Fingerling Festival in Port Moody or Port Coquitlam’s Hyde Creek Salmon Festival.
Regardless, volunteers are responsible for much of the good work that is done for nature in this community such as restoring streams, raising salmon, leading nature walks and invasive plant removal. We should be encouraging their increased participation.
While this survey indicated a good level of general understanding and appreciation for nature, there is still much work to be done to educate others about the need to protect species at risk and preserve critical habitat. We also need to put more emphasis on building communities that will be resilient to the impacts of global warming while at the same time making efforts to reduce our dependence on the fossil fuels that are driving climate change.
Elaine Golds is a Port Moody environmentalist who is conservation/education chair of the Burke Mountain Naturalists, chair of the Colony Farm Park Association and a founding director of the board of the Port Moody Ecological Society.