The Kids are All Right

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Last month in this space, I criticized Halifax RegionalMunicipality's use of Prince Andrew High School students to replanttrees in Point Pleasant Park as "at best patronizing and at worstcynical."

"The notion that poking a few thousand seedlings into holes in thepark's wasted ground will make everything well again is an urbanmyth," I wrote. "[It] makes about as much sense as stocking the SydneyTar Ponds with oyster spat before cleaning it up."

Turns out I underestimated the students, and the city.

My piece elicited a cheerful e-mail from Stephen King, manager ofparks and natural services for the municipality, who politely suggested I mightfind it "enlightening" to speak with the students involved.

Last Wednesday, I met with five executives of PAWEECA - the PrinceAndrew and Woodlawn Environmental Enhancement and ConservationAssociation - a 16-year-old student organization that is bothindependently chartered and a registered charity. We chatted inbrilliant morning sunshine on a flagstone patio PAWEECA built as itsgift to Prince Andrew last year.

Social studies teacher Greg King had arranged the meeting, but afterthe briefest introduction, he left us to ourselves. A teacher whowasn't afraid to leave students alone with a reporter who had alreadycriticized their efforts was my first clue that this might not beUptight High.

Negative press played a role in getting PAWEECA's PointPleasant Park project started in the first place. When PAWEECA'sincoming executive met last June to choose a project for the 2000-2001school year, the media were full of stories about the controversialplan to cut thousands of trees in Point Pleasant Park. Federal,provincial, and municipal authorities believed the cull was needed tostem an invasion of Brown Spruce Longhorn Beetles. Someenvironmentalists contended the beetle was neither new nor harmful,and they condemned the cutting.

"The media focuses so much on the negative," explained Kyla Tingley,one of the project's two co-directors. "We decided to stay away fromthe beetle issue and focus on being part of the solution."

"We thought, 'Let's be part of replanting,'" said Kelly Hogg, theother project co-director.

Faculty advisor King set up a meeting with parks manager King, who inturn arranged a series of meetings for the students with a committeeof academics, environmentalists, and bureaucrats concerned withrestoring Point Pleasant Park.

"At first, they wanted to replant the whole park," Saint Mary'sUniversity ecologist Liette Vasseur said in a telephone interview.

Discussions with experts like Vasseur, Dalhousie University biologistBill Freedman, and Parks and Wilderness Society environmentalist ColinStewart, persuaded the students that restoring the park to healthwould take a great deal more than "poking a few thousand seedlingsinto holes in the park's wasted ground."

The students learned how centuries of repeated logging had depletedthe park soil, and how pedestrians and dogs have compacted what littlesoil remains. They learned that urban notions of pristine park, withdebris from fallen trees removed immediately, can impede progresstoward restoring the park to health.

Throughout these meetings, the students focused on finding a role fortheir group that would be both positive and practicable. After manydiscussions, they settled on a modest research project and a public-education campaign.

They would monitor the progress of a small plot where they wouldplant seedlings against that of a control plot that would regeneratenaturally. They would produce a series of leaflets and signs designedto educate park users on simple steps they can take to aid the park'srestoration - things like sticking to designated paths and notletting dogs run off-leash.

Last December 12th, the students presented their plan to a meeting of City Council, which approved it unanimously. The students committedPAWEECA to a three-year, $30,000 project in support of the park'srestoration.

How can students raise $30,000? "Having charitable tax status givesus access to resources not normally available to high-school groups,"explained communications director Michael Kent.

The students registered the Internet domain name, and planned a series of five pamphlets toupdate the community on what's happening in the park. They will createstoryboards to illustrate their test plot, and to reinforce theimportance of staying on designated paths. Not a bad start, especiallywhen compared to their squabbling elders.

"We've learned a lot about politics, how to address people, and aboutthe process of getting things done," said PAWEECA president KarlaRussell.

"[Decision makers] are a lot more accessible than I thought," saidHogg. "If you have something to present, there are ears that willlisten."

Persist long enough, and even cranky old newspaper columnists mighthear you.

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