The Role of Environmental Stewardship Groups in the Grand River Watershed, Ontario
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Abstract In this thesis I analyze the role of stewardship groups in the Grand River watershed. The perceptions of stewardship volunteers and key agency informants are examined to determine the biophysical, educational and social implications of stewardship initiatives in the Grand River basin. The first objective is to examine the role of environmental stewardship group participants, understanding their contributions to biophysical or social changes in the Grand River basin. The intent is to determine if biophysical and social changes promoted by stewardship groups are influencing the watershed at a localized community level, whether broader, more cumulative effects are being demonstrated within the river basin, or if both effects are evident. The second objective considers the motivations of stewardship volunteers, perspectives regarding involvement with environmental stewardship groups, and contributions to change within the community. Consideration is given to the importance of tangible results for many volunteers, as well as the acknowledgement of the risk for burnout for volunteers involved with environmental groups. The third and final objective considers if the initiatives or changes implemented by stewardship groups are influential in guiding river basin management through policy and decision making. Impact and influence of stewardship groups on decision making are assessed, based on the responses and reports of agency and organizational members, in addition to representatives from municipal and township government offices. A case study approach is used to investigate the rare Charitable Research Reserve, Woolwich Healthy Communities, and Kitchener’s Natural Areas Program in the Grand River basin. Relevant information pertaining to other stewardship group activity is included where appropriate. Data collection methods included surveys distributed to a combined group of 52 stewardship group volunteers and event participants, 14 personal interviews with key informants, and participant observation from June to October 2013. The results indicate that environmental stewardship groups in the Grand River watershed are playing a role in creating biophysical change through the work of on-ground projects such as stream bank restoration initiatives and tree planting projects. Contributions to social change are evident through groups that are committed to community outreach and educational programs, particularly those targeted towards youth and school children. An examination of the motivations for stewardship participation revealed a consistent pattern of three primary reasons. First, there was a desire to contribute to the community or make some environmental enhancement or change. Second, participants expressed a wish to improve ecological or environmental knowledge and awareness. Third, respondents noted a strong sense of volunteering or participating in stewardship as a means to make social connections or meet people with similar interests. The achievement of tangible results for on-ground efforts was observed by both stewardship group participants and organizational members to be important in the avoidance and alleviation of potential volunteer burnout. Concerns from agency and municipal representatives suggest that stewardship groups tend to have a local, community focus with less concern for the ‘big picture’, or the potential for wider-reaching or cumulative effects of various projects. Yet, examples from the case study groups and other groups in the watershed indicate that there is an influence on the biophysical environment and at a social level beyond the immediate local initiative. Partnerships between stewardship groups and other agencies and organizations are highlighted as a strength with regard to the potential for greater impact at a broader scale in the river basin, as well as an opportunity for future growth and development in collaborative environmental and water management strategies. Corporate partnerships and employee volunteer programs are identified by several of the groups and organizations as valuable and promising approaches to collaborate on environmental stewardship initiatives. Several aspects of this research suggest an opportunity for further study, particularly with regard to how evolving partnerships may contribute to the joint success of stewardship groups and governing or management agencies within the Grand River watershed. It would be interesting to determine if the development of stronger partnerships through collaboration between local stewardship groups and governing agencies such as the Grand River Conservation Authority might lead to larger stewardship initiatives and improved outcomes for targeted areas of need in the river basin.