Learn, love, act: An interview with NatureNB’s Vanessa Roy-McDougall

Written by Lauren R. Korn on June 3, 2019

Lepreau Falls. Photo courtesy of NatureNB.

The climate crisis can seem overwhelming for many of us. One practical contribution we can make to decrease the degradation of our environment is to appreciate our wild spaces, understand how ecosystems work, and protect and sustain them. In New Brunswick, NatureNB is an organization that provides the resources to help people do just that.

The Festival of Nature is NatureNB’s annual fundraiser. This year, it is being held in St. Andrews on June 7-9. In this interview, Vanessa Roy-McDougall, the organization’s Executive Director, discusses NatureNB’s philosophies, the festival’s history, and the ways naturalists have attempted to make the space around the highly contentious Point Lepreau nuclear power generating station one of ecological education.

LRK: How does NatureNB seek to educate the province about climate change?

VR-M: We take a holistic approach to climate change. Education is one of the huge pillars of our organization.

We have a really big network of scientists and naturalists who know a lot, so we have an ability to connect them to people who know these things in the public sphere. We also work with municipalities and nature groups to give them pointers on how they can address those changes, like flooding. We do a lot of conservation work on the Acadian Peninsula and the southern part of New Brunswick, as well—around coastal habitats. We have Citizen Science programs. We are also the provincial coordinators for the important bird areas program. A lot of that is finding volunteers—citizen scientists—who can keep tabs on habitats, to let us know if there’s anything going on. It’s really about connecting with people on the ground, getting them to take ownership of these important places. Once they learn about it, they love it, and once they start loving it, they’ll take action.

LRK: I came across NatureNB on the Environmental Trust Fund’s award list: “Increasing Resiliency in Coastal Communities with Natural Infrastructure and Community Capacity Building.” What can you tell me about that project?

VR-M: What NatureNB has been doing around climate change is that we’re trying to get people to start thinking differently about how they develop and build. Instead of building something and then having to deal with consequences like flooding, it’s about taking inventory of what nature is doing for us in those particular areas. We call these “ecological services” or “nature services.” For example, wetlands absorb a lot of water. If there’s a wetland [near a building project], it’s already there doing its job. If you build a certain way, you can keep that wetland, instead of having to then build, say, retaining ponds. It’s really about looking at what nature already offers and harnessing that when you’re developing or planning.

We’ve developed a tool kit for municipal and rural planners, so they can start thinking this way. We are working with Port Elgin, using its natural infrastructure, repopulating trees along waterways.

LRK: How does NatureNB reach rural communities?

VR-M: We’re fortunate enough to get funding every year to travel to rural schools and rural communities. We try to hit every part of New Brunswick, so we’re not going only to the three big cities. We also produce resources that teachers, educators, and parents can use on their own. We have nature guides, education kits, videos. We also support local leaders, kids’ nature clubs, and regular nature clubs. We make sure they have the resources and can connect with local nature lovers. I’m certainly not an expert in everything. I look to my large network of nature lovers to supplement that kind of information and to connect people in different areas with experts or with people who are really passionate about what they do.

We do our best and make a specific, conscious effort to reach communities—both Francophone communities and rural communities—to give them access to those resources that they may not normally have access to. They may not be able to go out on field trips, but we can bring resources to them.

We’re also one of the few committed fully bilingual NGOs in the province.

LRK: Why was St. Andrews chosen as the location of this year’s Festival of Nature?

VR-M: Our Festival of Nature has been going on for upwards to 30 or 40 years in some incarnation or another. It relocates to a different area every year and gives people the opportunity to discover different parts of the province and access to exclusive experiences through the eyes of local leaders.

We picked St. Andrews, because they didn’t have a formal nature club in Charlotte County—even though it’s a hot-spot for birding and there are a lot of active nature-lovers there. We wanted to see if we could drum up some interest, and sure enough, one of our former members decided to start a club. They’ve had a lot of success.

LRK: I was scrolling through the festival schedule and came across an event sponsored by NB Power: “A Visit To Point Lepreau Bird Observatory.” What can you say about the day-to-day relationship between New Brunswick’s only nuclear power generating station and the observatory?

VR-M: NB Power has been really supportive of the observatory. The Saint John Naturalists have been running the PLBO for over 20 years. The nuclear power plant, the piece of land that it’s on, jets out into the bay, and it’s a really great vantage point for watching migration. New Brunswick sits along a great migration trail. On the NB Power property, there’s a little lookout that PLBO has made. They have volunteers and paid staff, mostly in the spring but also in the fall, essentially counting birds to keep a record of when they migrate, what’s migrating, and how that changes over time. The PLBO has to get clearance to use that land, but I know volunteers have helped re-vamp the observation shed, and some of the volunteers have been doing some monarch butterfly stuff there, as well.

LRK: What do you want event participants to learn from this particular trip?

VR-M: First, giving participants an idea of PLBO and giving them an idea of how dedicated the St. John Naturalist Club is. It’s incredible. Most of them are volunteers who volunteer their time to drive in and look at birds. That is a huge undertaking and not something you see every day. And then, the opportunity to chat with NB Power about partnership opportunities. It’s important to be able to have conversations with NB Power—talking about how to create bird-friendly buildings and areas. It allows us to have open communication.

LRK: What are the events you’re particularly excited about?

VR-M: At this point, a lot of the trips are full. There is still room on the Point Lepreau trip.

Sakom Akagi of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik will be doing a walk Saturday afternoon and will be talking about Indigenous history and the history of the Peskotomuhkati people.

There are a few really great birdwatching trips. [Our leaders are] excited to share their passions. They love to teach others. They’ll show you their scope and teach you how to recognize birds by their songs. It’s infectious.

We have a women’s only trip. It’s a hiking excursion with some great leaders. It will give women the opportunity to explore nature with each other.

All of our leaders are volunteers. Every year, we have to approach naturalists, birdwatchers, plant people to lead these outings. We found that a lot of women, when we approach them to lead, they’re hesitant, and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know enough.” I think they underestimate or undervalue themselves a lot. We thought, let’s give women an opportunity to lead and see themselves as nature leaders in hopes that we can encourage them to take leadership roles in their local clubs or in the organization as a whole.

LRK: Broadly, what do you want event attendees to take away from this festival?

VR-M: What I’d like attendees to take away is how amazing nature is in New Brunswick, how easy it is to connect with nature. Not everybody has that experience. There are many amazing things to see in this province. If we want these types of experiences—if we want to share them with our kids, our grandkids, future generations—we need to stand up for [nature]. Nature doesn’t necessarily have a voice. We have to be its voice.

Online registration sales for the Festival of Nature are now closed. Full- and half-day event tickets are still available, and those interested are encouraged to register in person on June 7, 8, or 9. If you’re interested in connecting with your local nature club, visit NatureNB online.

For NB Media Co-op coverage of the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station, search “Point Lepreau” on our main page.

Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for the RAVEN project and a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick.

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