National parks need you

See it in the Canadian Geographic HERE!

Even though Doran McCarthy’s house is a 15-minute drive from southwestern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, his experiences there have typically been the same as those of most visitors. “My family goes to bike on the trails and walk the boardwalk,” he says. “It’s a regular part of my summer vacation.” Now, however, thanks to a new Parks Canada initiative, the 17-year-old has become part of the park.

McCarthy and 74 other students from Cardinal Carter Secondary School in Leamington, Ont., visited Point Pelee last fall to create beach sculptures, using driftwood, leaves and rocks, and to collect seeds from native beach grasses and plants. Over the winter, the students grew the seeds, and they’ll return in June to help replant and restore land once occupied by cottages and farms.

“I was overwhelmed with the amount of work we had to do in this important and unique habitat,” explains Jenny Kehoe, who is responsible for public outreach and education at the park. “We need and want help from regular Canadians — the people who the park belongs to. A volunteer can call any park and won’t be turned away.”

National parks need you

The work at Point Pelee is part of Parks Canada’s Action on the Ground program, which is designed to foster citizen involvement across the country. In 2011, the agency plans to spend nearly $30,000 on efforts to heighten “public appreciation and understanding” of its sites.

Last year, almost 6,000 volunteers across Canada took on tasks as varied as artifact restoration, endangered species monitoring and historical re-enactments. The turnout has increased by about three percent over the past three years, though it pales in comparison to the U.S. National Park Service, which had 221,000 volunteers last year contributing 6.4 million hours of service.

Still, as McCarthy’s experience at Point Pelee attests, the citizen-involvement initiative is planting a seed. He’s now considering a career in ecology and says, “I feel more of a connection to the park and a sense of pride because I’m helping it get back to what it used to be.”

“I’m going to enjoy going back there,” adds his schoolmate Steven Zuccato, “knowing that I contributed to the natural environment.”

Which is exactly what Kehoe hoped would happen. “If you get people involved and let them get their hands dirty,” she says, “they are going to remember their contributions and come back.”

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