The Cheakamus River (Photo by NCC)

The Cheakamus River (Photo by NCC)

Checking up on Cheakamus

Students from John Norquay Public School, Nature Days Vancouver (Photo by HSBC Bank Canada)

Students from John Norquay Public School, Nature Days Vancouver (Photo by HSBC Bank Canada)

It’s a cold, wet February day when Steve Godfrey and Esme Batten arrive at the Cheakamus Centre in Brackendale, BC, to conduct the annual conservation check up. The lush green rainforest is at its wettest point in the year, soaking up a season’s worth of precipitation that now drips from the moss that covers, well, everything within view.

“This is the mossiest forest I’ve ever seen,” Steve says as he takes in the 800-year-old cedars and giant, leafless maples.

The Cheakamus River rushes purposefully by, the scene quieter now than it would have been a month or so earlier when thousands of bald eagles would have congregated, as they do each year, to feast on the spawning salmon.   

Learning from the land

The Cheakamus Centre is located on a 165-hectare (420-acre) ecological reserve in the Squamish Watershed, about an hour north of Vancouver. Its immersive environmental educational programs use the full offering of outdoor space to facilitate experiential learning in, from and about nature. Students move between an outdoor world of extensive teaching trails, forest shelters, spawning channels and shallow pools, and indoor spaces including special resource classrooms, amphitheaters, breakout spaces and an authentic Coast Salish big house.

A couple of Cheakamus Centre staff members emerge from the state of the art, LEED-certified Environmental Learning Centre to join Steve and Esme. Together the group sets off on the interpretive trails that wind through the mature forest of cedar and maple, criss-crossing the salmon-rich streams that braid through the property.

Interpretive signs along the trail share details about the diverse life that lives in this forest from frogs and fish to birds and plants. Here and there is evidence of ongoing projects undertaken by students, such as the traditional salmon weir built in a stream to demonstrate the sustainable fish harvesting system used by the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation.

While they walk, Steve takes note of the health and quality of the overall forest ecosystem, keeping an eye out for changes in use of the land that might cause environmental damage. This is a walk he will do on many Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) conservation lands up and down the West Coast. 

School group at the Cheakamus Centre (Photo by NCC)

School group at the Cheakamus Centre (Photo by NCC)

Creative conservation agreements

As NCC’s West Coast stewardship coordinator, one of Steve’s jobs is to monitor the 47 conservation agreements NCC holds on the West Coast. A conservation agreement known as a covenant in BC is a legally binding agreement registered on the title to a property that restricts certain activities from occurring on the land. NCC and other land trusts use covenants to protect natural spaces from such things as forest clearing, subdivision, building structures or other activities that could negatively impact the ecological integrity of the area.

The forested site on which the Cheakamus Centre is located has been protected by a conservation agreement with NCC since 1996. Because the missions of the two organizations are so closely in alignment there is little risk of a covenant violation, so these annual monitoring trips become a welcome chance to connect on the great restoration and educational work that the centre undertakes.

“Our partnership with the Cheakamus Centre is really important to NCC,” says Steve. “They make our stewardship responsibility much easier as they are taking such good care of this land. The staff here ensure that every student and visitor know how to tread lightly and with respect to the plants, animals and natural features of the forest and streams. We also deeply respect and value the quality of their educational programming, and see it as an essential part of inspiring the next generation of conservationists and nature lovers. They are truly great partners in conservation.” 

A long-term commitment

As a land conservation organization that invests in long-term solutions, NCC’s work doesn’t end once a property is protected. Site visits like this are just one of the many ways that NCC staff steward the land under their care.

Esme, who is visiting from Ontario, where she is NCC’s program director on the Bruce Peninsula, shares how her work as a biologist for NCC and other organizations has honed a fascination with how to balance connecting people to natural spaces while also ensuring the protection of important species and habitats. “It is interesting to learn from Steve and the team at the Cheakamus Centre about how they balance this,” she says. “I think it’s an important question for all land managers to ask.”

“Having partners like the Cheakamus Centre makes this stewardship responsibility much easier,” says Steve. “They ensure that everyone who comes here understands how to tread lightly on the land, and to respect the plants, animals and nature of this place. They are truly great partners in conservation.”

About the Cheakamus Centre

The Cheakamus Centre, originally known as the North Vancouver Outdoor School, was established in 1965 to provide experiential environmental programming. Today the centre continues to deliver on their mission to “create a hub of authentic, meaningful experiences that connect people to the natural world, and inspire sustainable values and behaviours.” Learn more at

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