The wind is whipping the branches of the white pine, there’s a loon calling from somewhere in the half-darkness, and a constant threat of a downpour in Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve.  Our group has just heard from staff of Ontario Parks and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry about the challenges faced in managing this Conservation Reserve.  We break into small groups to consider what we’ve heard – who’s involved, what’s happening, why, and what matters most.  We’re starting to form some recommendations based on our collective cross-Canada experience in parks and protected areas management.  All before 7:00 a.m.

This is service-learning.  We are 21 participants in the CPCIL Park Leaders Development Program. We come from 10 agencies and represent nearly all the regions of Canada.  The goal is for our group to make a meaningful contribution towards solving a real problem while having a learning experience.  Field trips are usually fun, but this is better.  This means something.  The Conservation Reserve managers are genuinely interested in our ideas on what ways there are to approach their challenges, or what next steps they can consider trying.  We are equally grateful for the opportunity to apply the techniques we’ve been learning in the classroom to something that hasn’t already been figured out, that doesn’t have an answer yet.

It’s fitting to arrive in Canada’s first Dark Sky Preserve before dawn.  The early morning start and accompanying sunrise ceremony led by an elder from Shawanaga First Nation help us focus.  We haven’t had to make any decisions yet today.  There haven’t been any conference calls, or emails marked as urgent to drain our brain power.  We need only to listen.

Everything we’ve heard from our hosts this morning and that we’ve learned from each other so far this week points to relationships as being the key.  We come back together and share our take on the situation. Every group recommends spending time investing in relationships and suggests opportunities for collaboration with community partners.  Nobody says it will be a fast process, or without conflict.  No doubt the Conservation Reserve managers already know this to be the right thing to do.  Sometimes, just the reminder that across the country we face similar challenges and work towards similar goals is enough to keep us moving forward.

It’s been refreshing to spend some time on a problem that isn’t ours.  That separation made constraints disappear and ideas flow. Equally refreshing was spending some time in a beautiful place. Thank you to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and to Ontario Parks for inviting us. 

Check out the Innovator’s Compass, the tool we used during this service-learning experience to analyze the situation and make recommendations, at https://innovatorscompass.org/.

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