Youth Involvement in Participatory Watershed Planning. Understanding the relationships between well-being, participatory governance, and watersheds.
The Nechako watershed is a vast landscape in north-central British Columbia that is sparsely populated, and characterized by extractive industries such forestry and mining. Due to the construction of the Kenney Dam in the upper Nechako River in the 1950s, the watershed faces unique socio-ecological challenges in balancing natural resource development, ecosystem management, and human well-being. With less than 60% of the natural flow remaining in the Nechako River, the ecosystem struggles to support the sturgeon, chinook, and sockeye salmon that were once plentiful. A major trans-national corporation owns 100% rights to the water of the Nechako river, and the people of the region struggle to regain power and influence to govern the lands that support their livelihoods. In the fall of 2015, community members in the Nechako watershed expressed a desire to better include youth in watershed planning, which resulted in this action research project. The research design was guided by the “ecohealth” approach, and employed a series of semistructured interviews to inform a strategy for meaningful youth engagement in the watershed. Individual interviews were conducted with youth as well as adults considered allies. A group interview was also conducted with youth at a local school. An inductive analysis of the interview transcripts was conducted for each group for emergent themes using initial and focused coding methods. The three groups shared similar major themes including but not limited to: 1) placebased values; 2) benefits of youth participation; 3) barriers to youth participation; 4) opportunities for youth participation; 5) youths’ awareness and concerns; 6) youths’ passions and motivations; 7) opportunities for engagement with the Nechako Watershed Portal; and 8) strategies for success. The result is a snapshot in time of the perspectives of both youth and their allies on the involvement of young people in watershed planning in the Nechako, as well as a set of recommendations to move forward with meaningful youth engagement in the watershed. Interview data revealed that youth in the Nechako are knowledgeable, concerned, and aware of regional socio-ecological issues, and eager to be part of the solution. The data also revealed that though people of all ages believe that youth participation is important, the variety and complexity of barriers facing young people may not be well understood. This lack of understanding may contribute to less beneficial opportunities for youth to engage in watershed planning, and should be a significant point of consideration for any initiatives seeking to include youth meaningfully in governance processes to enhance well-being and improve watershed management.