Imagine not having the remaining islands of wild space in the Central Okanagan—no ponds or marshes where birds and frogs set up a chorus of song and no forests of cottonwoods or pines sheltering plants and wildlife from the barren concrete jungle of the city.
At least part of the reason the Central Okanagan still has oases of quiet where the trickle of water can be heard above the traffic noise in the background, is 50 years of effort by members of the Central Okanagan Naturalists’ Club.
Easily, that trickle of water could have been muffled in a series of pipes buried beneath the asphalt, while the swamps and wetlands could be the foundation for all of downtown Kelowna instead of just part of it.
Members like Brenda Thomson, whose family are pioneer farmers in Kelowna. They cared enough about the natural environment around them that they donated a wetland around Thomson Brook to be protected by the city and the Central Okanagan Land Trust in its natural state.
“As a farmer, I realize it’s important to conserve habitat on the farm and to protect green spaces,” she says.
Thomson says she actually waited until her kids were in school and needed less of her time before joining the club in 1979.
There, she says, she learned more about the birds of the Okanagan, the names of native plants and wildflowers and shared the passion of people with similar interests.
“I learned from club members. They weren’t necessarily professionals in their area, but they’d learned a lot and loved passing it on,” she comments.
“I’d lived here since 1945 and yet I found lots of new and interesting treasures.
“Today, I can recognize the mountains all around the valley and I know what’s up there. I think I’ve climbed every mountain in the valley,” she says.
The club members were always strong conservationists, she recalls.
“We identified desirable features that needed protection and we were involved in what became the Land and Resource Management Plan for the Okanagan-Shuswap. The city and regional district realized the need for protection of some wildland from development.”
So, the club conducted an inventory so local governments had better knowledge of important natural features that should be preserved.
Some of today’s parkland that resulted include:
• the Sibell Maude Roxby Bird Sanctuary at the foot of Francis Avenue
• Rotary Marsh on Sunset Avenue
• the Mission Creek Greenway
• Woodhaven Nature Conservancy on Raymer Road and
• the Crawford Trails, now protected as part of Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park, which came out of the LRMP.
A founding member of the CONC, Gwynneth Wilson’s involvement with the club in its early years literally changed her life. She met her husband, Bob Wilson, at a meeting where he was speaking.
She was a teacher in Kelowna at the time and had always been interested in natural history so she joined to get to know the valley’s natural areas better.
She remembers how passionately her late husband spoke about the destruction of the orchards so that the Capri Mall could be constructed on that land.
“Some things never change,” she commented wryly. “Those issues continue today.”
Campaigns for the preservation of Robert Lake in Glenmore and Rose Valley Pond in West Kelowna were also ones that were championed by the CONC, she recalls.
Hugh Westheuser joined first in 1979, but was then away for five years before he and his wife Pat returned to the Okanagan, and to membership in the CONC.
Both have served as president and in a variety of other positions on the executive of the club over the years. Pat shares secretarial duties with Thomson today.
They believe in a balance between development and protection of the natural environment.
“It’s a very diverse group; a great bunch of people with a broad view of the world. Perhaps it’s typical of people who love nature that they tend to be people who are involved in their communities,” says Westheuser.
He is heartened to find there are people now who believe they should have paid more attention to naturalists long ago.
“People are realizing we need to pay attention to what we’re going to be losing if we don’t change our ways,” he says.
An ardent paddler who loves to explore the wildest corners of the world, Westheuser says, “I think of my grandkids and I want them to be able to enjoy what I have in nature.”
Muriel Westwood joined when she arrived here from Manitoba in 1980. Membership in the club has wrought great changes in her life.
While at first she enjoyed the hiking and then the botany, she eventually became very passionate about plants and now has a library of detailed books on plants which she has studied to learn about the most technical aspects of plant life.
“A rose is not just a rose,” she says emphatically.
“When I got really involved, I studied each plant closely and I found it so interesting. I wished I had been at it earlier in my life.”
Westwood celebrates her 94th birthday this coming week and she still enjoys her garden, but rues the fact she can’t get around as well or remember as much about plant names as she used to.
However, she’s certain that her passionate interest in learning more about wildflowers and other things has been what’s kept her alert and lively to this age.
Fiona Flook, president of the CONC, points out that the club is dedicated to knowing nature and keeping it worth knowing.
“Once you know nature you love it and then you will stand up for it,” she summarizes.
She’s more enthusiastic about total ecosystems than lists of birds spotted or technical details of plants.
How everything relates to each other and how people relate to their environment are more interesting to her.
Even small neighbourhood natural areas are important in her view, because all together they create corridors for wildlife.
That concept was also expressed by Thomson who called them “B&Bs throughout the valley for birds and other wildlife.”
She is concerned that without safe stopping places along their migration routes, birds and animals can’t survive on the roads and around the buildings we’ve constructed over their habitat.
“Loss of habitat is the biggest issue here now,” she believes.
Today, Flook says the club is trying to encourage new members to join and help revitalize the club so the next 50 years are as productive in this community as the past 50 years have been