Green Leaders, a programme from Green Pathways is about giving young people the opportunity – today – to take a leadership role in caring for and protecting our National Parks, nature and the environment.
There are a number of Green Leaders projects that illustrate how the National Parks are committed to amplifying the youth voice in our organisations: encouraging our new Green Leaders to have a say in the future. A key reference point for this work is the EUROparc Youth Manifesto – a source of ideas and innovation for decision-makers in Protected Areas to involve and empower young people.
The UK’s National Parks are putting policy into action. Here are some stories from Young Leaders about how that happens.
Aidan Cronin, 16, is a student and as well as being a Junior Ranger with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Aidan also sits on the park’s Youth Committee.
Being a youth voice in the National Parks can take you a long way. In Aidan’s case, to meeting the US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, when they both attended COP26.
‘It was a surreal experience, especially when you consider she is eighth in line to the presidency!’ he says. However, that didn’t stop him from getting across to the woman in charge of the USA’s National Parks, the importance of listening to young voices in the National Parks movement globally. ‘I was able to explain how important it is to get young people involved at the beginning or as early as possible,’ says Aidan. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s Youth Committee was set up in 2018 during Scotland’s Year of Young People. The committee used the EUROparc manifesto as a ‘skeleton’ for advancing issues concerning young people, says Aidan.
‘As a challenge to ourselves we presented a paper to the board through the #IWill social action campaign, to legitimise that we are here and explain the framework we wanted to work from,’ says Aidan. ‘We told the park we’d looked at their website and it wasn’t very young-people friendly. Young people look at websites very differently from, say, an adult with two kids – we want information quickly and in a way we find easy to receive.’
On the non-tech side, integrating the National Park more strongly into schools was another Youth Committee idea, designed to capture early interest from the next generation. The Youth Committee has fed ideas into litter campaigns, managing the influx of tourists during and after lockdown, anti-social behaviour and they also attend board meetings. ‘There can be lots of tokenism with young people when they are involved in something and it’s one of the things we spoke about when we first set out,’ says Aidan. ‘However, this is a co-designed project rather than a consultation and I think that is the pivotal message of the Youth Committee.’
Lawrence Leather, 21, is a third year Environmental Science undergraduate at the University of Brighton. In March 2021 he was co-opted to the Policy and Resources committee of the South Downs National Park.
‘I’d been active about my university’s environmental policies, inquiring what they were doing to increase bio-diversity on the campus,’ says Lawrence. ‘One day they got in touch to say the South Downs National Park wanted to diversify the voices on their P&R committee and they thought I’d be a good fit.’ He jumped in straight away because: ‘I’d always wanted to be involved with the National Park but hadn’t found the time until the opportunity was given to me.’
He believes that joining the committee has given him a much clearer understanding of what goes into running a National Park and how the changes young people would like to see – especially on climate issues – can be implemented. Estate planning, where managers of the rural estates which make up much of the National Park land submit comprehensive proposals, is the area he’s felt most involved with. ‘We accompany board members to visit estates, which is a great chance to engage with the landowners and speak to the board about things which could happen in the park and how it all ties together,’ he says. This has given him the opportunity to reiterate concern over climate change and ecological breakdown, and the action young people would like to see taken to enhance and protect the natural environment.
‘Prior to this, I’d attend lectures where they spoke about policy and I only had a vague understanding of what it meant, but this role has really made it tangible,’ he says. He is paid for his time which, he says, is valuable in reinforcing the park’s commitment to the younger co-optees. ‘I would do this work voluntarily but the allowance adds a level of weight to what I do and encourages me to me to want to speak up as much as I can, so the National Park can get its money’s worth!’. He sees himself as an ambassador for the South Downs National Park and tries to engage other young people in making their voice heard. ‘There are so many ways to get involved with National Parks and I like being able to share that with other young people.’
Ainya Taylor, 25, works with young people in the justice system. She lives in the Cairngorms and became a member of the Cairngorm National Park’s Youth Action Team in 2018.
‘I moved back to the Highlands after being away at university and that was part of the reason I got involved; so many people have to move on from National Park areas to find work and opportunities, particularly the Cairngorms,’ says Ainya. ‘The majority of National Parks are very rural and many young people are not always able to access the education and work opportunities they need.’ After spotting a call-out for people to sit on a Cairngorm youth strategy committee, Ainya applied and joined the newly formed Youth Action Group, which launched in October 2019.
‘Our main priorities are retaining young people in rural areas and the employability skills needed to do this,’ says Ainya. ‘We’ve been working with young people but we’re also looking at working with other organisations in terms of employability skills for the future. ‘Looking at what skills we actually need in our National Park and how we make sure that young people know what those skills are, is something that crops up a lot. Young people may not even know what kind of jobs are available in their area, so that’s going to be a big focus and it’s what we are working on at the moment.’
The group has completed a number of workshops in Scotland, as well as meeting youth representatives from Finland and Latvia. ‘We looked at what they were doing, and it was really interesting that similar issues were cropping up in both countries,’ she says. Ainya has found the Cairngorm National Park Authority to be ‘really supportive’ of its YAG.
‘It’s definitely not a tick-box situation,’ she says. ‘There is recognition that we have to be involved in discussions. They invite us to loads of things and get our views, especially when making funding bids, so they can fit the bid with our priorities. We’ve even been given some money to run our own small fund so we can get some projects going.’
She believes that being a member of the YAG has helped in her career. ‘I work with young people and a lot of what I do is about engagement – doing this role has helped me realise you can’t just talk to the people who are listening,’ she says. ‘It’s really interesting to see how some people’s career paths have changed entirely after being involved. Some of the opportunities for development in terms of our confidence and understanding has been amazing.’ And there’s another, very simple reason why the YAG has been a success, she says. ‘I think a big part of why people stick around the YAG is because, along with improving confidence, we really do have a lot of fun!’
Jemma Benger is 19 and became a Youth Ranger with the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park during her gap year. She is also co-chair of the park’s Youth Committee.
‘I think the younger voice is what’s been missing from the National Parks,’ says Jemma. ‘Before starting this work, I didn’t feel there was an outlet for me to put forward my views, so being able to join the committee was very welcome.’
The Youth Committee was set up in the spring of 2020, in response to an impressive presentation about the EUROparc Youth Manifesto from Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s Youth Rangers.
They were asked to help implement the manifesto’s measures and together with her co-chair, Jemma works on the Youth Committee agenda to ensure these are prioritised. ‘We discuss what needs improving in our National Park, then work to put change into action; helping to improve anything from the mental health and wellbeing of young people to the green spaces in our community,’ she says.
Her interest has already taken her to the annual CCAT (Costal Communities Adapting Together) Conference where she sat with a panel of scientific professionals, sharing her views on the climate crisis and its effect on Children’s Rights across the world.
She believes the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park listens to its younger voices. ‘I know that climate anxiety is a big thing for young people and a big part of that is feeling that you can’t do anything and that your views don’t matter,’ she says. ‘Without the Youth Committee I felt helpless against the climate crisis, and now, knowing that I’m making a real difference in my local community, I feel a little more in control.’