Family life

Little tree huggers

Many kids are driving change for a greener planet. Read one family's eco-success story.

By Alanna Mitchell
Little tree huggers

You could say that the urge to bring the majestic bur oak tree back from the brink of extinction in New Brunswick was planted early and deep in 15-year-old Clara Simpson. She was only seven when her role in the grandly successful Simpson family bur oak recovery project began. So far, she and an estimated 1,000 other children and teens have planted more than 600 bur oak trees, jump-starting a homegrown eco action plan to restore the tree to its historic range along the Saint John River.

“We’re doing good things for the environment,” says Clara. “The trees create oxygen and prevent erosion. And it’s really fun.” So what drew Clara, and her brothers Jack, 18, and Patrick, 20, all of Fredericton, to take action in an age of non-stop environmental disaster stories?

The urge to make a difference on the planet is a common and deep yearning for kids, according to polls and interviews conducted in recent years. Often, they get involved through schools — spearheading recycling, planting green spaces, devising science projects — and end up making a huge difference in their own communities.

More and more children are determined to show grown-ups how to be green, says Eve Duchesne, who runs the eco-kids program for kindergarten to grade eight at Earth Day Canada. The eco-kids website (see Where kids can get green) got 1.5 million visitors last year. Kids want to show that they — not just adults and governments — can have an impact on the world, Duchesne says.

In addition to this craving to be eco-leaders, Clara and her brothers have a secret weapon, also known as Dad. He’s Ralph Simpson, 57, a biologist by training with the Canadian Forest Service, and an experienced kindler of natural curiosity. He grew up in rural New Brunswick and has always loved volunteering to clean up riverbeds and streams.

By the time he and his wife, Caroline, had three children, he realized: “Oh, look! Here’s six more hands!” But when he first planted the seeds of the bur oak recovery project with his children in 2002, when they were 12, 10 and 7, even he didn’t realize how big the plan would grow.


The kids first learned from one of Ralph’s forestry colleagues about the dire straits of the handsome old tree. Before European settlers arrived, they discovered, the bur oak had grown thickly along a 270 kilometre stretch of New Brunswick’s Saint John River valley. Many of the trees would live for 300 years. By the time the Simpson kids started researching, it was down to isolated patches along just five kilometres.

They learned that the bur oak nuts had been prized by First Nations peoples, who ground them into flour. Squirrels and bears were dependent on the acorns, and birds built nests in the towering trees. Early settlers were also fans, cutting down the trees in vast numbers to build sturdy farm tools, flooring and barrels.

As well, because the bur oak has a long taproot system, it stabilized riverbanks against spring floods. But, as the river valley landscape changed as a result of farming and dam-induced flooding, the bur oaks lost ground.

Fascinated by the possibilities and appalled by the loss, the kids figured: Why not gather the acorns, rear them into young trees, and then plant them? Also motivating them were visions of competing in the Swedish carmaker Volvo’s global environmental competition for young people with a restoration project.

And so it started. “Originally, we wanted to plant 300 bur oaks. Now we’re at 600,” says Jack, chuckling at how limited his vision was when he was young. For him, the thrill has been to put trees where there weren’t any before, and then watch them grow so they can suck carbon dioxide out of the air and provide shade.


To accomplish all that, though, the children had to learn to identify the bur oak in the wild. At first, says Ralph, “they had no idea. They grew up in a city. This is not part of their everyday living.”

They learned, for one thing, that bur oak trees are often massive, their shapely crowns reaching 30 metres in the air. Seeds carry a fuzzy cap — the “bur” — that almost encloses the acorn underneath.

In the fall of 2004, the Simpson children and a couple of their friends gathered as many of the burred acorns as they could find, and then Ralph and a colleague at the forestry service in Fredericton showed them how to germinate the seeds over the winter. That involved refrigerating them for a couple of months, planting the sprouts in pots of growing medium, placing them in a greenhouse at the forestry service, and watering them over time.

Then, come spring, planting. At first, they worked in Fredericton. Then they decided to start spreading out further up the river.

Over the years, more and more children got involved, often showing up for just a single tree planting, plus a talk on the endangered species. The Simpsons and their friends — a core of about five a year, shifting in composition over the years — gave presentations to children at summer camps, to the Scouts, to the 4-H clubs, and to schools. In all, they reckon they’ve talked about the bur oak recovery project to more than 1,000 children in their area at more than 40 presentations, and then helped those children plant trees in their communities.


As of today, they have planted trees along 200 kilometres up and down the Saint John River bed and are getting ever nearer to the historical range of 270 kilometres.

And the Simpson kids and their friends have taken news of the bur oak recovery project to international forums (twice to the Volvo competition), explaining what the replanting is all about and how young people can be involved. Clara went to Malaysia at 11 as a delegate to an international youth conference on the environment, and then helped plan the follow-up conference in Norway when she was 13.

“My friends are all pretty jealous,” Clara says, rhyming off travel highlights that include a “cool” boat outing to see a Norwegian fjord. “It’s rewarding. Not many people get to do that.”

In 2009, Clara, Jack and some of their friends from Fredericton took their bur oak project to an international youth symposium on biodiversity in Ottawa. The team was enlisted to develop a youth accord and plan for its presentation to world leaders at a 2010 biodiversity convention in Nagoya, Japan. Their dad was agog at how the little bur oak project had given the kids enough confidence to make their views heard at such a heavyweight international conference.

“When I saw what happened in Ottawa, I realized the seed had taken root,” Ralph says. Now, that one-page accord has been translated into 25 languages, and Clara was part of the delegation to Japan in October that presented it to world leaders.


Meanwhile the bur oak project continues to sprout new branches. Clara and her friends have decided to launch an adopt-a-tree program for this spring (see Where kids can get green). People will be able to get in touch, make a donation, and the bur oak team will set them up with a tree and give them a brochure explaining how to take care of it. For donors outside the Saint John River area, the team will plant one for them.

It’s another experiment, but Clara is dreaming that it will create even more awareness of the beautiful endangered tree that she’s been fostering for so many years. She spent part of this past fall collecting the fuzzy acorns and setting them up for germination. Come first thaw, she and her friends will be out along the Saint John River, digging the muddy soil and helping the noble bur oak reclaim its place on its banks.

Where kids can get green The email address to get in touch with the Simpsons and their adopt-a-bur-oak project. A great bilingual program for kids across Canada to work on enviro-stuff, including games and homework assists. Score a school grant up to $5,000 from the World Wildlife Fund to green up your elementary or secondary school next year. Want to dig for worms, watch for frogs and also keep track of how well our environment is doing? This site’s for budding citizen scientists; click on Connect with Nature.

Advertisement Kids can connect with young people around the world who care about preserving the complex dance of life. This site is home base for the International Youth Accord on biodiversity.

This article was originally published on Nov 08, 2010

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