Kathleen Aikens got a sense of the impact she and her organization were having while out with a group of school kids as they learned about watersheds in their Cape Breton community.

During the two-hour field trip, she saw their faces light up as they witnessed the naturally occurring mussels that filter their water, discussed the important relationship between the forest and clean drinking water, and, for a day, became watershed scientists themselves.

"One of the groups we were out with asked to spend the entire day there — they just love it!" says Aikens, executive director of the non-profit environmental organization, ACAP Cape Breton.

"It's pretty cool because it creates this memory of visiting the exact spot of where the water that comes out of their taps originally comes from. Connecting with kids and community members over a shared love for the environment and sharing the love of discovering new species — for me, that is the biggest hopeful part," she says.

This type of grassroots, hands-on educational work is just one of the many roles ACAP plays in addressing the widespread impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and industrial pollution — the latter being one of the key factors in the group's beginnings.

Environment Canada initiated the Atlantic Coastal Action Program in 1991 to help Atlantic Canadians restore and sustain local watersheds and adjacent coastal areas, while bringing different groups to the table to solve a range of environmental issues. In Cape Breton, it was the Sydney tar ponds that led to the creation of the group in 1992.

"We owe our beginnings to the Sydney tar ponds, which was one of the worst toxic sites in North America," says Aikens, adding that 17 ACAPs were created in various parts of Atlantic Canada, with many of them located near major environmental challenges.

The group, which has grown over the years and now has more than a dozen full-time staff and several summer interns, has four areas of focus: habitat restoration, monitoring and research, environmental education and waste diversion. It relies on grants and works in partnership with foundations, different organizations and municipalities, such as Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Central to their work is the idea that they involve and take their leads from the wider community, Mi'kmaq elders and the land itself, always striving toward a two-eyed seeing approach that incorporates both western and Indigenous thinking.

Initially founded to help sustain and restore local watersheds, ACAP Cape Breton expects to have planted more than 92,000 trees on more than 32 hectares of land by the end of the year. #NovaScotia #EnvironmentalRestoration

In one project, they are restoring the riparian zone — buffer ecosystems between rivers and the rest of the landscape — in watersheds on the east side of the island. The zones are important because they protect streams by "filtering out contaminants and sediment and by shading the water to keep the habitat cool," the group's website explains. If riparian zones are compromised, water quality can decline and the risk of flooding can increase.

They plant on land damaged by forestry operations and work with communities to revegetate riverside parks, particularly around the Wash Brook area — which has seen extensive flooding over the years.

Jen Cooper, ACAP Cape Breton's habitat restoration lead, with red maple seedlings. Photo courtesy of ACAP Cape Breton.

Jen Cooper, ACAP Cape Breton's habitat restoration lead, says they take an ecological approach to restoration work, whether it’s in streams or forests. In their forest restoration, she says they use a compost tea to add microbial diversity to the site and revitalize the degraded ecosystem.

"We're not only trying to get trees in the ground, but we're also trying to build ecosystems, and we do that in a number of ways," she says. "One is by planting diversity. We try to honour the natural succession, so we start with trees like spruces and service berry, choke cherry and mountain ash, then add in other hardwoods. We're trying to help natural forest succession along and build habitat."

ACAP Cape Breton has planted more than 12 hectares of land and expects to bring its total up to 92,263 trees planted on more than 32 hectares of land by the end of the year.

Anthony Mazzocca, watershed coordinator for CBRM's water utility, works closely with the group and says it has become a valued part of the community.

"For me, the most important part of the relationship is that it builds our capacity to do community outreach and research," he says, citing its watershed walks, community cleanup events, and the expertise it provides on native species and best environmental practices.

"It serves as a training ground for students for environmental education and, more so now than ever, it’s actually a home for those people to work. It's a career."

The Climate Story Network is an initiative of Climate Focus, a non-profit organization dedicated to covering stories about community-driven climate solutions.