A candlelight vigil in Ottawa's Beaver Pond forest on Jan. 1 marked the start of the United Nations International Year of the Forest -- and the last time people may be able to gather in its lush greenery before it's clear-cut.
Cutting down trees to make way for residential subdivisions is nothing new in Canadian cities. Private developers clear land to build homes, sometimes over residents' objections. Most cities have processes by which citizens can voice their concerns, but these often find in favour of landowners despite local, provincial, national and international statements made about protecting the natural environment.
In the case of the Beaver Pond forest, located just 20 minutes west of Parliament Hill, cutting down trees seems at odds with the UN theme of "Celebrating Forests for People." Residents use this forest for walking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing. It's an accessible part of the South March Highlands, a 1,100 hectare wilderness area.
The forest is ecologically significant. The South March Highlands contain Ottawa's only old-growth forest and is home to 10 distinct habitats. At least 679 species live there, including 440 native plant species, 164 types of birds, and 75 mammal, fish, amphibian and reptile species. At least 20 species, including American ginseng, butternut tree, Blanding's turtle and western chorus frog, are on federal or provincial lists of species at risk. But Ontario's 2007 Endangered Species Act won't protect the habitats of endangered until 2013, and developers can apply for permission to remove individuals of endangered species like butternut trees. Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources has classified the South March Highlands as a candidate Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI) for its life sciences value and wetlands, but this hasn't stopped development in parts of the Highlands.
A senior elder in the Algonquin First Nations, William Commanda, called the South March Highlands an "ancient and sacred site for the Indigenous people of the Ottawa River Watershed." Archaeologists have found artefacts estimated to be 10,000 years old -- twice the age of the pyramids in Egypt -- as well as ancient stone circles, including one in the Beaver Pond forest.
The City of Ottawa and the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture have ignored these discoveries, citing their acceptance of a 2004 developer-commissioned study that reported no archaeologically significant finds. The federal government has remained silent, and no one is looking at what is still undiscovered but will be lost once the land is bulldozed and blasted.
No one disputes the South March Highlands' ecological, cultural and recreational value. But the city is building an extension to the nearby Terry Fox Drive highway through the Highlands, and private developers are building subdivisions. One of the developers, KNL Developments -- a partnership of builders Urbandale and Richcraft -- owns much of the Beaver Pond forest, which it purchased in 2002, and it plans to clear the trees in the second week of January.
A group of residents and supporters formed the Coalition to Protect the South March Highlands. Paul Renaud, a coalition spokesperson, says that the South March Highlands situation "is emblematic of the struggle for biodiversity in Canada." He states, "This is a national issue. We're talking about an area for which there is a land claim, from an aboriginal perspective; it's also a statement about biodiversity... that is literally in the backyard of Parliament."
The coalition has tried to get municipal, provincial and federal authorities to take responsibility for that biodiversity and heritage. In July 2010, it prompted a city council motion to halt tree cutting temporarily in the Beaver Pond forest. Last year, it launched a judicial review and then appeal of the Terry Fox Drive extension.
By late 2010, it looked like the City of Ottawa might actually save the Beaver Pond forest. City Council had voted to try to obtain 29 hectares from KNL through a land swap and purchase. But Ottawa's new Council, elected in the fall, voted in December to protect only 2.4 hectares. The City and KNL couldn't agree on the lands' value, and according to the local councillor, Marianne Wilkinson, most of her colleagues were unwilling to incur costs. In an interview, a KNL spokesperson, Mary Jarvis, Urbandale's director of planning, said "we couldn't make it work."
Community representatives contend that the City still needs to address inadequacies in previously taken environmental and archaeological assessments and storm water management plans before it allows tree removal. But so far that hasn't happened.
The situation reveals systemic problems. Development has been piecemeal, so individual development plans and assessments don't take into account the ecological integrity of the whole area. Under its official plan, the City has the responsibility to purchase and protect natural areas, but has no funds in its Environmental Lands Reserve. Still, Renaud says, the city budgets hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure and very little on protecting natural and culturally significant areas. He suggests that "green infrastructure is something the city ought to be formalising."
Renaud also suggests there`s a conflict of interest in the current system of "proponent-driven" environmental assessments in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada where developers fund the assessments. The coalition has also challenged the environmental screening procedures for the Terry Fox Drive, which was planned for 2013 but fast-tracked to 2010 to access federal infrastructure funding.
The coalition is exploring the possibility of having the South March Highlands incorporated into the federal Greenbelt. The National Capital Commission has said that at least one of the three scenarios it will present in early 2011 through its Greenbelt Master Plan review will include the Highlands. A final decision, though, may come too late for the Beaver Pond forest.
In the absence of government action, people are taking matters into their own hands. The coalition has prepared a stewardship plan to maintain the Beaver Pond forest as a natural and ecotourism site, drawing on community expertise and various funding sources. It has also offered to work with the developer to preserve the land and to establish a charitable land trust to which land could be donated.
Similar approaches are being tried elsewhere in Canada. For example, Mary Lake is a tract of Dry Coastal Douglas Fir Ecosystem on Vancouver Island near Victoria. Mary Lake is home to hundreds of species, some rare or endangered. The community has created the Mary Lake Conservancy to raise funds to purchase the land from a private owner. The conservancy holds an option to purchase the property by Feb. 1, 2011.
The Mary Lake Conservancy has established a website where people can donate $10 to symbolically "purchase" a square metre of land. They're using social media to spread the word to potential donors. The conservancy adds that asking for a small amount allows "nearly everyone" to participate.
If communities organise and governments and private owners respond, there's hope that for groups trying to protect Canada's biodiversity and heritage, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. For the Beaver Pond forest, that light may be extinguished unless action is taken quickly.
Denise Deby is an Ottawa-based writer with a focus on social, environmental and international issues. She has worked in international development and is
active in social, environmental and community matters locally and globally.