Sunday, January 30, 2011

A forest farewell

I went to say goodbye to a forest today. These are odd words to write, but they are appropriate ones. Barring an eleventh-hour decision of some sort, tomorrow a large and relatively old mixed forest in Ottawa’s west end will be cut and give way to subdivision homes. The forest is alternately called the South March Road forest or the Beaver Pond Forest, and is found in the suburb of Kanata. A good chunk of it has long been owned by private developers. Not every tree will be cut, but once the homes are completed, what remains of the forest will be small remnants of what it is today.

Those who plan to develop it have followed all the rules. They obtained all the necessary permits, and conducted the necessary environmental assessments. Species identified under Canada’s Species at Risk Act have been observed in the area; the regulatory requirements have been met to address these concerns. During last year’s municipal elections it was debated whether the city might carry out a land-swap, and give the developers a different site in exchange for sparing this forest. Statements of good intention were made by various candidates, and promises to take such ideas into consideration were made.

Notwithstanding good intentions and regulatory procedures, tomorrow the felling may legally begin. The forest has been surveyed, the flourescent stakes are in the ground, the plastic net-fencing winds through the woods. Having never been there before, I decided I had best grab my snowshoes and have a good look around before it’s too late.

It is a pretty forest. It is not truly old-growth, at least, not in the parts I walked through over the course of an hour and a half. From what I saw, I suspect it must have been cut once, back in the mid-nineteenth century, with many stands having not been cut again. In some places there are century-old white pines with rusted barbed wire embedded in their bark. There is a rich mix of tree species of varying ages and sizes, a sign of a healthy forest. There are many deer trails. Despite being very close to the city, it is exceedingly quiet in there. I can see why many residents are upset it is being cleared.

The forest was brought to my attention by a former student, who has been helping a local group that’s trying to block the development. Today, this group and a number of other concerned residents were joined by leaders of several Algonquin First Nations in a day of prayer for the forest, with ceremonies held at the trailhead off fittingly named Walden Road. It was a nice ceremony, with about 80 people attending when I arrived to start my hike, and another 60-80 people when I returned. I was very pleased to see one of my ENV1101 students there, helping to organize. The Algonquins are concerned that the required archaeologist’s report, that was commissioned for the site as part of the planning process and paid for by the developer, is flawed. They argue that the city should halt the development until a new study can be done. Even were this to be done – and I doubt it will – I suspect it would do no more than delay the bulldozers.

I think cutting trees is a good thing. We need to cut more trees, not less. We need more products made of wood, less of plastic and metal. But the cutting I'm talking about maintains forests, it does not remove them. A well-managed eastern Ontario forest can provide a tremendous amount of material for human use, can provide good jobs, and can regenerate itself quickly, all the while providing habitat for wild things and absorbing carbon from the air. I have visited many such forests, and each is beautiful. It would have been nice if this forest in Kanata could have been put to such a use.

Perhaps if residents of Ottawa (myself included) had taken an interest years ago, things might have turned out differently. We take for granted the wilderness at our doorstep. This is Canada, we assume we have regulations and laws that protect forests and wild places. Surely developers can’t purchase the last big old forest in Ottawa and convert it to snouthouses – our laws don’t permit that sort of thing anymore, right? We can turn our attention to clearcutting in Amazonia and southeast Asia, where indiscriminate and often illegal logging runs amok, safe in the knowledge that our favourite place to walk the dog is safe. Like many, I never gave the South March forest much thought until it was too late.

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