Living Green: Protecting greenspace protects species

In June, the Globe and Mail reported on Canada’s disappearing habitats and B.C.’s grim climate cycle.

In June, the Globe and Mail reported on Canada’s disappearing habitats and B.C.’s grim climate cycle.

These articles resonated with me deeply, not only as an ecologist, but as a civic volunteer who struggles to get senior environmental staff, contractors and developers to come to grips with our new reality and to start doing everything, fundamentally, differently.

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Last column, I wrote about our province’s continued use of glyphosate to kill broadleaf tree species. I can’t help wondering why we’re not enacting a widespread moratorium on so many of our ongoing practices and policies that are proving to be harmful to life.

According to the Globe’s science reporter, Ivan Semeniuk, the more than 700 species of plants and animals listed or recommended for listing under the federal Species at Risk Act map almost exactly onto the most densely settled or farmed areas of the country. B.C. tops the list at 295, with more than 100 found within Vancouver alone.

This should give us pause. Vanishing habitat is the reason most species end up listed. In southern Canada — i.e., where the vast majority of our population is located — much of the original habitat is now private land where the federal species law does not apply (except where it pertains to aquatic species and migratory birds).

The David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) reported back in 2010 and 2012 that our incredible coastal environment of mudflats, wetlands and forest not only supports a vast array of fish and wildlife but these complex ecosystems are critical to all life, filtering and purifying our air, water and soil, recycling essential nutrients, acting as a carbon sink, and moderating the micro-climate, to name a few of their innate wonders.

These “ecosystem services” were estimated to provide $30 billion to $60 billion in benefits every year.

This doesn’t even account for the spiritual, mental and emotional benefits that nature provides.

It’s not surprising, then, that we all love living here.

But this confluence of realities — a changing climate, shrinking habitats and a growing list of threatened and endangered species — should be more than enough to change our daily habits. According to Lenore Fahrig, a landscape ecologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, we need to find ways to better integrate human spaces with the wilderness that is on our doorstep.

Dr. Tom Kosatsky, the BC Centre for Disease Control environmental health lead, said cities can change their infrastructure by adding more greenspace because trees counteract the heat-retaining properties of concrete.

On my civic committee, I’ve been advocating for my city to question the carte blanche approval of redeveloping sites in the name of density. Developers are unquestioningly allowed to cover over 95% of a site rezoned as multi-family, resulting in an alarming cumulative loss of old conifers (cedars, Douglas fir) and pervious natural ground.

The literature has long documented that paving our watersheds with more than 10% in impervious materials changes stream hydrology and reduces water quality. Not only are the fish in trouble but health authorities warn that drought or flood can bring waterborne disease, cause psychological harm and affect drinking water, particularly in small water-treatment systems.

We can adapt to shrinking snowpacks and longer drier summers by planting heat-loving crops and more drought-resistant trees and shrubs, but we need to scale up our priorities.

As Faisal Moola, an environmental policy expert at the University of Guelph (Ont.) says, cities should be leveraging their local geography to create networks of greenspace at the scale of individual lots and neighbourhoods that connect to larger corridors and spaces for nature on a regional scale.

All levels of government need to be thinking about a three-step process that begins with saving whatever habitat is left, restoring habitat that exists but has been degraded by invasive species and human impact, and then looking to increase habitat wherever possible.

Melissa Chaun of Port Moody is an ecologist with a passion for all things sustainable. She is events co-ordinator with the Rivershed Society of BC and volunteers on various city committees. Her column runs monthly.

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WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

Remember the Blue Dot Movement? Most have forgotten.

Our right to clean air, water and soil begins with watershed CPR — conservation, preservation and restoration.

With this in mind, here’s what you and I can do:

• Choose low-carbon alternatives. Eat plant-based foods as much as possible. Support local farmers who use organic or no-spray practices. To enjoy fruits and vegetables out of season, embrace canning and pickling — or those who do. Buying frozen produce may be second in nutrition to its fresh form but requires a lot of energy to keep frozen.

• Make your garden a bird and pollinator sanctuary. Incorporate more native plant species, less lawn and a shallow bird bath. Avoid invasive species such as butterfly bush and English holly, which can invade natural areas.

• Volunteer on a civic committee in your community (for instance, environmental protection, healthy communities, climate action, etc.) and be a voice for your neighbourhood greenspace. Many of us have a favourite park, trail, tree or look-out that needs protecting, even nurturing, to become more climate-resilient.

• Join invasive plant pull events and encourage your city council to ensure staff and developers go beyond the status quo to protect and enhance living green infrastructure. Redeveloping a site should protect existing mature evergreen trees, incorporate passive energy design and rainwater capture, and landscape with native species. Remember, we all live in a watershed.

• Encourage our provincial government, by contacting your MLA, to pursue tax incentives to keep natural habitat intact. The cost of buying prime farmland continues to be greater than the cost of clearing a stand of trees. As Peter Arcese, a UBC conservation scientist says, in some instances, the tax system works perversely against conservation. In the Lower Mainland, a property owner can receive a tax reduction for keeping land agricultural (e.g., grazing cattle) but not for allowing native forest to regrow on the property. B.C. needs to change its tax laws to extend the notion of productivity to storing carbon and other ecosystem services a natural landscape provides.

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