An original article by Dr. John Bacher called: Ontario Faces Invasion of Fierce Swampbusters pdf
Former Americans who mentored me, Lois Janes, the key founder of the Rouge Park, and Robert Hoover a critical expert witness for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society, were long time members of the Soil Conservation Society of America. Consequently, I learnt from them an ominous sounding phrase connected to the United States Farm Bill. It is called “Swampbuster.”
The origins of the term “Swampbuster” are rooted in the horror genre of “Ghostbuster”, which is a standard part of television fare. Both Ghosts and Swamps are seen as negative forces, sinisterly rising from the mists and causing trouble. Now as Ghostbusters hunt down the spectres from sewers, today a new breed of Swampbusters are on the loose. They hope to unleash an economic boom by hunting down swamps to be traded to stop “losing jobs and investment” through a new public policy being floated in a provincial review.
While Ghostbuster come to us through the power of American television, the Swampbuster has been unleashed by copying US public policy. It is now being unleashed in Canada through a provincial consultation on wetlands that suggests the importation of America style, “Bio-Diversity Offsetting.”
The plague of Swampbusters are on the loose in Niagara and hope to fire a contagion across the province. They hope to have Niagara become a test plot for the province, much as the north served as an experiment for the Spring Bear hunt until announced throughout Ontario last month as a ghoulish Halloween present.
One of those spearheading swampbusting epidemic is Carmen D’Angelo, Chief Administrator if the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. (NPCA). He told the Welland Tribune in a November 14th article that offsetting should be tested “out in Niagara” since it is considered, “unique.” One of his NPCA minions, Lee-Ann Hamilton indicates that this is not because of peculiar environment conditions but since it is needed to “insure that economic engine can keep going.”
Among the enthusiastic swampbusters is the Niagara legislator, Tim Hudak. He rejoices in the use of what he terms “the most modern science” to ensure that ill-considered wetland policies no longer are bringing development “to a halt.”
The area where developers in the past have advocated compensation schemes to facilitate wetland destruction are the most challenging to replicate: forested swamps. Ontario’s wetland classification system recognizes four types of wetland, three of which are barren of trees. Since it takes twenty year for trees to both grow to maturity and through their canopy cover dominate an ecosystem it takes much longer for the most limited success story of restoration to be proclaimed.
One wetland form is shaped by acidic soils. These are Bogs dominated by sphagnum moss. Another are less sour alkaline wetlands fed by groundwater. They are richer in biodiversity having grasses, rushes and wildflowers. What people generally associate with wetlands are marshes. Such ecosystems (which are the least challenging to replicate) are characterized by long tubular stemmed plants, such as reeds, rushes and cattails.
A variety of peculiar conditions makes Niagara’s swamp forests some of the most challenging ecosystems to replicate in terms of their full range of functions and wildlife habitat. Their importance for the protection of bio-diversity does not come from just forest cover. Their unusual species richness and importance for bio-diversity comes from having venal pools. These are unlike other ponds in that they inevitably become dry at least once a decade. These pools being disconnected from predatory fish, provide important breeding habitat for an unusual family of invertebrate species. These are fairy shrimp, wood frogs, and various salamanders notably the threatened Blue-Spotted.
The habitats of vernal pools in swamp forests are quite majestic and awesome. They are similar to the great wilds of Louisiana, which may still provide habitat for the God Bird, the Ivory Bill Woodpecker. The flower strewn pools are usually ringed by towering Pin Oak, Swamp Oak and rare Black Gum trees. Their species richness is what caused the province to designate eight years ago, the Ramsey Road Forest as a protected Provincially Significant Wetland. This decision negated a wetland compensation scheme since the threatened forest was rescued.
Wetland compensation schemes by American swamp busters now go back thirty years to the Presidency of George Bush Senior, who encouraged this approach by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Thirty years of experience in attempting to replicate these systems has led to a lot of caution about attempting to doing so in swamp forests, even those which unlike Niagara, are not rich in vernal pools and their obligate species.
One of the warnings is that although it may be possible to recreate the plants growing in recreated swamps, the obligate venal pool species such as threatened frogs and salamanders do not necessarily come back. This has called one restorationist to suggest that “wetland managers, developers and regulators must recognize the inherit limitations of the knowledge base for the creation and restoration of forested wetlands.” Such challenges call for a very “redefinition of success.”
A cautionary tale about the destroy and recreate approach to swamp forests was published by the US Geological Survey. It is a “Guide to Bottomland Hardwood Restoration.” It describes how even restoration efforts that are not connected to such mitigative measures are often prone to disasters. One is untrained workers planting plants upside down. Another folly is having plants planted in the wrong spot. Another is being exposed to die before they are put in the ground.
The restoration manual warns that, “If maintaining oak in the stand is necessary to meet objectives, extra attention to regeneration is needed and extraordinary steps may be necessary.” Such “extraordinary steps” can cause their own environmental damages. This includes clear cutting out other vegetation to ensure adequate light and the massive application of chemical herbicides. Such dangerous spraying it finds is typical of the “hidden environmental costs associated with the restoration process that can call the overall value of the project into question.” The whole process has emerged as an error prone “continuing experiment”, a reality far different than Hudak’s “good science.”
Hudak, D ’Angelo and their swampbuster minions should stop blaming Niagara’s economic woes on wetlands. Rather than encourage development on these beauty spots they can look at the empty brownfields of our region. These are an eyesore and a discouragement for economic innovators and investors that can be a true growth engine to live here.
John Bacher PhD is an environmental writer, researcher and consultant, JohnBacherPhD.ca. Photograph by Dr. Bacher.