Presentation to St. Albert City Council Concerning Negative Environmental Impacts of proposed “West Boundary Regional Arterial Road”.

By Richard G. Thomas (Ph.D.)

(Thursday, August 29, 2002)

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Mayor, Members of Council, ladies and gentlemen:

My name is Dr. Richard Thomas. I am an environmental consultant (who specialises in research on the Boreal Forest, birds and protected areas) and live in Edmonton. I wrote the “Birds” section of the Big Lake Natural Area Phase 1 Report.

(May 1, 2002). Tonight I am here to speak on behalf of the Big Lake Ecosystem Complex (BLEC) in general, and to the forest stand local birders call the Spruce Lot,” in particular. Both will be irreparably harmed if the proposed road is built. I am going to present a “big picture, long term” (i.e. holistic) view of this issue – a perspective I believe has received insufficient attention during the “Western Boundary Road” debate.

Given the degree of ecological illiteracy pervading several of tonight’s presentations (notably those of SAEDAC and “Sensible Choice”), I shall adopt a “back to basics” approach regarding the vital role naturally-functioning ecosystems play in our lives.

An obvious staring point is the key question: “why should we bother protecting ecosystems and the biological diversity (biodiversity) compromising them?” There are numerous reasons for doing so, but the answer, at its basest level, boils down to “pure self-interest.” World renowned, Stanford University, ecology professor Paul Ehrlich has stated: “If we don’t maintain the ecological system, there won’t be any economic system–there won’t be any businessmen, and there won’t be any economists.” Illustration 1

Our species’ survival is wholly dependent upon a range of gifts or “services” freely supplied by the natural world, that have come to the termed “ecosystem services” or “Nature’s services” (see the book of the same name, edited by G. C. Daily, Island Press, 1997). Such “services” include: oxygen production; carbon storage; water purification; soil creation and pollination, etc. Human-caused destruction and degradation of ecosystems and the loss of the species they support, is biodiversity is thus jeopardising the true basis for our future existence and well-being on Earth.

Our next relevant, “big picture” question is: “what has happened to the natural landscapes/ecosystems in the St. Albert area since the arrival of European settlers?” Intensive deforestation (due primarily to agricultural clearance) and fragmentation of remaining habitats means that the region now corresponds to the most highly altered, landscape-conversion state of Hunter (1996, fig. 8.11; see Illustration 3). Loss of the area’s original forest cover has been so severe that in 1994 Alberta Environmental Protection mapped St. Albert as part of the province’s Parkland Natural Region. However, examination of its relict flora and fauna clearly shows that the Big Lake of Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region.

Comparison of a 1949 air photo of St. Albert/Big Lake with a recent satellite image shows how the area occupied the by the City has expanded enormously, while almost all significant, remnant patches of natural forest have been destroyed or severely fragmented.

The 10.4 ha tract of forest known to local birders as “the Spruce Lot” now represents the largest, surviving stand of OLD-GROWTH, White Spruce-dominated mixedwood on the north side of the BLEC. (Likewise, only one significant, intact stand of old-growth forest remains on the south side.) As a result, the Spruce Lot’s importance for biodiversity conservation in the St. Albert area is vastly greater than its modest size might suggest. The Spruce Lot harbours old-growth dependent bird and other species that can be found nowhere else within the BLEC. Big Lake itself was recently designated a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). Thus its fate is of great relevance to all Canadians and not just the inhabitants of St. Albert.

Our next and obvious question is to enquire: “what ecological impacts would the proposed road have upon the BLEC as a whole, and the eastern basis of Big Lake and the Spruce Lot, in particular?” Even a mere decade ago, answering this question would have been much more difficult when is currently the case. Today, due to increasing concern among scientists regarding the adverse environmental impacts of roads and other linear disturbances (e.g. pipeline, transmission line, and seismic line corridors), the ecological effects of roads constitutes a major and fast-growing research topic. Linear disturbances are a primary agent of habitat fragmentation.

A substantial body of scientific literature is now available (e.g. Illustration 7 and Illustration 8) documenting the numerous, serious, negative direct and indirect ecological impacts of roads upon ecosystems and wild life. Of key importance is the loss of ecological integrity experienced by natural habitats as they are fragmented by roads (and other linear disturbances). On either side of a linear disturbance extends a zone of ecological influence. The width of this zone depends upon many variables (e.g. type of road, traffic and habitat, topography; species being considered; effects/type(s) of pollution being measured, etc.) but a variety of adverse ecological effects have been detected extending for distance of <100m up to 3,000m on either side of roads.

In the case of the Big Lake Study Area (AMEC et al., 2002) GIS analysis indicates a current linear disturbance density of 2.3 km/km2. If we assumed (for the sake of argument) that the Big Lake Study Area represented prime Elk habitat, we can estimate the decreased ecological integrity of the area due to “roading” using a standard graph of Habitat Effectiveness versus Linear Disturbance Density (Illustration 9). This indicated that the current road density within the BLSA decrease its hypothetical Habitat Effectiveness for Elk by 63% (i.e., almost two-thirds).

Based upon available scientific literature, it is possible to predict’with a considerable degree of confidence’the negative ecological impacts of the Western Boundary Road if it was built in the location presently being discussed. For instance, a series of papers on the effects of road-related noise upon birds in Holland (Illustration 10) has demonstrated that songbird breeding success is decreased because the birds can’t hear one another! Two weeks ago, on a weekday mid-morning, I was with a film crew in Wagner Bog. Even 0.8 km from HWY 16, traffic noise was so pervasive that sound recording was continually disrupted in an area “screened” by trees. Thus, if the W.B. Road was constructed, the Spruce Lot might continue to appear “intact” to a lay-person, but in reality it would become more and more ecologically dysfunctional. It would be a clear case of “cosmetic conservation”, whereby: a superficial veneer of “intactness” or “naturalness” belies the true situation, and instills a false sense that “all is well” amongst a public that is increasingly concerned about the “environmental state of health” of their community.

In addition, if the proposed Genstar development were to be built on the margins of the Spruce Lot, the latter’s value for wild life would (inevitably) eventually be reduced to next-to-zero (F. Matlack, 1993; Friesen et al, 1995; abstracts attached). The Lot’s old-growth specialist species will be displaces by habitat generalists/species that can tolerate proximity to humans and urban environments (e.g. crows, magpies, starlings, etc.).

Therefore, based upon available scientific evidence, it is my professional opinion that the W.B. Road as proposed will result in severe environmental degradation of the Spruce Lot, and thoroughly compromise the ecological integrity of the eastern end of the Big Lake Ecosystem Complex. Due primarily to the noise pollution if will generate, this road will shatter the natural ambiance of the northeast portion of Big Lake and despoil the quality of the outdoor experience presently enjoyed by visitors to this area.

Claims that this road project will actually “enhance” or “improve” the environment have absolutely no scientific credibility and, to put it blandly, are utterly ludicrous. For the BLEC, especially the wetlands at its northeast end that would be crossed by the W.B Road, this project represents a potential unmitigated-and unmitigatable-environmental disaster.

To my mind, that fact that his particular road alignment is even being seriously considered is cause for astonishment. BLEC and the Spruce Lot are priceless areas of Nature in an otherwise unremittingly human-dominated landscape. What is more important in terms of the legacy that the city’s population can pass on to future generations: –maintaining the integrity of St. Albert’s most important natural heritage site, a GLOBALLY SIGNIFICANT Important Bird Area; or construction yet another stretch of roadway that, over the long-term, will simply exacerbate the purported problem it is supposedly meant to “solve”?

To sacrifice the diverse, long-term, big picture values of BLEC and the Spruce Lot that St. Albert would derive from their protection in perpetuity, just to build this proposed road, would be an environmental crime of stunning proportions.

I urge the council and citizens of St. Albert to pursue an environmentally sustainable alternative (e.g. a rail system) to this proposed project.

Thank you.

Canada’s boreal forests vital for global birds, study says

Canadian Press
Sunday, May. 4, 2003

Toronto ’ Canada’s vast boreal forests are vitally important to the world’s population of landbirds, a new report concludes.

Billions of the birds ’ including warblers, woodpeckers, shrikes, sparrows and blackbirds and even hawks and eagles ’ rely on the vast swath of forest that stretches from Newfoundland to British Columbia for nesting and breeding.

“This research report illustrates just how important the boreal forest is to landbirds across North America, the western hemisphere and globally,” says the report, which was to be released Monday.

“Not only does it provide critical habitat for very large numbers of birds of many species, but it also allows many species to live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, taking advantage of abundant food in one part of the boreal one year, and moving long distances to new areas the next year.”

Written by Peter Blancher, a scientist with Bird Studies Canada, the study finds that 186 species regularly inhabit the forest. They represent almost 30 per cent of all landbirds in Canada and the U.S.

During spring, the forest is estimated to be home to half the global populations of 41 species and provides breeding habitat for as much as 80 per cent of the world’s population of 14 species, the study says.

Almost all the birds are migratory, with as many as five billion of them flying south for the winter ’ most to the United States but many head as far as South America and the West Indies.

Many are favourites for bird watchers and regular visitors to feeders in the U.S.

“We have responsibility for birds that ‘belong’ to other countries at times during the year,” said Mr. Blancher in an interview from Ottawa.

The boreal forest covers about half the country ’ about 400 million hectares ’ and is one of the largest unfragmented eco-systems on the planet.

Large sections, however, have recently been allocated for industrial use ’ forestry, by oil, gas and mineral extraction and hydro-electric dams

“Increasing pressures on the boreal forest from resource-extraction industries, road access, development and climate change are creating a greater need for information about boreal landbirds,” says the report.

The report based on various bird surveys and other research, was commissioned by the Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative and had support from Environment Canada.

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Elke Blodgett