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BURNS BOG: A UNIQUE ECOSYSTEM THREATENED BY DEVELOPMENT

Introduction
E-mail interview
naturalSCIENCE talks with Professor Patrick Mooney, Director of the University of British Columbia’s Landscape Architecture Program, about the value of the Burns Bog ecosystem, whether it should be preserved, and if so, how
Other comment
More information about Burns Bog

Introduction
February 18, 1999: Burns Bog is a 5000-year-old, 30-square-kilometer raised bog located near the mouth of the Fraser River, in Delta, British Columbia, a municipality within the Greater Vancouver region. It is the largest undeveloped urban land mass in Canada. It is the largest raised bog on the west coast of North America. It is, according to Richard Hebda of the Royal British Columbia Museum, "an excellent example of living organisms and the physical environment acting together to produce a self-sustaining ecosystem or superorganism." It is home to 150 species of birds, and provides a southern refuge to populations of boreal insects and plants left behind following the retreat of the ice at the end of the last ice age. It is home to numerous mammals including the black bear, blacktail deer, red fox, bobcat, coyote, beaver, muskrat, snowshoe hare and porcupine.

In addition, Burns Bog is the site of Canada’s largest landfill west of Toronto, accommodating one-quarter of all British Columbia’s solid waste. The landfill is said to be non-compliant with government regulations including those concerning groundwater contamination and gas emissions. Nine smaller private landfills exist adjacent to the bog. Cranberry and blueberry farms have been developed at the bog's periphery, two highways run through it, and a planned arterial road will traverse its center. Peat has been extracted from the bog for decades.

Notwithstanding two recent petitions to the Provincial Legislature, signed by tens of thousands, appealing for the preservation of Burns Bog, the Province of British Columbia recently saw fit to promote a scheme to develop approximately half the bog as a permanent home for Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition. In furtherance of this proposal, the Government loaned $25 million to the company proposing the development. Rejected this week by the local municipal council, the scheme has now been abandoned by the Provincial Government. However, the private owners of Burns Bog remain free to apply for rezoning for recreational, industrial, or agricultural use.

In view of the ongoing threat posed by development to the integrity of Burns Bog as a functioning ecosystem, naturalSCIENCE invited Professor Patrick Mooney, Director of the University of British Columbia’s Landscape Architecture Program to discuss the value of this unique ecosystem, whether it should be preserved, and if so, how.

The interview
naturalSCIENCE What is the ecological significance of Burns Bog in terms of (a) the maintenance of biodiversity and (b) the provision of ecosystem services?

Professor Mooney RARITY: It supports a rich bird life. Greater sandhill cranes breed there. We have only one other local breeding site for this regionally rare bird. Numerous geese and duck overwinter in the bog. It supports a rare dragonfly and a very rare moss, Sphagnum fuscum. There are several shrub species in the bog that we would associate with montaine or more northern environments. The cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus, crowberry, Empetrum nigrum, and Velvet-leaved blueberry, Vaccinium myrtilloides, are usually found much farther to the north. Their location in the bog represents a disjunct population and the southernmost occurrence of these plants on mainland North America. Presumably, these southern genotypes are adapted to warmer conditions and may be of importance for the maintenance of biodiversity if northern genotypes are affected by global warming.

DIVERSITY: There are few remnant bogs of this type in the lower Fraser basin, and none so large. As such, the bog provides a large habitat of a type that is unavailable elsewhere in the region. Loss of this rare type of habitat would negatively affect regional biodiversity.

ECOLOGICAL FUNCTION: The bog is a carbon sink. Destroying the bog would release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The bog holds large quantities of water, which it cleanses before that water enters the Fraser River.

naturalSCIENCE In its present state, what economic or other non-ecological value does the bog have to the local community, e.g., for recreation, education or tourism development, etc.?

Professor Mooney In its present state it is used for cranberry farming and garbage disposal. Finding alternative landfill sites outside the lower Mainland of British Columbia would add significantly to disposal costs. The bog has limited recreational use as it cannot handle many users in its present condition. If the bog were retained, a large portion could be set aside as an ecological reserve with limited access for scientific study. Certain portions could be developed for public recreation. This is a common strategy in British Columbia parks.

naturalSCIENCE If development of the kind recently proposed had proceeded, what impact would it have had on the undeveloped part of the bog as (a) a functioning ecosystem, or (b) a recreational, educational or tourism resource?

Professor Mooney Without more specific information these questions are unanswerable. I believe that the biggest danger from that kind of development is altering the groundwater flows, which could "kill" the bog. The proposed development should have been revised based on a detailed inventory of the bog, including its groundwater flows.

Some of the things we don't know: Was the proposed development on poorer, already impacted bog land or was it on the habitat of rare plants, birds and insects? How would it have affected groundwater flow?

naturalSCIENCE What significant environmental impacts, if any, would development of the type proposed have other than on the Bog itself?

Professor Mooney The proposed access roads to the new development site would have required the clearing of forest habitat along the Fraser River. This is good bird habitat outside the bog that would have been destroyed as part of the proposed development. The proposed site use would also have increased travel miles by car, which would have increased air pollution.

naturalSCIENCE Is it possible to undertake an overall cost:benefit analysis of this kind of project, taking account of the environmental impacts, and if so, do you have an educated guess as to the magnitude of the net cost or benefit?

Professor Mooney It would certainly be possible, but not without some more detailed study. A rational process for planning such a development would begin by zoning the bog in terms of its ecological sensitivities and values. The proposed development would then be programmed and site-planned. This exercise could reduce the development’s footprint, move it to less sensitive sites and reduce the associated transportation costs. Then a cost benefit analysis could be done. If we don't even know if the proposed development would have affected groundwater, we certainly can't say anything about its environmental costs.

naturalSCIENCE If, overall, development of this land has negative consequences, what does this imply? Should development be diverted to Fraser Valley farm land, up the mountainsides, or in some entirely different part of the Province?

Professor Mooney We have "brownfield" (previously developed) sites that are zoned industrial where projects of this type could be located. One such site on the Coquitlam and Surrey border even had access to the area light rapid transit "skytrain" system. There are sites that would serve the public better, cost less to develop and have an ecological impact far less than the proposed development. In this case, it was not necessarily a choice between farmland, mountainsides or wetlands.

Other Comment
Other comments are invited and should be addressed to: publisher@naturalscience.com.

Information about Burns Bog
Information about Burns Bog is available at the Burns Bog Conservation Society's Web site, which is located at http://www.burnsbog.org/index.html.

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