Next Stop YZF: Wetlands and Wildfires

Horseshoe Island, Great Slave Lake, June 14, 1.35am.

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Editor’s note: This is the final post in a five-part series about the environmental histories Jess Dunkin encountered while travelling from Ottawa to Yellowknife this past spring. Read the full #NextStopYZF here.

Day 8 – Windbreaks, Woodlots, and Wetlands

I arrived to Alberta at mid-day on April 3 in the midst of a spring storm. Whirling snow, low-lying clouds, and just off to the left, a wall of sunshine. I expected to drive through farmland in the stretch of Alberta between Lloydminster and the capital, but as the terrain shifted north of Edmonton the following morning, I figured my time with prairie skies was coming to end. So I was surprised to discover, after passing through Whitecourt, a forestry town, and Fox Creek, where three-quarters of the local population works in oil and gas, the return of the prairies. The reappearance of prairie made sense after seeing maps like this one depicting the Peace Lowlands.

8 - Small Slash Pile
Peace Country, AB.

In North Dakota and Saskatchewan, I was cognizant of the railroad, the river valleys, and the grain elevators. What caught my attention in Peace Country were the slash piles that lined the road and snaked back through the fields. My suspicions about the origins of these piles were confirmed during a conversation with the curator at the Peace River Museum. A sheep farmer herself, she reported that farmers were expanding their cultivatable land and windbreaks, woodlots, and wetlands were getting in the way.

8 - Big Slash Pile

Statistics Canada reports that in 2011, 7.2% of Canada’s total land base was devoted to agriculture. In Alberta, that number is significantly higher, 31.9%. Only Saskatchewan and PEI have proportionally more land devoted to agriculture. As in other places across the country, agriculture in Alberta is changing. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of farms in Alberta declined by 12.5%, while the average farm size rose by 10.7% to 1,168 acres (national average is 778 acres). It’s not just farms that are getting bigger, but fields as well. Warren Bills estimates that field sizes have quintupled since his grandfather started farming in part to accommodate ever larger field equipment.

While larger fields may contribute to a farm’s productivity, the loss of windbreaks, woodlots, and wetlands is not inconsequential. Windbreaks, for example, protect crops from wind and fields from erosion. They also catch snow in the winter, which improves moisture conditions in the spring. Provided they are of sufficient size, windbreaks can provide much needed habitat for birds and animals.

Woodlots, similarly, provide habitat for wildlife, guard against soil erosion, and protect watersheds. They can also serve as a source of forest products for the farmer, to say nothing of their social value.

And what of wetlands? In addition to providing habitat for waterfowl and other types of wildlife, they improve local water quality, reduce the effects of flooding and drought, recharge ground water supplies, provide erosion control, and moderate climate change.

I suspect that while woodlots and windbreaks may have been subject to clearing as well, the real targets appear to have been wetlands. In 2013, the province, recognizing the ecological, social, and economic value of wetlands, announced a new Wetland Policy intended to “conserve, restore, protect, and manage Alberta’s wetlands.” A key component of this new legislation governs activities that could potentially harm wetlands. As of 1 June 2015, landowners must apply to the province to modify or alter wetlands on their property. This includes surface and subsurface drainage, infilling, and the creation of surface ditches. It seems likely that the slash piles I encountered in Peace Country were evidence of landowners making changes before the new act came into effect.

Day 9 – Fire

I spent my last night on the road in High Level, AB, an oil and forestry town incorporated in 1965. Driving north from the Super 8 the next morning I caught glimpses of old burns along the highway. Crossing into the NWT, the affected patches became more prominent and newer. The worst stretch of road was Highway 3 between Fort Providence to Behchokǫ̀ (Rae-Edzo).

9 - Burn Right Side
Highway 3 between Fort Providence and Behchokǫ̀, NWT.

In 2014, 385 fires burned 3.5 million hectares in the NWT. To put that into perspective, in an average year, 570,000 hectares in the NWT are affected by wildfires, while 2.1 million hectares burn nation-wide. It was, not surprisingly, the largest fire season in the territory’s history.

The fires, which were concentrated in the southern part of the territory around Great Slave Lake, resulted in road closures; damage to roads, power lines, and community infrastructure; and threats to people and property. Kakisa, a small community in the South Slave Region, was evacuated in early July. The fires steered clear of the territorial capital, but Yellowknife residents recall the orange skies and the ubiquity of smoke and ash in the air that characterized the summer of 2014. Poor air quality resulted in a spate of public health bulletins across the territory urging children, seniors, and people with cardiovascular and lung ailments to stay indoors.

Environment and Natural Resources spent more than $56 million during the 2014 fire season, eight times what had been budgeted for the task. To the surprise of many, the territory has only committed $8.5 million to fight this year’s fires, despite predictions that the 2015 season will be worse than last year.

9 - Burn Tree in Foreground

The NWT forest fires are further evidence of climate change’s disastrous impacts in the north. Weather is primarily responsible for forest fire behaviour. In 2014, a ridge of warm, dry area that settled over the Mackenzie Valley prevented weather systems that may have brought moisture to the region from passing through (Scientists have observed this ridge effect in other places with extreme fire damage, including Northern Quebec, which lost 1.7 million hectares to fire in 2013). Minimal precipitation and above average temperatures resulted in dry forests that allowed fires to spread quickly and extensively. The physical extent of this dryness (how many layers of the forest floor are affected) is also important. While dry twigs and leaves can allow a fire to spread quickly over ground, when under layers of moss and decaying vegetation are dry, they enable a underground fire to smoulder indefinitely.

The Canadian Forest Service is projecting that the 2015 season will start early and the fires will burn hot, the opposite of the 2014 season which didn’t really take off until early July. As of July 12, NWT Fire was reporting 200 fires and 417,698 hectares burned. As I write this final post, my study smells like a campfire and there is a yellow haze that hangs over the city, courtesy of a fire burning at Hearne Lake on the Ingraham Trail.

While the topic of local conversation is the potential severity of the 2015 fire season, the impacts of the 2014 fires will continue to be felt across the territory, although the nature and scope of the consequences is unclear. In particular, questions remain about the long term effect of the fires on permafrost, water temperature and chemistry, forest succession, fish and wildlife habitat, and the food web structure. There is special concern about the already threatened herds of the woodland and barrenland caribou. The fires have only exacerbated the habitat disturbance and destruction wrought by resource development.

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As I travelled across the continent this past spring, I encountered multiple natures and myriad landscapes. Lowlands, wind farms, urban decay, community gardens, sand dunes, a zoo, wood blocks, water parks, grasslands, oil fields, dioramas, elevators, taiga, wetlands, wildfires, shield. While on the road, I was struck by the diversity of the continent’s ecosystems and also the diversity of ways in which humans have interacted with their environments. Since arriving to Yellowknife, I have thought more about the things that connect far-flung people and places to one another: waterways (the low water levels across the territory are daily reminders of the NWT’s connection to hydroelectric projects in BC and oil sands activity in Alberta), air (CBC North recently interviewed Americans about their experiences of smoke from territorial wildfires), and roads like the ones I travelled, to name just three.

Of the 5400-odd kilometres I covered driving from Ottawa to Yellowknife, the final few hours were the hardest. After a series of semi-sleepless nights and an infection that had been plaguing me since Chicago, I was physically exhausted. As I crested the hill on 48th Street and the downtown came into view, though, I forgot my weariness. I was home.

Horseshoe Island, Great Slave Lake, June 14, 1.35am.
Horseshoe Island, Great Slave Lake, NWT, June 14, 1.35am.

Read the full #NextStopYZF series here.

 

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Jess Dunkin

Director, On the Land Programs at NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin is the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. She lives in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8), home of the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene. In her free time, Jess loves to paddle, cross-country ski, and tweet about life in the #SpectacularNWT from @jessddunkin.

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