The beauty and necessity of our wetlands

I requested this book for Christmas after hearing the author interviewed on CBC Radio’s The Current. Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat is by Edward Struzik, a writer who focuses on a wide range of scientific and environmental issues. I was delighted to find it under the tree, read it within a couple of days and was not disappointed.

I am already a fan of wetlands, being lucky enough to live close to Tiny Marsh, one of the largest wetlands in Southern Ontario. Many’s the time a walk there has been interrupted by delight at the bugle call of a Trumpeter Swan, the colourful display of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings, the deadly appeal of a Pitcher Plant or the sweet emergence of tiny Snapping Turtles from their gravel-enclosed nest.

On occasion, I have had customers who actually own a wetland come by to choose from an exciting suite of plants - Silky Dogwood, Buttonbush, Cardinal Flower, Marsh Marigold, White Turtlehead, Blue Vervain, Green-headed Coneflower, Queen of the Prairie, Royal Fern… It’s been wonderful to think that they will be growing in optimal conditions and contributing to the restoration of habitat that is home to many rare and lovely plants and creatures.

Until the importance of biodiversity started to be understood over the last half-century, few apart from naturalists and waterfowl hunters would have had a good word to say about wetlands. The word swamp conjures up a vision of an unpleasant and potentially dangerous place. “An inert piece of nothing,” the source of “noisome exhalations that rise from this vast body of dirt and nastiness,” “a pestilential spot, where rank vegetation and miasmatic odours taInt every breath,” are among the choice descriptions Struzik quotes in his newly published book.

An aversion to wetlands is deep-rooted in the human psyche, he notes. Through the ages, the finger has been pointed at swamps, bogs, fens and marshes as the source of disease-causing miasmas (dictionary definition: noxious exhalations from putrescent organic matter; poisonous effluvia or germs polluting the atmosphere). Paradoxically, the Vikings and other seafarers preferred to carry bog water on long journeys; bacteria, viruses and parasites do not proliferate as easily in bog water as in less acidic ponds and streams.

“Editors and publishers sensationalized miasma’s deadly reach for a gullible public that had been raised on Gothic tales and superstitions,” Struzik writes in a chapter on the establishment of Central Park in New York City in the 1850s. Medical and public health authorities insisted on the thorough eradication of the wetlands that occupied the space, which was a unique “intersection of boreal peatland species overlapping with the verdure of of Virginia and the Carolinas.” Also eradicated, a settlement of free African-American landowners.

Thanks to enlightened park management replanting native species over the last couple of decades, there has been a resurgence of wildlife. Now, New Yorkers are talking of the need to rebuild wetland capacity so the parks can act as sponges to mitigate flooding when hurricanes hit.

Easier said than done, you may think. Dutch peatland ecologist Hans Joosten would agree, because of the complex, self-regulating nature of these waterlogged systems that are thousands of years in the making. But peatland restoration is being researched and undertaken with varying degrees of success by a number of scientists, including Canadian Lynne Rochefort.

Better than the Amazon at storing carbon

Why bother, you may ask. The answer is that wetlands are an essential regulator in the landscape, providing recharge and filtration of water, and protection against wildfires, flooding and climate change. Particularly climate change: due to their density of decomposed or decomposing plant material, one square metre of peatland in northern Canada holds approximately five times the amount of carbon as one square metre of tropical rainforest in the Amazon. (While all peatlands are wetlands, not all wetlands are peatlands.)

Climate change is not an urgent motivator for public policy makers when it comes to land use planning. But fire and flood are knocking at the door to remind us all that we dismantle the protective systems evolved by nature at our peril, and at a massive cost.

The 2016 Horse River Fire that forced the last-minute evacuation of 88,000 people from Fort McMurray was accelerated by the fact that many of the wetlands in the path of the inferno had either dried out or been overtaken by highly combustible black spruce trees. One fen close to Fort McMurray had been partially drained for a forestry experiment and instead of slowing the fire, it helped it gain momentum. A wet peatland is the fire fighter’s friend, a dry or degraded peatland is the enemy, ecohydrologist Mike Waddington tells Struzik.

The worst flood in Calgary’s history was aggravated because most of the peatlands in and around the city had been drained to make way for residential development. The 2013 catastrophe could have been worse, but fortunately a small wetland to the west of Calgary had been left in place. Had the beaver-managed Sibbald Fen and other remnant wetlands not been there to sponge up and store some of the water, the flood peaks would have doubled, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have concluded.

At a final cost of $9 billion, the Fort McMurray wildfire was the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history but that distinction is likely to be overtaken by the 2021 floods in British Columbia, in which 15,000 people were displaced. The cost is to rebuild and repair the extensive pumping, diking and draining infrastructure needed to keep water under control in the Lower Mainland - as well as replacing destroyed roads, railways, homes, businesses, industry, farms and lost crops and livestock.

Hardest hit was Sumas Prairie, between Abbotsford and Chilliwack, one of Canada’s most productive agricultural areas. It was created in the 1920s when Sumas Lake and adjoining wetlands were drained and area rivers were diked and diverted. The past century has been punctuated by devastating floods in the area, where now infrastructure is aging, ill-maintained and not suited to current climate conditions. Building cities, farms, and towns on top of what were once lakes, bogs, and fens – all of which naturally absorbed much of the excess water from large rainfalls - is a perilous business, Struzik told CTV News in an interview last month.

Threat to Hudson Bay Lowlands

In a chapter on the Hudson Bay Lowlands, Struzik notes that there’s little effective regulation to stop the 18 mining companies that have 1,300 claims in Ontario’s so-called “Ring of Fire” from digging the peatlands up and building roads through them (roads act as barriers to the flow of water that’s needed for a healthy peatland).

This area has faced catastrophic threat before. I was shocked to read of a 1950s British plan to test an atomic bomb in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. The Americans rejected a proposed test site in Alaska because of the danger to “wandering groups” such as trappers, prospectors and indigenous people, but the Canadian government was all for it because the area was considered “valueless,” “a wasteland suitable only for hunting and trapping.” In the end, Australia offered up the Montebello Islands, where access to the ground zero sites remains restricted.

Valueless? Indigenous people understand the value of wetlands, using them for subsistence farming, haying, herding, and gathering, fishing, and hunting. They also gathered hundreds of plants for medicinal uses. Here’s a link to a discussion of the threat to the Lowlands, featuring Struzik, Vern Cheechoo of the Mushkegowuk Council, Anna Baggio of the Wildlands League and Jeff Wells of the National Audubon Society.

It’s no accident that Audubon is one of several organizations partnering with the Mushkegowuk to protect part of the Lowlands. Our northern peatlands are critical to the future of bird populations continent-wide. “One to three billion birds fly north to the boreal peatlands of North America each spring with a reproductive purpose that results in three to five billion of them migrating back in fall,” Struzik writes. Most of North America’s finches and warblers and 80 per cent of its waterfowl nest in the boreal peatlands, he adds.

As Canada steps up its laudable goal of planting 2 billion trees (at the same time, it is to be hoped, preserving existing mature trees), it’s time to factor in wetlands. After all, Canada holds between a quarter and a third of the world’s peatlands - and these are being badly degraded by the construction of mines and hydroelectric dams, by oil-and-gas developments, and by urban expansion.

Rochefort, the peatland scientist, has been involved in restoring more than 1,200 hectares in over 100 peatlands across North America, at a cost of between $3,500 and $4,000 per hectare. Planting trees tends to be slightly cheaper, in the range of $1,800 to $3,000 per hectare, but a typical replanted forest in Canada stores far less carbon, Struzik writes.

Action - both in conservation and restoration - is urgently needed. “The world is losing peat just as fast as the Arctic is losing sea ice,” he warns.

Ontario holds 25 per cent of Canada’s wetlands, with 57 per cent of those in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Southern Ontario was once described as a vast sea of contiguous forest, lakes, rivers and wetlands with scattered islands of open spaces, grasslands, and prairies. Seventy two per cent of those southern wetlands have been drained or filled in. A 2017 provincial Liberal government wetland conservation strategy, archived on the Ontario website, makes for instructive reading.

Note: As gardeners we need to understand what peat moss is and consider alternatives. I have long stopped using peat in order not to add to pressure on this shrinking resource. It offers no nutrients and there are other additives which can be used to amend soils for acid-loving plants. It is used by commercial growers because it makes for lighter pots, an important consideration in transportation. I wash peat-based soil mixes off the roots of any plant I purchase from commercial sources; this is because the peat is prone to dry out once the plant is in the ground unless it is frequently watered, and in winter the open structure of peat allows frost to penetrate the root system. In either case, the plant is likely to die.

Also of interest: Scientist William Shotyk, known in my neck of the woods for his identification of our water as the most pristine known to science, is one of the peatland experts quoted in this book.
Ed Struzik
- 31 December 2021 at 02:32pm

Great article! Thank you
Sandy Agnew
- 1 January 2022 at 02:37pm

Great review Kate. You're an amazing writer yourself.
Cher Dignan
- 1 January 2022 at 06:59pm

Wonderful article. Thank you!
Laurie Wallace
- 2 January 2022 at 07:59pm

A great article, Kate. I'll come to see you again next summer for some of those plants that prosper in a wetland. I have a an artesian bog. Kind regards
Brian Morris
- 2 January 2022 at 08:24pm

Happy New Year Kate: Sounds like an excellent book to have and read. Unfortunately I don't think Doug Ford or his environment ministers spend much time learning about the serious environmental issues facing Ontario. Going back to one of his predecessors Leslie Frost under whose leadership?? the Grassy Narrows disaster was not only allowed to happen but indeed when the offending paper mill lost in the courts right up to the supreme court of Canada a private members bill was passed (under Frost) essentially negating the effect of the courts decision. Here we are over 50 years later and the government of Ontario has still not resolved the issues with the indigenous people who have and continue to suffer horrendously from the effects of mercury poisoning. And then there is the Giant Mine fiasco in the NWT which the federal and territorial government continue to ignore. Oops, Sorry I got off topic. I believe it is correct to say that in Ontario today we have approximately 3% (that's not a typo) of the wetlands present in Ontario 100 years ago and if Ford and his MOE manage to build the new highways they are pushing that % will be reduced even further with their environmental impact including on Holland Marsh. The Ontario government under successive leaders from ALL political parties have a terrible track record on environmental issues.[ in this province.
Margot Edge
- 3 January 2022 at 08:22am

When are you starting your book? Agree that you are a great writer. Look forward to seeing you in the Spring
Meg Jordan
- 25 January 2022 at 01:28pm

I really enjoyed this Kate. Keep up the excellent work!
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