Anne Murray: Paving paradise to put up the South Fraser Perimeter Road

Alert drivers along Highway 99 and Highway 17 through Delta will notice the massive destruction of farmland underway as excavations begin for the new South Fraser Perimeter Road. Just south of the George Massey Tunnel, a huge swath of arable ground adjacent to the landfill has been dug up, and bulldozers are steadily making their way toward cranberry farms and woodland along the western perimeter of Burns Bog.

This area is part of the “lagg”, a critical fringe area which buffers the nutrient-poor bog from surrounding lands. A recommended action of the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area Management Plan was to “Identify remnant pieces of the lagg and develop strategies for their protection”.

Fly over British Columbia and you can immediately see why arable farmland is so extremely scarce here, making up only five percent of the total land area. This is a landscape with miles upon miles of snow-capped mountains, narrow valleys that bake in summer and freeze in winter, and steep coastal fiords with no beach to separate ocean from rock. Agricultural land suitable for growing crops is confined to relatively small areas in the south, particularly the lower Fraser Valley, eastern Vancouver Island, and the south Okanagan.

The floodplain of the lower Fraser has the advantage of wide, flat fields and a benign climate, producing growing conditions among the very best in Canada. Since the delta was dyked and drained, it has produced award-winning potatoes, peas, cauliflowers, blueberries, and many other crops. How much longer will this be possible? Vancouver citizens wanting to participate in the 100-mile diet should realize what a fragile hold on the landscape the potato and fruit fields have, now that our government has declared open season on those fertile acres.

There are so many arguments to be made for protecting food-growing land, that it is astonishing how every level of government seems to view development on delta land as “progress”. With the world population pushing ever skyward, killing droughts desiccating the food basket of California, and energy and transportation costs soaring, you would think it only makes sense to nurture our flat, sunny delta fields, and the farming families that work them. Yet over the years, the provincial government has marched roughshod over the agricultural community. From an early expropriation of farmland for future port use, to the criss-crossing of fields with power lines, highways, and other infrastructure, the history of the delta landscape is one of death by a thousand cuts.

Now, we have the South Fraser Perimeter Road, a massive truck highway that’s part of the provincial government’s Gateway Program. Even the Vancouver Port Authority once declared that the road was unnecessary unless Deltaport’s Terminal 2 was built (and that proposal has not yet made it to the Environmental Assessment Office).

The highway is headed straight for Warren Nottingham’s farm adjacent to Burns Bog. Nottingham, a long-time Delta farmer who grows blueberries, beans, and peas, has been served an expropriation notice for 80 acres. He will be lucky to get his blueberries harvested before the new road cuts his farm in half.

Farmland grows food, which is something everyone has an interest in. Open fields also provide a host of other environmental services, not least as a buffer to ecologically sensitive areas like Burns Bog. The bog is home to many interesting and rare species like the southern red-backed vole, thought lost until rediscovered in 1999 in habitat on the route of the new highway, and the Rohwer’s shrew, the only known location in Canada for this tiny mammal. There are the greater sandhill cranes that feed in fields beside Nottingham’s farm, soon to be covered with asphalt, and bald eagles that have a huge winter roost in the adjacent forest.

Alternatives to the South Fraser Perimeter Road were put forward, but the public consultation process was half-hearted at best. There was no opportunity to say an outright “no” to the road and no accountability. The environmental assessment produced hundreds of pages of documents yet, as often happens, concluded that there would be no lasting damage.

Meanwhile, the Scientific Advisory Panel to Burns Bog warned in its submission of “high risk impacts to barn owls, waterfowl, land birds, Red-legged Frog, the local nesting/staging of Greater Sandhill Crane population, and the threatened Pacific Water Shrew”. Who stands to gain from this huge venture? It certainly is not food-eating citizens or Burns Bog’s unique wildlife.

Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books about the Fraser River delta, A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, both published by Nature Guides B.C.

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J. Wightman

Aug 23, 2009 at 3:16pm

I agree 100% with comments made by Anne Murray and feel everyone should be reading this very important article. Paradise is being destroyed by a government that refuses to look at the situation a bit more carefully and address the possible options that have been put forth by members of this community.
The SFPR is not needed at the moment--it could become as some say the next "white elephant"...