Anne Murray: Islands of habitat are doomed by South Fraser Perimeter Road

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      It is well known that islands hold the most threatened wildlife on the planet. Isolation first provides the wellspring of new species and then the seeds of their destruction, in the form of habitat loss, introduced predators, and diseases. Any island of habitat can be affected this way. Little pockets of biodiversity are first created, as animals converge when adjacent lands are cleared, and then lost, as species slowly die out.

      For this reason, ecologists urge the conservation not just of protected areas but of connected networks of habitat—green fingers of life reaching through the landscape, providing places for wildlife movement and dispersal. Vegetated, protected corridors can prevent the isolation of habitat islands. Such greenways are strongly advocated in Metro Vancouver’s and B.C.’s biodiversity strategies.

      The South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR) is having a severe impact on habitat connectivity. This infamous highway is turning important local ecosystems, namely Burns Bog and five North Delta ravines, into habitat islands.

      The SFPR will complete the encirclement of the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy lands by covering the vital edge habitat along its western and northern borders. The east side has already been carved up by Highway 91 and the south side by Highway 99. The bog is being sealed off from its surroundings, making it virtually impossible for wildlife, large or small, to move between the bog and the Fraser River foreshore, Crescent Slough fields, or the Delta-Surrey escarpment. As recently as 1999, it was estimated five bears were living in the bog, yet despite its “protected” status, developments and roads now encircle it to such an extent that bear movement from the escarpment has been choked off. Even birds find traversing highways a challenge, judging by the number of dead and injured birds found along roads. These include daytime fliers like barn swallows and nocturnal species like barn owls.

      Heading east of the Alex Fraser Bridge, the super highway will chew into the North Delta escarpment, forested bluffs lining the south shore of the Fraser River. Here, along the tidal flats and above Gunderson Slough, the bluffs are intersected by a series of deeply incised ravines, through which freshwater streams run down to the river. The bluffs stretch into Surrey, where more streams make their way down to the Fraser. The SFPR will be a four-lane, split-level highway all along the river here, with high viaducts spanning each of the five North Delta ravines. The upper level will roll along the top of the bluff; the other level will be lower down. At the foot of the slope, on the narrow border between woodland and river shore, lie the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway tracks, due to be twinned.

      The ravines are oases of damp woodland, full of bird song, remnants of the lush forests that once covered these uplands. Deep black soil supports a rich mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, shrubs, and herbs, together with their associated wildlife. The SFPR environmental assessment reported the presence of endangered species such as Pacific water shrew and western screech-owl. Even a casual observer can see common yet beautiful birds, like Swainson’s thrush, red-tailed hawk, and Wilson’s warbler, and the species list in the environmental assessment technical report is incomplete. The streams are fish-bearing, with coho, chum, cutthroat trout, and sculpin.

      The ravines are linked by the wooded bluff along the shore of the Fraser, and by the river itself, through stream culverts. The SFPR roadbeds, viaducts, retaining walls, and bridge supports will eliminate the trees on the bluff, and this east-west connection between ravines will be lost. Bluffs along the escarpment are essential wildlife-movement corridors. Black-tailed deer wander through, and coyotes raise their young. Belted kingfishers nest in the muddy cliffs, bald eagles roost in the Douglas fir, and great blue herons move between the river and the alders. Less noticeable are small mammals, songbirds, and amphibians that also need these habitats. Without the connection of the bluff, wildlife diversity in the area will quickly decline.

      Parts of the ravines have not been treated well: there are illegal landfills and trash dumps, and streams have been blocked by narrow culverts that fill with debris, where salmon struggle to get upstream. There is scope for restoration work. Some parts are publicly owned; many are private. Regardless, they all face a future of trucks thundering overhead, increased lighting (another known ecological disruptor), isolation from adjacent habitats, and increased culverting as they approach the river. So in addition to dozens of houses being demolished and people’s lives uprooted, these few natural areas are due for terminal degradation.

      We need a change of plan, based on respect for the natural world. Fragmenting habitat to this extent is tantamount to complete destruction of scarce wildlife populations. The provincial and federal governments that blindly support this $800-million highway must enforce their laws on species at risk and their strategies on habitat connectivity. Merely bridging the ravines will not save east-west connectivity or the ecological and cultural role of the North Delta bluffs. Making islands out of habitat means no habitat at all for the future.

      Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books about the Fraser delta, A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay.

      Comments

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      12 Comments

      Alicia

      Sep 15, 2009 at 7:49pm

      I find these articles, while painting an excellent end of the world of wildlife scenario, never propose a solution to the problem.

      Yes, a shrew that has a very specific habitat and virtually no ability to adapt to any change in habitat is a sad state and defenceless indeed, but the Dodo of rodents does not address the traffic issues that caused the road to be proposed in the first place.

      It's easy to criticize. It's much harder to contribute.

      Valerie

      Sep 15, 2009 at 11:32pm

      Another well presented argument against the SFPR by Anne Murray. There are solutions to the problems of both the preservation of wildlife habitat and traffic congestion. They were set out in the Hoover/Nass proposal, but the Liberals and the cronies they pander to are not interested. Once again, it is Gordon Campbell ploughing ahead doing it his way, come hell or high water. Kudos to Anne for trying.

      Eliza Olson

      Sep 16, 2009 at 11:45am

      The citizens of Delta have offered alternatives. The Government refuses to listen just like it refused to listen to the people in Tsawwassen who offered alternatives to the hydro lines in their backyards.

      Only 3% of the earth's surface is covered with peatlands, yet that tiny piece of habitat stores twice as much carbon as all the world's forests.

      Gordon Campbell cannot pretend to make BC carbon neutral while destroying one of the world's most efficient carbon sinks found in an urban area.

      The immediate stopping of the destruction of peatlands world-wide would reduce greenhouse gases by 10% (Source: UN press release, Dec.7/07)

      Besides great carbon sinks, they are refuges for rare and endangered species who are being driven out of their natural habitats by roads and other development. In the Lower Mainland this includes, the Sandhill cranes, the Southern Red-backed vole, the Pacific Water shrew and others. In addition, the loss of one species affects others. Bald eagles depend on voles for food.

      Burns Bog is part of the Pacific Flyway and Delta is home to the largest number of wintering shorebirds. Burns Bog is a great refuge during storms in the winter.

      I can go on forever of the benefits of Burns Bog. Remember the fires in 1996 and 2005. It was Mother Nature's way to remind us what Burns Bog does for our quality of life every day of the year--for free.

      Ernie

      Sep 16, 2009 at 12:00pm

      Short Sea Shipping - move containers up the Fraser
      Using the Port at Prince Rupert - already existing infrastructure - and shorter trip to the east coast
      Invest in transit south of the Fraser
      Expand existing routes (recommended by Delta Council - rejected by Liberals)
      There are many alternatives that we have repeated over and over - without effect.
      It's not hard to contribute. It's hard to get this government to listen.

      Wilma

      Sep 16, 2009 at 12:27pm

      Thank you Anne, and the Straight for this excellent article. This highway is reputedly for Deltaport, but Port officials are on record that the port does not need SFPR unless Terminal 2 is approved. Request for approval for T2 has not yet been made, and given the decline in imports, should never be approved. So why is the Campbell Govt ramming this through? Check for land-flipping deals and development permit requests along the way. Delta Corp owns some of these lands through the lagg zone and yet have not even discussed [to my knowledge] entering them into the Covenant.

      Jean

      Sep 16, 2009 at 4:35pm

      The greed machine rules. Rather than insisting on efficient public transit and less consumer goods, the public defends short sighted, regressive projects and endless consumer choices that support their immediate entitlement. Hope for the future? What planet do you live on?

      Randa

      Sep 16, 2009 at 5:15pm

      It is a pity Alicia appears to be misinformed. The SFPR does not solve any traffic issues - how many trucks coming from Deltaport go to Highway 1 - answer zero.She says what about the alternatives. Delta Council's preferred route was the existing highway 17 ailignment but Gateway did not listen - preferring to destroy huge chunks of porductive farmland and put several farmers out of business.

      commentator

      Sep 17, 2009 at 9:12pm

      When will the Straight realize they have a world class columnist here, and give her space in the print edition?

      Nic

      Sep 17, 2009 at 10:31pm

      This comment by "Alicia" is absolutely correct.

      <blockquote>It's easy to criticize. It's much harder to contribute</blockquote>

      In that light I would like to thank "Eliza Olson" for her <b>CONTRIBUTION</b> of almost singlehandedly having saved Burns Bog from development so many years ago.

      We need more Eliza Olsons in this world and less Alicia's. The SFPR is another example of Gordon Campbell's Liberal's GREEN PLAN for BC.

      In other words, with friends like Gordon Campbell's Liberals, who needs enemies. This is not about the greening of BC, this is about the <span style="color:#993300">BROWNING</span> of our province by the most environmentally damaging government BC has ever seen.

      <span style="color:#ff0000">GORDON CAMPBELL and the BC LIBERALS are Environmental/Climate Change CRIMMINALS.</span>

      Bernadette Keenan

      Oct 14, 2009 at 9:59pm

      The South Fraser Freeway does not address any significant traffic problems. That it is being built to relieve congestion, is pretty much a bald faced lie. In the community of Bridgeview in North Surrey where the Freeway will run 1/2 a block from the neighborhood school, there is no congestion. The traffic along the existing South Fraser Road infrastructure,is nothing like what is experienced along highway 10 or the Fraser Highway both of which have been widened recently. Currently along River road there are a few choke points where road widening or an overpass at the train tracks would relieve most of the so called "congestion". In fact this freeway will add more congestion to existing choke points like the Alex Fraser Bridge and the George Massey Tunnel as increased east west traffic tries to turn off there to head north or south.

      So saving the shrew, wildlife and unique ecosystem are the real priority and stopping the freeway doing so would not result in any major traffic snarls. Extra buses along the route would be more effective than more pavement.
      BernadetteK