Ecological Services Initiative Review

Category Archives:Conservation and Restoration

Ecological Services Initiative Review

Ecological goods and services (EGS) are the natural outputs and processes that create health, economic or social benefits. In British Columbia, as in many other jurisdictions, agricultural operations tend to occupy portions of the landscape both high in biodiversity and supporting key ecological functions. Agricultural lands have therefore become a focus for the development of payment for ecological services (PES) programs as a means to reward private-land stewardship that restores or maintains EGS.

The Ecological Services Initiative (ESI) was established in 2009 to demonstrate and test the concept of PES schemes for agricultural producers. As a next step to advance support of EGS from agricultural lands, the British Columbia Agricultural Research and Development Corporation (ARDCorp) undertook a strategic review of the ESI and explored options for the future support of EGS from agricultural lands in BC.

UPDATE: The Ecological Services Initiative is now known as the “Farmland Advantage” Project

Access the review here.

AEI-GF2-ARDCorp logos and text

A Stitch-in-Time Saves Soil

I never met my great-grandmother, but know that one of her favorite sayings was “A stitch-in-time, saves nine.” And, this folk wisdom embodies a valuable lesson for every land manager: a little early, preventative maintenance can eliminate the need for a much larger repair job after that missing ‘stitch’ becomes a larger rip or hole.

Maintenance is every bit as important to integrity and functionality of shelterbelts, riparian and other conservation reserves as is their placement and establishment. Or as aptly put in another aphorism: a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.

Throughout North America many have recent experience with the awesome forces of wind or water. Torrents of rain and snow melt, accumulate and flood across the landscape, at times eroding way thousands of years of soil building in a matter of hours. And a record year for spring tornadoes is causing havoc, loss of life and property in the US mid- and south-west.

When faced with the full onslaught of natural forces, there is little to nothing you can do. A mature, deep rooted tree, is still no match for a tornado or hurricane-force wind. Likewise, the full-force flow of high-volume, fast-moving water can strip bare any riparian zone.

But outside and at the edges of these extremes are zones that are able to remain intact and functional if they are properly structured and managed. And not only will a conservation planting or reserve stand up to considerable stress, they also function to reduce the extremes experienced downstream or leeward. Trees and shrubs along riparian areas will slow water flow and absorb some of the turbulent energy in a raging torrent. Likewise, trees and shrubs in shelterbelts and conservation reserves bend and sway in the wind, absorbing energy from the airflow and deflecting the main force of strong winds away from sensitive areas.

But maintenance is critical to keep the integrity spatially over the entire shelterbelt / reserve and also through time. This is probably most acute with conservation plantings where all the individual components have been planted at the same time. If the area was not planted with a mixture of different-maturing species, the reserve will mature and die all at about the same time. In the absence of new tree or shrub recruitment, you are then faced with natural mortality over relatively short time span, greatly reducing or eliminating the effectiveness of the planting. It is therefore important to plan and plant a mix of species from the start, and take measures to protect natural regeneration or fill-plant species over time, so that the system perpetuates and renews itself.

Shelterbelts and conservation reserves established specifically for sheltering against the effects of wind, also require maintenance of the overall density of planting through pruning and/or thinning to achieve the optimal range for buffering (in the range of 50 to 70 %). Not dense enough, and a shelterbelt does not present enough of a barrier to the wind. Too dense, and they effectively become a solid barrier, creating a back flow of air when wind forces against it, over which the main air stream can lift, picking up speed and energy, and thus compounding the erosion potential.

And most problematically in riparian and conservation reserves designed to hold soil loss back from water erosion, even a small gap in these reserves can pose vulnerability to a much larger area through gully erosion. If an area is subjected to concentrated water flows, a stretch of only a few unprotected metres of bare soil can start to erode downward through the soil profile and into the subsoil. This gully can then feed itself, undercutting the rooting layer of adjacent trees and shrubs, causing them of overturn and expand the zone of vulnerability. In the process thousands of years of soil building and hundreds of years of plant community development can be swept downstream in a few days or even a few hours.

Routine inspection and corrective maintenance to identify and restore vulnerable areas in your conservation plantings, shelterbelts and riparian zones can be that ‘stitch-in-time’ to save soil and eliminate the need for a much larger restoration effort.

The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Oh Christmas tree. Oh Christmas tree. How vocal are your detractors.

Among the great environmental debates of our time, the annual fake-versus-real tree argument now seems as firmly rooted in western culture as the all-out marketing assault that will herald the holiday season in and out. Post-Convenient Truth, the carbon footprint of a real tree is now a focal point for those advocating PVC ‘trees’ as the way to go.

The American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a shill for various petrochemical and plastic manufacturing interests, claims (without publishing any data) that artificial trees have a smaller carbon footprint than real farmed trees. According to the ACTA website:

…the best way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to choose an artificial Christmas tree and to use it for ten or more years.

And it’s true that PVC ‘trees’ are as ACTA claims on their website: light weight and durable just like a sewage pipe. But besides the obvious shortcomings of having to look at a fake tree for 10 years, with all the fundamental charm of the aforementioned sewage pipe, the notion that durability automatically translates to environmental benefits is fundamentally flawed.

Real trees are indeed sacrificed to the Yuletide season, but there is no deforestation involved with harvesting the vast majority Christmas trees. You are simply taking the thinnings from an overstocked forest stand that would otherwise choke out and die as the stand matures, or more likely, it is from a Christmas tree farm or semi-natural production area, where every tree that is cut is replaced by new recruit into the stand.

The net effect from most of North America’s 45 million natural Christmas trees is carbon neutral, excluding production inputs and transport. And given that most fake ‘trees’ are borne from the injection molds of China, it’s a good bet there will be considerably fewer petrochemical inputs and miles between a real tree’s source and your parlour than the fake ones.

Chipping and mulching programs in most areas now allow for trees to be recycled into the soil at the end of the holiday season, and “stump cultured” trees result in an even softer environmental impact. Stump culture is a regenerative production system that involves leaving the bottom 2 or 3 branches when a mature tree is harvested. A new shoot can then grow from near the cut, or the uppermost of these remaining branches to form a new treetop. Christmas tree producers in the Kootenay region of BC have successfully stump cultured up to 6 or 7 successive tree crops from the same root base, and have been doing so for the better part of century.

But I say put aside the carbon footprint debate. You can easily offset the couple of kilos of carbon in typical Christmas-sized tree by foregoing extensive lighting and animatronic Santa displays, or by not driving back and forth across town or country to get your tree in a big-box store. The strongest benefits of real Christmas trees comes from the social and psychological impacts.

First, unless you are reading this from somewhere in the Middle Kingdom (and I’m guessing you’re not, given my repeated subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the totalitarian, human-rights-abusing Chi-Coms that run the country – my posts are sure to be filtered from Chinese page views) you are not supporting a local business by going plastic. Real trees support real jobs and rural livelihoods in a sustainable and renewable sector across North America. Fake ones fatten the bottom line of overseas manufacturers and big-box retailers.

Second, it draws us, if only in a small and mostly symbolic way, into a natural cycle of birth, death and renewal. Life rarely offers us a choice between consuming or not consuming. The difference comes in whether you live inside or outside the regenerative and assimilative capacity of the planet. Real Christmas trees follow that natural cycle and flow. And in a dominant global culture that is ever-increasingly disconnected from the land and natural systems it is crucial to maintain these tangible ties to regenerative processes.

And finally, the main reason to opt for a natural tree is that it feeds the soul. Real trees have an intrinsic beauty and a wonderful smell that can’t be replicated in the hydrocarbon and volatile organic off-gassing from a PVC replicant.

Happy holidays everyone.

Use Conservation Reserves to Boost Pollinators

Vancouver Island is latest region to suffer massive honey bee losses. The BC Beekeepers’ Association and local producers estimate as many as 90% of the regional hives died-out over winter.

In the temperate belts of the world, honey bees survive the winter months as intact colonies with queens beginning egg laying in late winter to early spring. A flush of new worker bees emerges with the annual return of new plant growth and flowering. The loss of these overwintering colonies means costly replacement with new stock to start the process of rebuilding the regional bee population.

The financial losses of the individual beekeepers aside, this die-off is yet another warning of how vulnerable our food systems can be to environmental disruptions. Bees not only directly create food by converting nectar to honey, but more importantly support agriculture through their pollination work. They are commonly understood to be responsible for at least one-third of global food supplies and billions of dollars of agricultural production, although the actual figures have not been definitively measured. Bee-dependent crops include the majority of tree fruits and berries, many vegetables and important forage species, including alfalfa, clovers and other legumes, that are fed to livestock.

The cause of the Vancouver Island ‘bee-mageddon’ has not been clearly determined, but early speculation is that either Varroa mites, viruses or warmer than normal weather could have contributed. Similar colony collapses have been at play around the world in the past decade with increasing severity and frequency.

With our heavy reliance on pollinators for a portion of global food supplies, we need to rethink the risks to food security in light of potential regional or even broader bee population crashes. Combine a bee collapse with extreme drought or frost events in a major production zone and food supplies could be in serious jeopardy.

I believe part of the solution to managing this production and food security risk can come from boosting native pollinators. And this in turn, is further evidence that we need to diversify our agricultural landscapes to better replicate natural conditions. A diverse population of native and feral pollinators may not provide the same level of pollination services as mass hiving of domesticated honey bees, but they will function to ensure crops receive some pollination and fruiting if honey bee populations fail. Think of it as an insurance policy on food production with other benefits.

Hedgerows, conservation reserves, integrated riparian management zones, timber and shelterbelts can all function to provide this habitat in agricultural settings without greatly impacting the area devoted to cultivation. Native pollinators are resident in specific areas, and are not moved around like their domesticated cousins. They therefore need season-long sources of nectar that can only realistically be provided by a diverse complement of plant species that flower at different times throughout the year.

The move over the past century to remove brush and other uncultivated vegetation zones from farmland has contributed to the loss pollinator habitat (and adversely impacted other wildlife, hydrological and other natural functions). Restoring or creating new conservation reserves can therefore directly contribute to food security by rebuilding diverse habitats of flowering plants and pollinators. Urban and suburban developments have also built over large areas of pollinator habitat. Planning the rural-urban fringe with green belts to buffer development from agricultural zones can address this problem as well as serving other functions to mitigate rural-urban conflicts over noise, odour and dust.

Alternative pollinators are already used in some commercial production, such as leafcutter bees used for alfalfa pollination and bumblebees in greenhouse vegetable production. But, by and large, honey bees are the most widely chosen insects for managed pollination to achieve maximum results. But when it comes to risk management, “optimum” is often a better strategy than “maximum”. And the optimal pollination strategy needs honey bees complemented with healthy populations of native pollinators with equally healthy and diverse agricultural landscapes.

Agroforestry Can Reduce Interface Fire Risk

One of my last projects in a previous work life with the Research Branch of the BC Ministry of Forests was to design and set-up adaptive management trials testing forest restoration techniques in the Rocky Mountain Trench of Southeast BC in the late 1990s. The imperative for restoration in these forests (and also throughout the intermountain west of North America) was the tremendous structural and species composition changes that have developed in the last 75-80 years as consequence of fire suppression. The forests in question have evolved over 1000s of years with frequent (every 7 to 10 years) low-intensity fires. With the best of intentions (I believe there is a road to somewhere paved with these) we have put in place systems that have an enviable record in quickly putting down both human and naturally caused wildfire. Fire suppression has been carried out so efficiently, it has all but arrested this natural process on the landscape.

The result of quelling fires is what Dave White, a former colleague of mine in the Ministry who was tragically lost in a back country snow avalanche a few years later, termed “upside down ecosystems.” And “upside down” succinctly describes the modern forest composition in relation to its natural potential. What should be mosaic of grassland and forest patches has become a thick forest with small islands of grasses of much different composition. In areas that should predominantly be large old, thick barked, ponderosa pine with scattered Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine, has become a thick tangle of Douglas-fir and lodgepole suppressing new ponderosa growth.

The consequences of these forest changes are far-reaching and largely negative. Some timber has been saved from destruction until it can be cut, but the diminished quantity and quality of grassland has undermined wildlife habitat for everything from the charismatic macrofauna (a.k.a. elk) to the lowliest arachnid. Forage production is lost to the livestock industry and cattle and wildlife are forced into conflict over the remnants of the former North American savannah. Trees are abundant, but of poor form and low value. And in the ultimate irony, the risk of a catastrophic wildfire has grown immensely. Small trees, lower branches and woody litter that would normally be consumed over time in small, low-intensity burns, has built up to the point where fires can scale to the status of ‘fire storm’ in short order. Expansion of human settlement into these areas has also grown immensely, creating a high risk of interface fires sweeping not only through eight decades of unconsumed woody fuel, but also billions of dollars of homes, cottages, industrial development and public infrastructure.

And for anyone thinking this accumulation of forest biomass represents a great store of carbon to buffer climate change, I believe that is a false notion, because fire will release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. And we can never put an end to forest fires. At some point the right combination of drought, wind and multiple lightning strikes will overwhelm the initial attack response and another major interface fire will occur. It is only a question of when. Managing the risk by reducing fuel loads in the interface is a logical response.

This week, Tom Hobby, Forest Economist at Royal Roads University rekindled the debate on the forest ingrowth problem with his well publicized report and interviews stating that we are not acting fast enough to reduce the risk of fires in these systems. The Filmon report commissioned after the interface fires in Barriere and Kelowna clearly outlined the scope of the problem and recommended action, and in academic/research circles we have known of the problem for decades.

A challenge however, lies in the scale of the problem. The Government of BC has started fuel reduction projects, but there are an estimated 1.7 million ha of interface areas at high risk of wildfire. The potential costs of restoring these areas could easily run into the $100s of millions. And there is also the issue of maintenance. The influx of housing, both permanent and recreational, means fire is a very risky tool to use, even in low-intensity controlled burns.

Fortunately, there are options through agroforestry that can reduce the fuel loads, manage the areas as fire breaks and mimic the structure of the natural forests. As an added benefit, adopting agroforestry practices on the landscape will generate income (through resource fees) and long-term jobs. A silvopastoral or forest farming approach in these ecosystems would involve retaining a low-density overstory of timber or Christmas trees in a single tree, widely-spaced grid pattern or clusters of trees with open spaces between. Often the lower branches of the trees are pruned to improve the value of the wood, but this also reduces ladder fuels to prevent ground fires from moving into the canopy. In silvopastoral systems livestock grazing on the grass, forbs and browsing of the shrubs provides an added benefit of annual removal of the fine fuels that can give fires an initial toe-hold. In both forest farming and silvopasture, the Crown can generate additional revenue from grazing licence, timber and non-timber resource use fees. This amounts to restoration that isn’t a drain on the public coffers, but instead generates jobs and income.

Supporting and developing agroforestry as a viable ecological restoration/economic development tool deserves serious consideration not only as a short-term fix before the inevitable happens again and millions or billions are lost in a major interface fire, but also as a permanent managed solution to the problem. Implementing solutions that simultaneously improve our environmental and economic bottom line is also overdue.

© 2009-2018 by George W. Powell. All Rights Reserved.

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