Conservation Connections

The following article appeared in the May/June edition of Outdoor Edge Magazine.

In the March edition of Outdoor Edge, we talked to the Salt Spring Island Conservancy’s (SSIC) Conservation Director, Robin Annschild, about the Conservancy's success in creating a partnership with the local Rod & Gun club to manage one of their reserves. This month, we continue the conversation with Robin and learn how building upon connections can equal great things for conservation – and ourselves.

It all started with an invitation to a Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation Evaluation Workshop. Each year, the Foundation asks a selection of project leaders to give a presentation on the outcomes of their projects to HCTF Board members, staff and their peers. Not only do these workshops help HCTF evaluate the results of investments, they provide a rare opportunity for grant recipients to get together and exchange ideas about fish and wildlife conservation.

After presenting some of the accomplishments of SSIC’s habitat acquisition project, Robin listened to Neil Fletcher speak about the BCWF Wetlands Institute, currently in its sixth year of funding from HCTF. Neil explained how Wetlands Institute workshops provide participants with the tools to successfully complete wetland restoration projects in their communities.

“I had heard of the Wetlands Institute, but it wasn’t until I saw Neil’s presentation that I realized it might be able to help us with what we wanted to accomplish at Blackburn Lake.’” Robin seized the opportunity to talk with Neil about the Conservancy’s ideas for restoring wetlands on their newest acquisition (which had most recently been operated as a golf course), and soon both of them were excited about the possibility of collaborating on the project.

“I told Neil we were really looking for someone to mentor us through the process,” said Robin. “We had this rough idea of what we might be able to achieve, but none of the technical expertise to get there. Neil suggested having Tom Biebighauser come out to develop a restoration prescription for the property, and offered to loan us some of the necessary equipment. We managed to get Tom up from Kentucky in January, and the experience was phenomenal.”

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Tom Biebighauser is a big name in restoration circles: the award-winning ecologist is an expert on the rehabilitation and construction of wetlands, having established over 1,600 of them across the U.S and Canada.

“We learned so much in that week,” recounts Robin. “It completely shifted my understanding of what we needed to do to optimally manage this property. Tom’s explanation of the history of stream modification and drainage let us look at Blackburn Lake- and our other conservation lands – with new eyes.”

The SSIC team learned that they were not only contending with the recent disturbances caused by the construction of the golf course, but a legacy of drainage modifications made by those who had farmed the land, stretching back to the 1800s.

“Tom taught us that anywhere you find a stream in close proximity to agriculture, you can almost bet those streams have been moved,” explains Robin. “As we walked the property, he pointed out where early settlers would have taken the broad, flat creeks running down the middle of a valley bottom and moved them to the base of the hill. This, combined with surprisingly sophisticated drainage modifications, dried up existing wetlands to allow them to be cultivated.”

Unfortunately, the ecological consequences of shifting these streams runs deep: not only did it eliminate important wetland habitats, the repositioned streams cause erosion that continues to deposit silt into the lake today: a concern for fish, wildlife and humans. In this instance, water from Blackburn Lake flows into Cusheon Lake, one of the Island’s major sources for drinking water, and is connected to Cusheon Creek, Salt Spring’s most important salmon run. Restoring these streams and wetlands to their pre-agriculture states will hopefully halt centuries of silting, improving conditions for the juvenile salmon and cutthroat trout in the lake. It will also benefit a myriad of other local species that use wetlands as part of their lifecycle, all while protecting an important source of water for Island residents.

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With the restoration plan nearing completion and funding secured for the first phase, the SSIC hopes to begin work on some of the 30 wetland restoration sites identified by Tom this fall. These activities will rely on yet another vital partnership: the one between the Conservancy and its volunteers. Each year, these dedicated participants contribute over 6000 hours to helping make Conservancy projects a success.

“The PCAF grant we received from HCTF and the funding from the Vancouver Foundation are both really about involving the community in these projects, by putting on workshops and informational sessions, and by encouraging them to get their hands dirty in the creation of these wetland areas. Talking with Neil and learning about some of the work he’s done around wetland education in communities has really helped me to see that there is a tremendous opportunity at Blackburn Lake to teach others about the value of wetlands, and what we can do to restore and protect them.”

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In true biologist fashion, Robin compares the network of partnerships she’s fostered- the links between the Conservancy, funding organizations, the Rod & Gun Club, Wetlands Institute and volunteers- to the interconnectedness of organisms within an ecosystem.

“When we speak about restoration, we tend to restrict our thinking to the repair of environmental components, but working through these projects does much more. It restores our own relationship to the land, and through a common goal of conservation, connects us to a web of resources that together can create something far greater than we could have on our own. Just like an ecosystem, every relationship has multiple functions and benefits for the project as a whole, and for each person involved in it. It’s been really exciting to see these partnerships develop, and witness how we support each other’s work.”

The SSIC wishes to acknowledge the funding contributions of the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, the Public Conservation Assistance Fund, the Government of Canada Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, Wildlife Habitat Canada, the Vancouver Foundation, the Salt Spring Foundation, and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, who, along with other contributors, have made these projects possible. Thank you!

Does your club have a great idea for a project that improves fish or wildlife habitat? HCTF’s Public Conservation Assistance Fund (PCAF) provides small grants for “on-the-ground” conservation projects such as monitoring wildlife, restoring spawning grounds, and building birdhouse and nest boxes. The key requirement is that you must provide at least half of the value of the project in volunteer labour, materials or other allowable donations: click here for further details. Hurry: next application deadline is May 17th.

Interested in learning more about wetland restoration? This year’s BCWF Wetland Institute will be held September 6-12 on East Vancouver Island. Registration (not including food and accommodation) is FREE up until August 16th, but space is limited, so submit your application to attend today. 

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