Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Beavers and Buffers

Trust me, this does relate to growing food, and no it has nothing to do with eating beavers.

Let's start with buffers.  We began hearing about them in the late 1990's with the release of the Royal Commission on the Land.  Buffers are a no-go area that were seen as a way to push back farming and forestry from waterways to slow down soil erosion and pesticide run-off.  For many landowners buffers (first 10 now 15 meters)  represent a loss of productive land, or trees that couldn't be cut. The distribution of waterways around the province means the impact of buffers is very uneven. Some farms have multiple streams running through them and considerable land has been lost. On other farms there is little impact.

On the surface buffers seemed like an easily understood and straightforward approach to protecting waterways, but it's been anything but. High priced lawyers have gone to court to make very technical arguments about the definition of a waterway, and where a buffer should be measured from.  Rules over headlands were so complicated that a Department of Justice lawyer was seconded to the  Environment Department to try to make sense of it all.

And now beavers have made all of this even more complicated. Beavers are native to PEI but other than trappers (and Richard Brown and his trunk load of dynamite-this was many, many years ago, and he certainly wasn't the only one), beavers have few natural predators.  Beavers build dams to expand their territory by flooding land giving them easy access to food (willow and poplar). These wetlands can play a very useful role in the environment, as a water sponge, and filter, but most rural landowners would rather they set-up home on someone else's land.  There is a season for trapping beavers, and, like coyotes,  if landowners can prove a nuisance, trappers can get a permit to get rid of them.

This flooding certainly changes the "edge" of a waterway, and creates confusion over where a buffer should be measured from.  Here's how a buffer zone would normally set-up:

Once beavers build dams, the stream rises, and the edge moves into the buffer, making the buffer appear to be too narrow.  This continues to be an issue when wood cutters or farmers try to determine how close they can crop land or cut trees. in other words where does the buffer start.

If beavers have changed a waterway I think  the buffer should be measured from wherever the water's edge is when the planting or cutting is taking place.   If the reason for the buffer is to keep sediment and pesticides out of waterways, then  that's what it should be allowed to do.  Yes some kind of record with a picture or video should  be taken to establish what was going on at the time, because the stream edge could well change again because of heavy  rainfall or more beaver activity, or the dams disappearing.

I realize this is far from a perfect solution and that cutting trees and farming isn't always pretty, but we have to keep going back to the reason for buffers. They're not there to frustrate or bankrupt farmers and forest contractors, they're an imperfect way of finding some balance between resource extraction and protecting the environment.  With government cutbacks, more and more of the regulating of buffer zones and wetlands is being pushed back on the private sector (after a day's training) and I'd like to think that this will be done responsibly. If it isn't there will be some kind of backlash.  There's growing interest and involvement in watershed improvement groups, and that means more people paying attention to what's going on around waterways. (Full disclosure: I'm involved with the Montague and Valleyfield Watershed Enhancement Co-op and had some experience with buffer zone regulations and beavers which got me thinking about this.)

The bottom line for me is that some kind of common sense needs to prevail.  I am eternally sympathetic to the challenges farmers and forest contractors face trying to make a living off the land, and the growing lack of understanding amongst Islanders about how difficult this is but  I also get the feeling that when it comes to environmental regulations that there's a constant effort amongst some to push the limits, and then plead ignorance when caught.  I want farmers and forest contractors to accept buffers as a part of the price for lower taxes,  the growing support for local food, and having good neighbors.  There is a lot of anxiety about the environment amongst many Islanders, and farmers and forest contractors need to take concrete steps to regain trust. Fighting to use every square inch and tree in what should be a buffer zone and then blaming beavers isn't the way to do that.

No comments:

Post a Comment