Environment featured

Choppers and good cheer: Saving the Margaree watershed from Port Hawkesbury Paper and its allies

The Margaree River is renowned for its beauty and long history of salmon fishing. To the people driving through, it seems a sort of dreamy paradise, but up in the sensitive headwaters it is more like a nightmare. For the last 50 years the pulp mill in Port Hawkesbury has clearcut hundreds of thousands of acres and the ability for this critical sponge to absorb heavy rain and snow melt has been critically  compromised.

Now when the spring floods come or a heavy rain event occurs the river rages like a wild beast, bursting its banks, washing away bridges and washing tonnes of rich agricultural soil to the sea. When a few concerned citizens started asking questions and travelling to the headwaters the problem seemed obvious, the huge area where the river originates, unseen by tourists and most local people, has been destroyed.

This is when Port Hawkesbury Paper,like a dragon angered, started to throw a lot of resources in an effort to delegitimize the few citizen journalist pointing out the truth of their exploitation. Suddenly there were free chopper rides for the local MLA, the local reporter, and the local salmon association . Next came a whole series of articles about how much the mill loves nature and how clearcutting is no big deal.

The following article is a response to these stories.  

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The Matrix study: a disservice to the river and the salmon

The last leaves have fallen to the forest floor and as I look out across my little forested valley I would like to take this time to respond to the request by the Margaree Salmon Association (MSA) for suggestions on how to move forward into the future.

Before I do that, I believe it is important to point out some  serious problems with the MSA’s new friendship with Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) and the new study on the Margaree river created with Matrix Solutions Inc. There is something definitely ‘at large’ in this new study and the claim that the river is in “fantastic heath” is, I believe, to be a serious disservice to the salmon, the river and the intelligence of the people of Margaree and their ancestors who have lived alongside this beautiful river for over 200 years.

The company hired to help create the study, Matrix Solutions Inc., based out of Calgary, states on its own website: ”Our services and roots reach deep into a variety of industries from oil and gas, mining, pipelines, infrastructure and more”. Matrix Inc. has worked for such projects as the Bakken crude oil pipeline, Bankers Petroleum Albania Ltd, fracking in Alberta and the Irvings. Closer to home Matrix Inc. was hired by Alton Gas to help approve a project that will pump 10 million litres of salt brine each day into the Shubenacadie river system.

In light of all this information I have three questions: 1) Who recommended this company to the MSA? 2) How much money did Matrix Solutions Inc charge for this study? 3) Has Matrix Solutions Inc ever done any work for PHP or it owner mega industrialist Ron Stern?

Normalizing the abnormal

The report created in partnership with Matrix Inc talks about excessive downgrading and deep cuts into the channel bed. Parts of the river are eroding the banks and fields at a rate of up to 12 feet per year (this fact alone is a HUGE red flag) with the average around 5 feet per year. The conclusion reached is that “we have a river of significant instability” and “this is what rivers do.” These statement normalize an very abnormal situation.

Doing some elementary math with these numbers we can get a broader historical context: James Ross and his family came to northeast Margaree in 1800 and started farming the same year he arrived. By 1804 his three brothers Edmund, David and William followed him and were all farming in the valley. Irad Hart, his wife and six children were the first settlers to start farming on the western side of the river in 1809.

People have been farming in the valley bottom for over 200 years. Taking Matrix Inc’s study with the average erosion rates of 5 feet per year over 200 years we would have erosion over 1000 feet across the valley, and 2400 feet of lost land in the worst spots (12 feet per year). If this was the natural rate of erosion over 200 years, almost all the farmland and houses along West Big Intervale Rd. and half the farms along the entire length of the Margaree would have disappeared into the river decades ago.

This did not happen because for 150 of those years there was no massive industrial clear-cutting of the head waters. Talk to anyone who grew up fishing on the river and the story is the same: Nowadays, the river floods faster and is much more destructive than in the past. Salmon pools (Forks, Brook and Cemetery pools) that have been fished for hundreds of years are now gone or are drastically altered.

The question nobody asks: what is causing these changes

This new study, conducted over just a few months, with no baseline information, and not taking into account the hundreds of years of history is very misleading. Without looking into what caused this dramatic change and accelerated erosion into the banks and farm lands is like analysing the fatty tissue of someone who eats 10 lbs of bacon and washes it down with 4 liters of pop every day and never analysing their diet. Everyone knew before Matrix came in that the river had changed in a big way and the most important question What is causing this change? is being asked by no one.

In the Oran article outlining the study, PHP claims they are cutting only 3662 hectares of the watershed in the next four years–as if this is something great for the river and the salmon. It is important to put these numbers in context. First of all, everyone I know in the valley operates in acres; so 3662 ha. is 9048.99 acres of water-drinking, water-storing trees gone in just 4 years. Remember this example is not taking into account the the hundreds of thousands of acres cut in the last 50 years.

A conservative estimate of how many cords are harvested per acre is 10 cords. A cord of green pulpwood weighs about 2 tons (4000 lbs) and half of that weight is water (2000lbs). Hence our equation is as follows 2000(lbs) x 10(cords) x 9000(acres) = 180 000 000 lbs or 81 million liters of water that are no longer held by the trees that have will be cut in just 4 years. Is it any wonder that the lower river is being torn apart at such an alarming rate?

In short, this means you no longer have these trees to soak up the rain and store it . This is the main reason why all the peer-reviewed science in the world agrees that clearcuts are so destructive to rivers. Every time you see a pulp truck heading down to the mill understand that half of that load is water and those trees are no longer there to absorb the spring snow melts and heavy rains.

Timing is of the essence

The next major problem with this study is that it was undertaken in the dry summer over a very short period. The changes that are happening to the river are not happening when the river is low; they are happening when the river is flooding. A study that would truly give a scientific understanding would focus on measuring and collecting data during a heavy rain event. That is when all the damage is done to the salmon pools and peoples’ land. If you want to get accurate data on the changes in the watershed, you must test your samples directly below a clear cut and roadway during a heavy rain event, and you must also measure total suspended solids. This data must be compared to a sample from a brook on which there has been no logging.

The National Research Council (2003) reported that “after dams, roads are the most significant impediment to the Atlantic Salmon Recovery”. PHP has scores of logging roads that cross the Margaree tributaries and almost none of them have any erosion control to keep the roadways from washing into the waterways. These brooks and streams are choked with siltation and sediment that came from the logging roads (see my youtube video Beethoven and Bullsh**).

If anyone wants to see the washout going from the roads and ditches straight into the brooks, just stop at any culverts on the way to Cape Clear, accessed by Fielding Rd. in NE Margaree — also a great drive to see the magnitude of the clear cutting being done in the highlands. If PHP claims to care so much about the environment and the Margaree why wouldn’t they help mitigate these washouts by taking the most basic measures? These would not be happening if it weren’t for the logging roads used to access our trees for their profit.

Come on PHP! Out of 156 million of our money, you can’t even put a few hay bales to at least give the impression you care. Hay is a lot cheaper than $5000 chopper flights but I guess if it’s not your money anyway, who cares?

What is to be done?

My suggestions to the MSA are as follows:

  1. Instead of giving thousands of dollars away to a company like Matrix, why not reach out to one of our universities like St FX and create a partnership? The Margaree watershed has great potential for thesis topics and could benefit from having young scientists invested in research in the valley. These studies cannot shy away from clearcutting in the headwaters if they are going to have serious credibility. Core data need to be collected at key points every year, particularly during high water and this must include total suspended solids.
  2. The cause(s) of the accelerated erosion rates must be seriously investigated. Normalising this dramatic change is very misleading to the public and landowners.
  3. Study the effects of erosion and sedimentation of road crossings, particularly in the sensitive highlands. The MSA must put pressure on the pulp mill to start protecting these tributaries from the washouts and erosion from the logging roads. This would be easily accessible work and is the number one impediment to atlantic salmon recovery after dams and should become a major priority of the MSA.
  4. Stop taking free chopper rides from the pulp mill as this affects your credibility in the public’s eye and is a very dangerous road to go down. In addition, partnering with a pulp mill undermines your mandate to protect the salmon and its habitat because PHP is destroying this very same habitat. This situation is exactly the reason why laws were created around conflict of interest.

I know there are many good people in the valley and the MSA who care deeply about the river, salmon and the land. I believe that parts of this new study do a disservice to all three. If the river is to become resilient again and the pools to deepen, it is our responsibility as conscious humans to use the bright flames of science, logic and reason to solve the problems we have created. The salmon need us to hold the torch high and not have it darkened by corporate interests and profit. Can we not have one river in this province allowed to heal and to be spared the relentless ravages of industry? The Margaree could be a beacon of light in a very dark history for salmon in this province but the clearcutting must be drastically reduced.

Looking up from my pen and paper I look out the window across the valley and the tumbling brook below and remember the words of Moses Coady who said in 1939 that ”environmental problems stemmed from an ignorance of science, concentration of rural land ownership in the hands of a few and exploitation of the lands primarily for profit”.

See also: Weekend video: Fiber-farming the Cape Breton Highlands  

Check out Save the Margaree Watershed on Facebook.

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