Environment featured

We need a Biodiversity Act with teeth, before it’s too late

2021 dawn and ravaged trees, c MB Whitcomb all rights reserved

An ecology can be permanently impacted by the unwitting actions of our neighbors, municipalities, or businesses. It is something we barely understand, but we utterly rely upon…it is not something that is “over there” somewhere. What seem like modest actions, such as indiscriminately spraying the forest floor with herbicides, fouling a stream, letting an invasive garden plant run amok, or running ATVs over a marsh containing rare plant species can result in a cascade of local extinctions, and even result in direct and clear cut human harm. These are things our government should be “on” like white on rice, and take needed preventative action for the benefit of all community members (including the non-human ones).

Government should have the resources, expert personnel, and the authority to save us from known and evolving biological disruptors before they become very expensive widespread issues. Management and prevention are the least expensive way to deal with these living threats that can grow without check and cause domino-effect changes for the ecology. The government should also have the power to protect us from unwittingly destroying parts of our ecology that we don’t understand or know how to put back. It should have the resources to educate us on what we need to do as community members to protect our own interests.

Unchecked spread of invasive plant and animal species (an issue notoriously hard for the public to grasp) is threatening nearly every kind of tree in our boreal forests. These biological threats are having catastrophic impacts that lay people often don’t understand until it is too late to act. For example: Japanese Barberry, a popular shrub, is becoming invasive in the Northeast US. It grows into pure thickets that suppress forest regeneration, and also causes a sharp uptick in Lyme disease, with human health costs that will seriously impair our limited medical resources should that happen here. Oh, wait. It is happening here.

Woodlot owners and farmers are blessed. They live in nature, which supports them and gives them an incomparable quality of life compared to the apartment dweller. For them to be duped into supporting and allowing widespread corporate rape of interdependent ecologies while ignoring the legitimate biological threats is contrary to their own interests and any possibility of a better life for their children. They should be at the head of the charge to protect its overall health!

The first people to blame the government when their forests die from unchecked invasive insect pests are those who depend on forests for their livelihood. They will excoriate the government for not having the powers they are being encouraged to gut right now, egged on by corporate interests. They will bemoan that we did nothing (right now) about serious province-wide biological harms that are present, with more coming. This is not a rural vs urban issue. It is not a partisan issue. It is how we choose as a species to deal with serious threats to our lands and waters.

Good governments should be able to engage the community and stop the spreading of plants like Giant Hogweed and Wild Parsnip which burn people’s skin and can make an unwitting tourist’s visit a living hell with permanent scars to remember us by. They should have the authority to stop nurseries from selling plants that are known forestry threats. They should be able to mobilize industry and all community members (with fines if needed) to respond collectively and effectively to biological harms that can reproduce to the point where we lose key parts of our economy.  This is not a political issue…it is a functional one…of our survival. Our forests, coasts, and rivers are our own Great Barrier Reef. 

The proposed Biodiversity Act gives our government, the people’s representative, the ability to prevent a species from going extinct, or prevent the unchecked spread of harmful living organisms. We do not have that ability now. We need the will to demand and hold both elected and appointed officials accountable for pro-actively leading us. To fail to do so is crazy suicidal. 

Instead, we have corporations with marketing teams doing an end run on the will of the people so whatever profits can be extracted from Nova Scotia can be done so as quickly as possible. They want to squash the opposition before people think to zoom-in on Google maps (in satellite view) to see how fragmented our lands already are. It is easy to see how quickly our forests are (for the second time in a century) becoming clearcut out of their natural diversity. It is astonishing to look at Nova Scotia and all down the Eastern Seaboard, and I encourage you to do that when thinking about this issue.

I live near land logged 100 years ago that still has not recovered its plant species diversity.  We need to act decisively before people realize that the quality of life in their own back yard is changing very quickly. I chose my property for its forest. As I write this, I look out my window and see the spruce which died of brown spruce bark beetles in just a few years. I see beech stands dying around the province from an invasive insect introduced in 2012, and now the Emerald Ash Borer is here too. 

The emerald ash borer is an invasive beetle that is native to Asia. (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources/The Associated Press)

The Emerald Ash Borer and a host of other invasive insects will kill many of our tree and plant species. As humans we have already stripped out key tree players for their quality wood from our forest ecology. Between these forces, our oaks, cedars, spruce, butternut, elm, alternate leaf dogwoods, cherries, etc. have become decimated and/or commercially not viable. Now, beech, hemlock, and viburnums are dying too!  Migrating birds and insects are not making it for many additional reasons.  These trees are fundamental to their existence.  Species such as the Asian Longhorn Beetle and the Japanese Beetle eat 40 species of trees. Birds spread tree seeds, and other organisms and are an essential part of forest regeneration and health. They need enough insects in the understory to raise broods.   Check out the statistics of the  International Union for Conservation of Nature on global bird decline…birds are the “canaries in our coal mine.”  Our few dedicated experts have little in the way of resources to respond to the impending loss of our ash, hemlock and beech species. Why is this not a higher priority? Because we have no Bill 4 with teeth.

See also: Wisqoq – A story of Mi’kmaq conservation

Passing this act is not a path to government overreach. It is the only path to saving our forests from what is to come. If we give no one the responsibility and the authority to protect our greatest treasure…no one will do the hard stuff. Our traditional native food sources are diminishing fast, and not just in the forests. The water quality in the estuary where I grew up fishing and digging clams for clam bakes does not support fish or edible shellfish any more. My older friends hated eating salmon and lobster, because it was once so abundant. It is now a delicacy that most can’t afford.

If we fail to step up and require our government to see the big picture and act in our collective interests, we should be very concerned about a boat stuck in a canal on the other side of the world…because we will utterly rely on it and have none of our own resources when needed. We will have squandered them by allowing corporate interests to divide us and tell us we should not trust the government or believe that it can work for us.  

But folks, the government is us…it is the only major tool in the box. We cannot give up on the idea of a responsible leadership that will sometimes tell us things we don’t want to know or make us do what is in the best interest of the community…in fact,  in my mind this is the main reason we have a government.  What other ways do we have to deal with these problems? Individuals cannot stand up to well-heeled corporations…can you afford a multi-year lawsuit? I can’t.  We have to bend the government to our will to get the job done, and educate ourselves, to require it to do the right things. 

Private woodlot owners are being scared by memes calculated to politicize this issue and cause fear. They use the word “freedom” a lot these days to divide us; to me, that is a euphemism for “anti-community” and “anti-togetherness”. It is a trope to keep us fighting each other, and from stepping up together and dealing with the hard stuff, like COVID19…another invasive human ecology disruptor that could have been a much bigger disaster here. This is an excellent example of problems we will either face together or apart. If we make no effort at prevention, we will surely fail. Nova Scotia’s response to COVID19 shows we are still capable enough to confront major threats together by respecting our experts enough to hear them and cooperate to get the job done.  

Photo Robert Devet

I really want to believe that after losing so many living things that make life here special, that we will finally take notice and stand up for what is left. Now the mackerel are going too, and so will the lobster if we cannot stop fighting each other and fight to protect our waters as well as our forests. Little will live if we pollute our waters with unregulated and industrial scale operations uninformed by deep scientific understanding of its impacts.  

We need to invest in our schools and get our best experts working in government, using fact-based information, and constantly working to expand on the vast amount we don’t know about the land that supports us.  Sure, it is frustrating when what we think we know is changed by science…but that is “us” evolving…and it is a good thing!  We really need to know how this world supports us before wiping out hunks of it or heading off to Mars. Folks, we have maxed out the ecological credit card as of now and need to tighten our belts and change our behaviours. Canadians can lead the way.

That young man politely starving himself is showing us our future if we don’t step up now.  We must do so with determination, and with the knowledge that everyone is not always going to get exactly what they want. Some will even get their hands slapped for the common and public good. We must lead with facts and our conscience, and not scramble for the first dollar offered for extraction of our assets…because there are plenty who only see and understand the loonie and know nothing about the Loon. 

“Partisanship” is how corporations distract us from questionable practices, and “externalities”, which are ecological costs of doing business (where the residents…that is you and me…are left holding the bag).  Please don’t fight each other Nova Scotia!  Attached is a copy of Bill 4. If you have not read it all please do so. And write to support it. Be willing to make changes to save your skin and that of your descendants.  Nova Scotia is already being blasted biologically because we have waited too long to do anything in deference to “private interests” and the idea of “rights” which will mean nothing if there is no ecology to support us. 

Ecologists use an analogy of the earth being a flying airplane…how many ecological “rivets” do we pull or allow to pop out before it falls from the sky? It is a tired analogy, but a good one. We need to understand that the forest is so much more than a “wall of green” for us to make houses, toilet paper, and heat from. I am hoping you, dear reader, will act before people realize that the problems have become too big to deal with in any unified way. The lands and waters here are more than a “profit center”…they are our lives. 

Read Bill 4 here: https://nslegislature.ca/legc/bills/63rd_3rd/1st_read/b004.htm

Chuck Porter is the Minister of the Department of Lands and Forestry. His phone: (902) 424-5935. You can email him here: mindnr@novascotia.ca. Please cc your email to the Premier and your local reps. — Phone: (902) 424-6600, PREMIER@novascotia.ca.

See also: Statement in response to the Government of Nova Scotia’s plans to amend the Biodiversity Act prior to law amendments

Marian Whitcomb and her husband David Quimby are photographers and live in Cape Breton seeking simplicity and modesty as values, in that the “best things in life are not “things”. They have worked for more than a decade on invasive species education and are currently focused on private landowner habitat reconstruction guidance.  They administer Cape Breton Naturalists, Nova Scotia Native Plant Gardeners, Cape Breton Invasive Plants, Cape Breton Core, and Nova Scotia Quiet People who like Darkness Too pages on Facebook. 

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One Comment

  1. “We must lead with facts and our conscience, and not scramble for the first dollar offered for extraction of our assets…because there are plenty who only see and understand the loonie and know nothing about the Loon.”

    Wonderful letter, Marian. Thank you.

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