An Interview with Mary Haig-Brown:

Mary Looking Out Window

A few days ago, I had the immense pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Mary Haig-Brown. She’s a bit of a local hero when it comes to restoring degraded streams in the Greater Victoria region, although Mary would be the first to downplay her contribution and instead point to the effort carried out by many others. She has volunteered countless hours over the years to stream restoration through the Friends of Tod Creek, Peninsula Streams Society and Habitat Acquisition Trust. And she shows no signs of slowing down.

That she’s so passionate about streams and creeks will come as no surprise to those who recognize the last name. Mary is the second oldest of the four children whose parents were Roderick and Ann Haig-Brown. Her father wrote numerous popular books and articles about rivers and fishing. He was also an ardent conservationist who spoke out eloquently and forcefully against rampant logging and dam-building that were destroying fish habitat.

Mary and I chatted for more than an hour and half while sipping tea and nibbling on chocolate chip cookies she had just made that morning. It is my hope, and likely hers as well, that you’ll feel inspired to get involved with restoring streams, even those that have long been buried or seemingly lost forever. Mary says, you just have to be persistent and believe in the possibility.

 

 

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World Wetland Day Feb. 2, 2021

 
All over the planet, wetlands are being degraded and destroyed faster than the Amazon rainforest.
 
Here in Canada, Ducks Unlimited estimates that our country has lost as much as 70% of it’s wetlands. In parts of the prairies, that percentage is as high as 90%. Like the prairies, BC’s coastal wetlands have also been hit hard by human development. Estimates of the loss in this region range  between 60 – 70%.
 
Wetlands are not waste lands. They provide countless ecological services for free, such as water purification, flood protection, and wildlife habitat. These functions could save governments and taxpayers millions of dollars in building new or repairing existing infrastructure such as water treatment plants or dike systems.
 
There are also strong moral, ethical and even spiritual reasons to protect and restore wetlands.
 
The following short documentary, which I produced five years ago, underscored the urgent need for farmers and the governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to get much more serious about engaging in this vitally important work.
 
It was broadcast by Shaw Community Stations in those three provinces on this day.
 
It’s message is just as relevant today as it was five years ago.
 
I hope you enjoy it.
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Restoring Salmon to the Upper Reaches of Millstream Creek

Volunteer Putting Native Plants in the Ground

“There has never been a more urgent need to restore damaged ecosystems than now.” So proclaims the United Nations as a preamble to declaring 2021 – 2030 the Decade of Ecological Restoration. The purpose of the declaration is to serve as “a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature.”

The Greater Victoria region has its share of degraded natural ecosystems in desperate need of restoration. Among those hardest hit are the region’s streams. Many have been severely modified. Instead of following a natural course across the landscape, they’ve been forced into straight, concrete channels or steel culverts and in many cases, under parking lots, shopping malls and urban neighbourhoods. As a result the salmon runs these streams once supported collapsed.

One of the organizations working hard to restore the region’s damaged watersheds is Peninsula Streams Society (PSS). Their most recent project is aimed at opening up more habitat in the upper watershed of Millstream Creek.

To learn more about the project, I met Ian Bruce, the organization’s Executive Coordinator, at the site a couple of days ago. He and a couple of staff were preparing the area for planting the next day by volunteers.

This wasn’t our first meeting. Our paths had crossed a few times over the past 18 years since I was introduced to him. At the time, I was an environmental reporter with a local television station and I was doing a story for the 6 o’clock news about the restoration of small stream on the Saanich Peninsula near the airport. What I had forgotten was this was also about the time the PSS was formed.

It was natural then to start our conversation by asking him to remind me of how the Society came into being.

While the organization has only two other staff to assist Ian, it has had a big impact in restoring degraded watersheds within Greater Victoria by taking a grassroots approach.

The construction of a fishway and modification of a large culvert on Millstream Creek is the latest project of PSS and its supporters. Soon to be completed, this project makes it possible for returning salmon to access habitat further upstream. More habitat should translate into more salmon returning.

“Once I became involved in 2016,” he said, “I worked with them to get a fund-raising campaign going to make the project happen.” The Town of View Royal, City of Langford, and  Fisheries and Oceans Canada provided enough money to get a technical design made. With further fund-raising, the Society had almost enough to start construction in 2018; they’re still short about $300,000.

“At first we thought we were stuck, except that we had a shovel-ready project with professional engineering and technical design drawings ready for tender,” he explained.

With this asset, the Society was able to raise the last bit of funds needed to start work. Many, many organizations contributed. So many Ian couldn’t list them all. From start to finish, he estimates the total cost of the project to be in the order of one million dollars.

Definitely not an insignificant amount of money to raise, especially by a small conservation organization. I wondered about the cost of fishways in comparison to restoring stream banks and riparian vegetation.

I found it interesting that Ian appears to see the construction of the fishway and modification of the culvert as not restoration. Certainly they’re restoring a historic link for returning salmon to habitat upstream. More habitat should translate into more salmon returning.

But I think I understand where he’s coming from. The construction work here is a very different kind of restorative intervention than repairing stream banks in terms of scale, cost, and degree of constructed infrastructure. 

One thing we strongly agree on, is that restoration is not enough. Something else must happen. Several years back, Ian went through the Restoration of Natural Systems program at the University of Victoria and something that one of his instructors said deeply affected him and it has become a guiding principle for him personally as well as for PSS.

The next day I went back to speak with some of the volunteers who came out to help with putting native plants in the ground. I wanted to hear what motivated them to volunteer to do this physically challenging work.

The first volunteer I spoke with was Kitty Lloyd who I knew from my work as coordinator of the Greater Victoria Naturehood initiative. Kitty participated in our meetings and activities as a representative of the Capital Regional District where she worked as coordinator of the Gorge Waterway Initiative and Esquimalt Lagoon Stewardship Initiative. I knew she had recently retired. What I didn’t know is that she just recently joined the PSS board and was very excited about the Millstream Fishway project.

“Now that we know what damage we’ve done, we can’t not do restoration,” she said. “We need to clean up our mistakes and repair them as best as we can.”

And doing this hard work of restoring damaged natural ecosystems can be hugely rewarding as Kitty emphasized.

After chatting with Kitty, I looked around for my next “victim”. A young woman with bright blue-green hair caught my eye. She appeared to be about the same age of undergraduate students I once taught within the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria. She was down on her knees, covered in black mud and gently placing a fern into a hole she had just dug when I approached her.

She introduced herself as Tamara Bonsdorf.

An important aspect of the volunteer experience for Tamara was finding inspiration and hope for the future in it.

I, as well, came away from the experience with the same feelings. In fact, I continue to be encouraged and inspired by the ecological work carried out by Peninsula Streams Society and the local stewardship groups who partner with it. Together, they are making such an incredibly positive difference.

The UN has declared 2021 – 2030 as the Decade of Ecological Restoration as “a rallying call  for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world.” Think globally, act locally…that’s what Ian and PSS are doing and have been doing for almost two decades. 

But to continue doing important and badly needed restoration projects, Peninsula Streams Society must have adequate funding. Please consider making donation through annual giving or to their Legacy fund

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