Comment: Garry oak ecosystems — Saanich on right track

The District of Saanich has an enviable record of environmental stewardship, with a significant network of protected areas, a progressive policy on invasive species, environmental stewardship plans, the Saanich Pulling Together Volunteer Program and a commitment to climate action.

At the same time, Saanich is creating greater density in its urbanized area, prioritizing biking lanes and transforming a suburban community into compact, complete neighbourhoods. Bordered by city, ocean, agricultural land and connected natural areas, Saanich is a spectacular example of a municipal transition toward sustainability.

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The Environmental Development Permit Areas regulation is an important part of that transition, and should not be abolished.

Historically, Saanich held the largest portion of southeastern Vancouver Island’s unique Garry oak ecosystems, with an estimated cover in 1800 of 3,473 hectares. By 1997 this had declined to 192 hectares — just five per cent of what had existed before. Urban development and agricultural and industrial encroachment have been joined more recently by climate change and invasive species impacts as major drivers of the degradation of Garry oak ecosystems, which are amongst the most endangered in all of Canada and were carefully managed by Straits Salish indigenous peoples.

It is challenging to know how best to preserve what is left, but, as noted conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in the late 1930s: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

In 2012, Saanich passed new Environmental Development Permit Areas regulations as a way of saving “every cog and wheel.” Relying solely on public land protection in the form of parks and reserves in an urban and urbanizing region will simply not work: the pieces are just too scattered.

There are many vestiges of the original Garry oak habitats located on private lands, and many of these adjoin larger public reserves. By limiting impacts to these fragments, fostering connectivity between natural spaces and encouraging sensible private stewardship, there is hope that the trend in declining biodiversity can be reversed.

Critics of the EDPA who wish to have it abolished and replaced only by voluntary stewardship argue against government regulation of private land management. This misreads the legal framework of municipal law in British Columbia and Canada, and fails to recognize a significant movement toward greater ecosystem protection.

Voluntary and participatory initiatives are important, but the force of law is also needed to restrict development that destroys the “cogs and wheels.” The EDPA is simply another way of protecting something we value publicly.

There is no question the EDPA imposes burdens on some landowners. In most cases, these are reasonable ones, reflecting the care that people already place on habitats they find on their properties.

By exchanging hardscaping for lighter human use, we accommodate the very ecosystems that draw people to choose a more natural landscape, by extending habitat, providing buffers for nesting songbirds, insect pollinators, indigenous wildflowers and other wildlife, and creating opportunities for future restoration.

There are improvements that can and should be made to the EDPA. There needs to be more landowner engagement and support in the form of better education and more resources.

The model of an ecological advisory committee comprising some of the many dedicated citizens who know about ecological conservation and restoration would work well in Saanich.

The EDPA does not need to be abolished and replaced with voluntary initiatives or become a paler version. It needs refinement and commitment.

At the heart of the recent debate over the EDPA are shifting perceptions of nature in an urbanizing region.

To some, nature is anchored in the ideal of “wilderness” — lands and waters untouched by degrading human activities.

Viewed this way, only the largest protected areas in Saanich — P’Kols (Mount Douglas), Mount Work and Francis-King parks — come even close.

We believe a different view is needed to realize the bold environmental vision that Saanich embraces. Nature is found in so many places, sometimes fragmented. It’s often degraded by heavy use and invasive species, but when the elements of native biodiversity are there, ecosystems can be restored.

Protecting and connecting these fragments of nature, which is what the EDPA encourages, will result in greater adaptive capacity for the ecosystems of Saanich to cope with the uncertainties that climate change and continuing development hold.

Blending strong protection with robust stewardship opens the possibility that a future Saanich will be more ecologically diverse than it is now — for our children and the future of the region. And, that’s a vision we think is worth working for.

The authors work at the University of Victoria. Eric Higgs is a professor in the School of Environmental Studies; Deborah Curran is Hakai Professor in Environmental Law and Sustainability; Valentin Schaefer is faculty co-ordinator in the Restoration of Natural Systems Program and School of Environmental Studies; Nancy Turner is a distinguished professor and Hakai Professor in Ethnoecology at the School of Environmental Studies.

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