Okanagan Eco-Noggin  

Protecting our biodiversity

Loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity are unfortunate side effects of urban development globally. Biodiversity is an all-encompassing term that includes the number of species, variety of ecosystems, and genetic diversity within a given area. 

Protecting the Earth’s biodiversity provides many economic, environmental and spiritual services to humans, in addition to the benefits to plants and animals themselves.

So what is the City of Kelowna doing to minimize these effects of urban development? I recently visited the City of Kelowna’s Community Planning Department to find out. Like many environmental issues, the solution lies in protecting the most sensitive areas and species.

In partnership with the provincial and federal governments, the City issues permits to develop natural areas under stringent conditions. Developers must follow a strategy to protect environmentally sensitive areas, such as wildlife corridors, nesting and denning areas, waterways, riparian buffers (land and vegetation along waterways) and groundwater aquifers.

Sensitive areas within and around the city have been inventoried for their ecological function, sensitivity to disturbance, and habitat for threatened and endangered species. Natural areas that you might not think of as particularly sensitive, such as rocky outcrops, are protected for their aesthetic value. If you’ve hiked the rocky areas in Kettle Valley or Myra-Bellevue Park, you’ll likely agree with this assessment.

Threatened and endangered species are classified by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and they are protected under the federal Species at Risk Act. Endangered species in and around the City include the badger, western screech owl and yellow breasted chat. A number of threatened snakes, birds and amphibians also inhabit our region.

Protecting biodiversity and sensitive areas can be done in a few ways, in the order of highest level of protection:

  • Avoid disturbing the most sensitive areas. Avoiding impacts to the environment is always much easier (and cheaper) than having to restore it.
  • Maintain intact ecosystems by providing corridors, to avoid fragmenting the ecosystem where it is disturbed. This is often done along waterways, where the riparian zone is left as a buffer of 15 to 50 meters between the waterway and urban development. Fallen trees and snags are also retained because they provide valuable habitat for birds, rodents and insects.
  • Restore or enhance the ecosystem by planting native vegetation and transplanting animals to their native habitat, and by removing invasive species.
  • Mitigate the damage done by development by controlling soil disturbance, erosion and stream flows. This mainly applies to the construction stage of development.
  • Compensate for disturbance that cannot be avoided by providing equal or greater habitat nearby. This concept is known as “no net loss” and is often applied by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Even though this protection undoubtedly adds costs to urban development, the result is likely to increase the overall value of properties near a protected natural area. In addition to the ecological benefits, communities that include natural areas for viewing and walking have much higher intrinsic and monetary value.

So what does this all mean for you? If you are lucky enough to live adjacent to a waterway or other sensitive area, this means that you need to be very careful about altering the environment along your property, including the soil, vegetation and water – check with the city if in doubt. 

For the rest of us, it means that natural corridors have been set aside both to protect the natural environment and for us to enjoy it. So get out there and appreciate our biodiversity!

'Bathing' in the forest

“Forest Bathing” to Improve Mental Health

It probably comes as no surprise that a stroll in the woods is good for our mental state.

However, scientists have recently conducted experiments that shed light on exactly how it is good for us.

A long-standing Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, which translates to "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing,” is known to reduce stress and increase relaxation.

For the past two decades, scientists have expanded upon this intuitive but anecdotal evidence by researching objective measures of how our physiology and mental health respond to interactions with nature.  Since then, studies have confirmed many positive effects on mental health from spending time in nature:

  • Several studies have shown improvements in both working memory and cognitive flexibility after spending time in nature. For examples, researchers measured improvements in both mood and cognitive function of people with major depression following a 50-minute nature walk, compared to control subjects who walked the same amount of time in an urban setting.
  • Inner-city children who were at high risk of adverse behavioral outcomes showed higher levels of impulse control when exposed to more green space.
  • Even in urban environments, living near green settings (and blue, such as near a lake) correlates with higher psychological wellbeing.
  • In the Netherlands (where the population density is more than 100 times higher than in Canada), exposure to green and blue space was associated with lower levels of anxiety and mood disorders. Interestingly, spending time near water was associated with lower mood disorders, compared to green space.
  • Here in Kelowna, UBC-O researchers Dr. Holli-Anne Passmore and Dr. Mark Holder studied the effects of a two-week nature-based well-being intervention (compared to control groups) and found that the nature group had higher levels of positive emotions.

Holder teaches and researches positive psychology, which is a branch of psychology that applies the findings of traditional psychology to improve and enhance measures of mental wellness such as happiness and life fulfilment.

He studies whether well being can be enhanced by exposure to nature, and pointed to several studies that have confirmed this hypothesis.

For example, big data analyses that evaluate tweets and Facebook posts have shown that messages are generally more positive and less aggressive when a person has recently entered a greenspace such as Central Park.

In other studies that exposed people to greenspaces, wetlands and indoor gardens, increases in mood and decreases in stress were measured after as little as five minutes.

Research has shown that we tend to overestimate how happy a given experience will make us. In other words, the experience does not live up to the anticipation. However, there are two exceptions to this rule, where the experience makes us happier than we expected: being in nature, and exercising. These have both been shown to provide more benefit than expected.

Isabel Budke incorporates nature, exercise and social connection into wellness and leadership development at UBC. This month, UBC is hosting “THRIVE”, a month-long series of events to promote mental health and general wellbeing.

Budke is leading two events titled Wednesday Wanderings: Forest-Bathing Walk where UBC (Vancouver) students, staff and faculty are invited to stroll together through Nitobe Memorial Garden.

Budke is an organizational development consultant and leadership coach at UBC, who learned the benefits of nature firsthand through a longtime passion for mountaineering and her own difficult journey of concussion recovery.

She emphasizes that mental health is just one component of overall wellbeing, along with physical, spiritual and emotional health. And forest bathing in a group can benefit all of these dimensions.

Scientists are quick to caution that the short-term benefits of interactions with nature are relatively well known, whereas longer-term benefits require further study.

In other words, interaction with nature is likely to elevate mood and reduce stress in measurable ways, but it is not a substitute for the care that can be provided by medical professionals.

Even with this caveat, the message from this science is unambiguous: The research suggests that nature, exercise, and social relations all improve mental wellbeing, and Forest Bathing with friends combines all three benefits.

Environmental scientists refer to benefits we derive from nature as “Ecosystem Services.” Unfortunately, many ecosystem services result in some degradation of the environment during the extraction of food, materials and energy from the earth.

Environmental economists assign some value to the ecosystem service provided, minus the resulting damage to the environment, so that cost-benefit analyses can inform sustainable development.

Recent analyses that included Forest Bathing as an ecosystem service showed that the potential benefits are substantial, whereas the cost in both economic and environmental terms are close to zero – a stroll in the forest is a low-impact ecosystem service.

As the global population continues our increasing trend of urbanization, opportunities to reconnect with nature become critically important. Here in the Okanagan, we are fortunate to have fantastic urban-forest-interface parks like:

  • Myra-Bellevue
  • Bear Creek
  • Kalamalka Lake
  • Skaha Bluffs
  • Mission Creek Parkway and many others.

For more energetic hikes, we are lucky to have local options such as:

  • Okanagan Mountain
  • Giant’s Head
  • High Rim Trail
  • Boucherie Mountain and other hikes.

The opportunities for a stroll in the forest are never far away.

So step away from the device, grab your friends, and head into the woods.

The politics of water

NDP veteran MP Charlie Angus recently demonstrated everything that is wrong with Canadian politics and First Nations water issues.

While speaking in the B.C. Interior, Green Party leader Elizabeth May floated the idea of having SNC-Lavalin serve community service by providing water-treatment engineering to First Nations communities, according to Huffington Post.

In principle, the idea would solve two problems:

  • improve water infrastructure for First Nations communities
  • punish the engineering firm in a way that would save jobs.

Is this a great idea?

Probably not, but for reasons that Ms. May would not be reasonably expected to realize. As a consultant who has worked for a few companies like SNC, I can tell you that an unintended consequence of this proposal would be low quality of work associated with those projects.

Consultants do their best work when they are fully engaged with a client and they have some long-term ownership over the project.

Assigning engineers and scientists to “punishment” projects would almost certainly result in low-quality work – precisely what needs to be avoided if we are to improve First Nations water infrastructure.

Nevertheless, Ms. May deserves credit for at least trying to come up with novel ideas to address both of these issues. Clearly, the status quo is not working for many First Nations water systems, and the first step to addressing the issue is to open the table for discussion.

Unfortunately, First Nations water is a third-rail topic, and politicians are quick to use any statement about this issue as weapon with which to bludgeon whichever opponent dares speak about it.

Case in point: Angus, who rushed to Twitter to condemn Ms. May’s idea, saying he was “appalled” that Ms. May would propose “privatizing” First Nations water.

His statements epitomize all that is wrong with politics. As a 15-year MP who is heavily involved in First Nations issues, he knows full well that most, if not all, water infrastructure projects in Canada are carried out by consultants.

This applies to municipal and federal contracts, on and off reserves. Having SNC or any other consultant engineer water systems does nothing to “privatize” water. If this were the case, virtually all water in Canada would have been privatized decades ago.

Additionally, it strains credulity to accuse Ms. May of wanting to privatize water. While I don’t endorse or even agree with many of the Green Party’s positions, their platform on water conservation, and not privatization, is unambiguous.

It takes an obscenely high level of political opportunism to suggest otherwise.

If politicians cannot float ideas to improve First Nations water infrastructure without immediately having their ideas distorted for political gain, we will be stuck with the status quo forever – this is not a very progressive approach for the NDP to take.

Jump off plastic ban wagon

Single-use plastic has become the government’s straw-man villain.

When a politician announces a ban on a product and promises science-based recommendations to follow, you can be fairly certain that the science will be a farce.

This appears to be the case with the federal government’s recently announced ban on single-use plastics.

To be sure, some products are rightfully banned on science-based environmental grounds. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act specifies criteria for chemicals that should be “virtually eliminated” due to their high risk to human and environmental health.

However, there is an important difference between banning these toxic chemicals versus the recently announced ban on plastics: For the former group, the ban followed the science, not the other way around.

In other words, scientists knew the chemicals were toxic, and the government took that advice and instituted a ban. In contrast, the government has now decided that single-use plastics need to be banned, and will produce the science to justify this politically motivated ban.

Perhaps that is a cynical view, but consider the statements made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Federal Environment Minister McKenna, who cite the ocean plastics crisis as the reason to ban plastic straws across Canada.

There is an ocean of difference between their justification and reality.

Also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Ocean Plastic Gyre, there is abundant evidence that ocean plastic is accumulating at alarming rates, in both large visible garbage piles and microscopic particles.

However, there is also abundant evidence that most ocean plastic originates in Africa and Asia, not Canada. Do a Google search for “river of plastic” and you will see appalling images of rivers choked with garbage, most of it plastic.

But you will not find any such thing in Canada.

The problem with plastic is not that we are dumping it in the ocean – it is that we are not recycling enough of the already recyclable plastic that we use. Too much of it goes straight to the landfill, despite having readily available technology to recycle it.

Here is an inconvenient truth about plastic recycling. Noble intentions only get us so far in terms of motivating people to recycle their own waste.

The irony, as explained in the book Junkyard Planet, is that only market forces will ensure that nearly all recyclable waste from a given stream is sent to the appropriate facility.

Two requirements for this to happen, both of which are lacking in Canada, are:

  • a very cheap supply of labour to process the waste
  • a market for the waste materials.

In places like Shanghai, virtually all reusable or recyclable material is removed from a waste stream before it reaches its final resting place.

That is not because the Chinese are devout environmentalists, but because people there are willing or desperate enough to sort through other people’s garbage to recover a few cents worth of value from discarded materials, and because they have a viable re-use market for things that we consider junk.

We could achieve the same rates of recycling here, but it would be incredibly expensive. Even with modern sorting technology, the process is labour intensive and people don’t work for pennies in Canada.

One problem is that we often don’t sort our waste at the point of disposal. Take a look at the picture of the garbage bin, taken in a city park. Do you notice that much of the “garbage” is actually recyclable material?

If a seal is choking on a piece of plastic, the seal does not care whether that plastic was recyclable. None of the recyclable plastic in this picture would be affected by a ban on single-use plastic.

Another problem with the ban:

  • large categories of products will need to be exempted to avoid putting human health at risk.

For example, virtually all medical supplies are wrapped in single-use plastic, as are many food supplies. This is not simply convenient; it is safe and sterile.

If you care about reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment or landfill, there are things that we can all do to reduce our plastic footprint.

First, avoid using plastic bags whenever possible. Plastic bags are a problem for a few reasons.

They are difficult to process in recycling depots and have a poor resale market, so they often end up in a landfill, even if they are placed in the proper recycling bin.

Rather than recycling existing plastic bags, drop them off for re-use at grocery stores that accept them, or at dog parks. If they are going to end up in a landfill, they might as well serve a double duty by quarantining doggy’s doodie.

Second, pay close attention to the sorting requirements of recycle bins. Plastics that are not separated from other materials will end up in the landfill.

Even two materials that could be recycled individually, like plastic and cardboard, will be landfilled if they are not separated before being dropped in the bin.

Third, let producers know that you care about the amount of plastic packaging. Some products still come packaged in gratuitous amounts of plastic. Call or email the manufacturer and let them know you care.

And when the politicians come knocking for the 2019 election, ask them where they stand on this issue. Just be wary of the sort of rhetoric that seems to be driving this ban.

In coming articles, we’ll go inside the world of recycling, one waste stream at a time, to find out what else we can do as individuals to reduce our overall waste footprint.

More Okanagan Eco-Noggin articles

About the Author

Jerry Vandenberg is an environmental scientist and owner of Vandenberg Water Science. He lives in the Okanagan region where he is also a paid-on-call fire fighter.

He can be reached at (250) 491-7260; [email protected]; https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerry-vandenberg/

Website: www.vws.ltd


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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