Where the provincial government fails, municipalities lead

Our towns and cities are behind the growing success of the Municipal Stewardship Program.

A few years ago my daughter, Katie, asked me if she could shadow me at work one day. She was 13 at the time and I was working for an environmental non-governmental organization. I was both happy and worried. I was worried because my office work was just that – sitting at a computer or talking on the phone. Not exactly an exciting day for Katie. But I was happy because, as any father of a young teenager knows, you have to take time with your kids where you can get it. I decided to spend part of the day outdoors and this decision was to have far greater consequences than I could imagine.

We went to Lundrigan’s Marsh in the east end of St. John’s. This fascinating wetland actually contains a cattail marsh (cattails are also called bulrushes). Most Newfoundlanders would not be familiar with cattails. They are not very common here. I think they look like tall unlit torches. Indeed, when dried they have been used for this purpose. In fact, this plant has one of the largest entries in Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Anyway, we took some pictures of the marsh which Katie included in a short “field report” she wrote that afternoon. It was a day that we both remember fondly.

Lundrigan’s Marsh is, without a doubt, one of the most threatened marshes in Newfoundland. It is in the middle of an industrial park and is surrounded by everything from office buildings to a used car part dealership. The marsh is protected by the City of St. John’s. And here we get to the meat of this column – the Municipal Stewardship Program.

A made in Newfoundland success

The Municipal Stewardship Program is a “made in Newfoundland” response to a North American-wide effort to conserve wetlands. In this province, the Wildlife Division of the Department of Environment and Conservation administers the program. Their role, however, is not to actually protect land, but to assist municipalities in protecting wetlands within their boundaries. Without going into too much detail, I’ll provide a brief synopsis (and believe me, the history, treaties, agreements, plans and strategies associated with this program deserve at least a couple of university lectures). In short, towns and cities are encouraged to protect their wetlands through stewardship agreements. These agreements are made between the provincial government and the municipality in question. After signing the agreement, the town is responsible for protecting the wetlands through municipal by-laws, zoning or some other mechanism. It is important to note that these wetlands are not protected by the province per se – they are protected by the municipality.

Here’s an example. The lovely town of Stephenville Crossing has long been known to birders, many of whom visit the area each year for interesting bird observations. Within the town’s borders is a small marsh called “the Prairie”. Years ago, the marsh was used as a dump and became a cesspool. With only 25% of the wetland remaining, the local citizens put their money where their mouths where, raised additional funds and created a miracle. Today, it is the jewel of Stephenville Crossing. Located adjacent to the town’s war memorial, the wetland boasts a walking trail, blinds for viewing ducks and a wide variety of wildlife. I’ve enjoyed every visit. I remember seeing the pond roil with schools of Banded Killifish, a small, rare fish found in marshes. By the way, the Prairie was not saved by “eco-hippies” (whatever they are). It was saved through the efforts of average Newfoundlanders, two of whom won awards from the Lieutenant Governor.

Or take the Town of Carmanville, located north of Gander near Musgrave Harbour. Recognizing that they had something special, the town signed a stewardship agreement with the province and subsequently protected some amazing wetlands, especially around Carmanville Pond. This site also has a modern interpretation centre which, in true Newfoundland style, also features information on local history and heroes. I was at the opening of this beautiful building and I remember the pride on the faces of the local residents. That pride only shines through after hard work. They deserve every credit.

Where things can go wrong

Lundrigans Marsh
Photo by Douglas Ballam.

Even Lab City, in mineral rich western Labrador, signed a stewardship agreement in 2005. I say “even Lab City” because all too often Labrador is forgotten or neglected in provincial policy and programs. Nonetheless, this wetland has recently come under threat and, in all likelihood, will be destroyed. Frankly, I will not offer an opinion on the loss of this wetland except to say that it illustrates the weakness of the municipal stewardship program. People involved in protected areas talk about the “strength” of protected areas legislation. This means, among other things, how hard is it to get rid of protected areas. Municipal bylaws however – as ways of protecting municipal wetlands – can be changed relatively easily. Provincial legislation is no guarantee of success, as we’ve seen with our Provincial Parks. Yet, depending on the legislation, it can be quite difficult to change (especially with the strong Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act). My point here is that municipalities cannot do it alone. To truly create a system of viable, effective protected areas, the province must lead. And, as we’ve seen, they haven’t.

But, overall, the municipal stewardship program has been an astounding success. By my count, there are more than 20 communities that have signed such agreements and protected a wetland within their community. But this isn’t their greatest accomplishment. The greatest accomplishment is SAM, or the Stewardship Association of Municipalities.

SAM is simply the group of municipalities which have signed stewardship agreements. They meet twice a year. I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to some of these meetings. I adored them. Where else do you see municipal leaders talking about conservation (often late at night after a few wobbly pops)? We’re not talking about leaders who have run on the “environmental ticket”, although this is true in a few cases. We’re talking about people who see that it is important to have true green spaces in their community. The meetings are run professionally. People share their experiences and concerns. I’ll never forget one town representative saying, “The towns are doing everything. We’re the ones coming up with plans to protect areas and the province still hasn’t released their plan.” Truer words have yet to be spoken. In my heart of hearts I believe SAM has the power to move the conservation agenda forward. I wish them well and hope they succeed in their endeavors to get oil money beyond the overpass.

But back to my daughter, Katie. What were the “greater consequences” of that job-shadowing day? Well, first off, unpermitted development which was encroaching on Lundrigan’s Marsh was halted by the City. Second, the City “remembered” that they had a responsibility to Lundrigan’s Marsh and reminded their staff to patrol the area and take care of the walkway and viewing platform. And, most astonishingly, the City resurrected their “Environmental Advisory Committee”. Don’t get me wrong – our observations would have fallen on deaf ears if it wasn’t for the attention of Sheilagh O’Leary. But, because Katie spent her job-shadowing day with me and we went to Lundrigan’s Marsh, these issues came to light. I think SAM would welcome her with open arms.

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