Two major environmental victories have taken place recently, derailing important parts of the war on the environment. Both victories saved programs to plant trees. Trees are critical to rescuing Lake Erie from massive algae blooms brought on by the twin evils of deforestation and phosphorus pollution.
Trees are especially vital as part of wetland swamps, acting as the kidneys of the earth. Lake Erie’s tributaries, such as the Grand, the Thames and the Maumee, were once lined by magnificent swamps full of oaks, sycamores and hickories. These areas absorbed nutrients that would have otherwise dried up Lake Erie through gradual eutrophication.
Lake Erie’s watershed has become virtually stripped of its cleansing tree swamps. Now when rain pours down on fertilizer-soaked fields, Lake Erie is assaulted by a toxic brew of excess nutrients. In the summer of 2014, Toledo, Ohio (a city of 400,000 people) had its lake supply of drinking water shut down for three days.
Toledo’s taps were turned off by an explosion of harmful algae, such as cyanobacteria, which produces toxins including microcystin. Cyanobacteria presents significant risks to fish, wildlife and human health, causing gastrointestinal upsets, liver damage and skin rashes.
Not only do these ugly blooms create excessive nutrient loadings, Cladophora algae also create a nuisance. They make beach swimming impossible without costly and sometimes environmentally disruptive clean-ups. These clean-ups can often destroy or disrupt habitats for animals such as the endangered Fowler’s Toad.
Eventually algae blooms fall to the bottom of Lake Erie. Here they decay and in the process, absorb a significant amount of oxygen. At times this process has made about 20 percent of Lake Erie a dead zone, devoid of fish and other aquatic life.
In July 2017 with substantial bi-partisan support, the US Congress rejected President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the $300 million Great Lakes Initiative. Great Lakes restoration funding is continuing at the levels seen before Trump’s time in office. This funding includes a $300,000 pilot project to restore a vanished wetland within the former Great Black Swamp of the Maumee River.
One of the most important measures of the Congressionally rescued Great Lakes Initiative is to encourage reforestation programs in the Great Black Swamp Basin. These efforts are crucial to ending the phosphorus loadings on Lake Erie caused by agricultural run-off pouring into streams stripped of their protective tree cover. This is the key measure to affirm the objective of a 40 percent reduction in Ohio’s phosphorus loadings in the Great Lakes Initiative.
On June 5th, 2019, a major environmental victory in Canada was won when the Federal Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, ensured funding of Ontario’s 50 Million Tree Program. Launched in 2008, this initiative provided the $4.7 million dollars of annual funding needed to plant an additional 27 million trees over the next four years. On average, the program has planted 3 to 5 million trees a year in Southern Ontario.
To put this in perspective, the 50 Million Tree Program by Premier Dalton McGinty caused tree planting programs to crawl back slowly from the levels experienced in 1990, when the programs launched by the province in 1905 had peaked. Before cutbacks began with Premier Robert Rae in 1993 and then intensified by Premier Michael Harris in 1996, during the previous three decades, tree planting had been at an average of 22 million trees annually.
The cutbacks in tree planting by Rae and Harris were encouraged by junk science regarding Lake Erie. At the time, it was claimed that Lake Erie was suffering from a phosphorous deficit. Such junk science removed the most obvious reason for keeping massive publicly financed tree plantings, following the floods and deserts that sparked reforestation efforts at the start of the early 20th century.
This rejection of Premier Ford’s attempted shut-down of the 50 Million Tree Program has much to do with the advocacy of long-standing tree nurseries. One of these nurseries was the Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville, located just south of Ottawa. They issued a widely read statement that the death of the 50 Million Tree Program would cause them to destroy 4 million trees ready for planting. The federal government swooped in to help.
Unlike other tree nurseries geared to afforestation in southern Ontario, the Ferguson Nursery retained its original purpose. The nursery helped grow the trees that turned what was once the Bourget Desert east of Ottawa into the 108 square kilometer ecologically restored Larose Forest.
The Ferguson Nursery was able to save the Ferguson Station property largely out of community support and the threat to the forest created by the station. There was a widespread fear that the forest would be sold to developers for a strip mall. Public pressure caused the municipal government at the time (then called Oxford Township), to announce that it would refuse to change the zoning of the property to permit development.
For two years until its current non-profit model established in the Ferguson Forest Centre Corporation, the Ferguson Nursery was run by volunteers, many of whom were Mohawks from Akwesasne. Trees grown in the nursery in recent years have been used in a phosphorous trading program by the South Nation Conservation Authority around the Larose Forest. The authority found that paying farmers to plant trees along streams vulnerable to flooding as pollution buffers is a more cost effective way to reduce pollution, compared to upgrading sewage lagoons.
The other southern Ontario afforestation stations at Orono (for the Oak Ridges Moraine), Midhurst, and St. Williams were located in remote locations, which during the 1990s, were distant from the pressures caused by urban sprawl, muting their potential to spark protests. The Midhurst and Orono stations were closed down. Later however, a campaign was mounted to save the surrounding Springwater Provincial Park, after the Midhurst station had been closed for 20 years. The reforestation station at St. Williams was privatized and reoriented towards largely growing trees for commercial logging.
Shutting down public tree nurseries made tree planting more costly to farmers, encouraging more land for crops like corn and soybeans that demand heavy use of fertilizer nutrients. Chatham Kent is one of the biggest contributors to phosphorus loadings in the area. Forest cover collapsed to below 5 percent, with much of the remaining land being in provincial parks and the Delaware Moravian Indian Reserve. After the closure of public nurseries, forest cover in the Upper Thames declined by 8 kilometers from 2000 to 2008.
The US Congress’ reaffirmation of the Great Lakes Initiative over Trump’s objections provides adequate funding for healing the battered kidney of Lake Erie. Restoring the wetlands of the Great Black Swamp on a scale comparable to how the Ferguson Nursery reforested the Bourget Desert is critical to overcoming the worst threat to our freshwater inland seas. Victories against anti-environment forces on both sides of the border to kill tree planting and ecological restoration in the past two years shows that great battles to heal the Great Lakes can be won.