Great Healing Forests and Water

Urgent update: Since the discovery of the expansion of the range of the dense blazing star, a new threat has emerged to their survival. Without any reporting of their expansion or of the extent of the destruction in February 2020 to the adjacent habitat of a rare orchid, the Great Plains Lady Tress, Niagara Falls is going ahead with a Public Meeting on Tuesday, October 6, 2020. Due to COVID the meeting is virtual. You MUST get your comments submitted before the 6th. City Council could proceed to authorize their destruction, subject to an appeal to the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal. (LPAT) 

To send a written brief, write to aherlovitch@niagarafalls.ca on or before, October 6, 2020.

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On a hot and dry August 14, 2020, an expedition explored the complex ecosystem, extending over 500 acres, that has come to be known as the Thundering Waters Forest, in Niagara Falls.  It challenged findings of the ecological consultants’ of the would-be developer, GR Canada. Our findings challenged in many ways excuses that have been churned out to destroy this refuge of biodiversity in Canada’s Carolinian zone.

Upon entering the forest south of Oldfield Road we discovered that even road ruts in the wetland provided a refuge for amphibians, such as green frogs and bullfrogs, during the heat and dryness of mid-August. A reality emerged that was very different from the nonsense used by GR Canada’s consultants, (now Savanta, formerly Dougan), to deny that a wetland they labeled Wetland Number One, should be removed from its former protected wetland status.

The magnificence of the towering oak and hickory forest south of Oldfield Road brought to mind what the Mohawk elder Danny Beaton (Turtle Clan) has described as the “Great Healing Forest and Waters.” Beaton explains how, “Once we start walking into the forest, if the trees are tall we can’t help but look up into the treetops of the cathedral forests that can hypnotize you and open your eyes and mind to a breathtaking freedom and healing from plant life. My partner/wife used to insist on going for hikes every day, summer or winter, but winter was most exciting because you knew you were going to heal from the cold and the deep snow made you work, thrice as hard walking through the forest, unless you had snowshoes.”

At the forest edge of the infamously down-rated Wetland Number One. Savanta’s studies predicted that by early July, two vernal pools off of Dorchester Road would be dry and useless for amphibians. However, in the middle of one of these we saw tadpoles swimming. In the adjacent mud the pad prints of a raccoon were visible.

The wetland was also surrounded by buttonbush plants, which are recognized as a rare ecological community in Ontario. It is hoped that buttonbush will expand its range, to increase habitat for the wood duck. Ecologists are hoping to restore to wood duck to their former abundance, set back by past over-hunting.

Beaton’s words resonate leaving from the forest to the Savannah. He tells us, “Ontario is notorious for its magnificent woodlands Carolinian, savanna, coniferous, deciduous, lush woodlands of Kenora, Canadian Shield, Hudson Bay Lowlands. Pine forests cover a great part of Ontario, with sugar maple, birch, ironwood, black walnut, red oak, endless species… All types of berries surround our forests with plenty of mushrooms. My wife was of Polish descent and took me on my first mushroom picking adventures. Strawberries, raspberries, black, blue, cranberries are all part of Ontario forests and wetlands. Native people have been hunting and gathering traditional medicines since the beginning of time. The maple tree is the leader of all the trees and the strawberry is the leader of the berries.”

The most astonishing discovery was to document the presence of five additional meadows of a threatened wildflower, dense blazing star. (Liatris spicata). It was discovered during an occupation protest of the site. As in much of its range in Thundering Waters it is found in “openings of savannas or open woodlands dominated by oaks.”

Lands where flowering stems of the species were identified by the occupiers, including Daniel Nardone who discovered the species, were withdrawn from the development. However, additional clusters of the species outside of the occupation campsite were not acknowledged by Savanta. It claimed inaccurately, that all the areas where the species was found were withdrawn from the development area, but refused to identify, the precise locations where it is present.

The beautiful purple dense blazing star is a spectacular symbol of one of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems, the Tall Grass Prairie of Eastern North America. Over 95 percent of this rare landscape has been lost. Its Ontario Species Recover Plan notes that development is one of the major threats to the species, which it finds “will likely always be vulnerable to human-induced and natural stressors.” Eighty percent of the Canadian population is confined to the Indian Reservation of Walpole Island (from MNRF Recovery Plan for Liatris spictica- Dense Blazing Star available online.

Although the expedition revealed new wonders of Thundering Waters terrible scenes of devastation were exposed also. Trees were cut throughout the savanna area and in some places piles of wood chips from the cutting were so deep that in the past five months no new vegetation has been able to grow up to poke through the debris.

After the last illegal cutting, we came upon what appears to be an 80-year-old white pine plantation on around a dozen acres. Although likely planted in the 1930s, perhaps as part of the reforestation work on the legendary Sir Harry Oaks, this landscape has assumed old-growth forest characteristics. Like most of the ecological restoration work of the great Chief Forester of Ontario, Edmund Zavitz, it is becoming a typical Carolinian mixed forest. Although studies by both Dougan and Savanta deny it has any ecological significance, below the towering pines young seedlings are growing of pin oaks. The proposed Riverfront development includes plans to completely destroy this area.

Beaton recognizes that “The pine tree is the spiritual symbol of the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy. In our way of life plants are our sisters, the animals our brothers, the moon is our grandmother, the sun our brother. How could we destroy something that is part of our human makeup? We are part of nature, nature is part of our sacred journey. Our old elders told us everything we need to survive is right here: we do not need to go anywhere to survive.”

It is tragic that the battle to protect Thundering Waters has had to go so long since 2008 when an appeal was filed to protect these lands with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). These lands and adjacent areas, one of which became a golf course, were all to be protected by the Preliminary Proposals to the Niagara Escarpment Plan released in 1977. Sadly, this protection was removed by narrow self-interested protest, when the boundaries of the Niagara Escarpment Plan were reduced.

Beaton observes, “The Niagara Escarpment runs along the Great Lakes through Haudenosaunee Territory and Anishinaabe Territory. For thousands of years, we lived without making any species endangered, or killing forests, wetlands, or hills. Our ancestors are buried throughout Ontario. This has always been a sacred place. As Indian people we are one with Mother Earth: every river, pond, and forest is sacred to our people. We have ceremonies to honour the Sacred Strawberry and Sacred Maple Tree and all Creation on this continent we call Turtle Island. There was no garbage before first contact, there was no police, there were no hospitals. No threats of extinction ever came from Indigenous peoples, no threats of mismanagement known to the woodlands native of the Great Lakes of North-Eastern Canada.

Having said this, I ask Canada and Ontario to ask the Indigenous Peoples of this territory for consideration in all forms of governance, politics, and environmental assessment, because it is our homeland. Homeland of our ancestors for thousands of years. We are watching a mindset that is based on monetary economy and against an Earth-based Life Creation! Our animals, winged ones, insects and fish life has always been included in our ceremonies. We have many clans named in honour and respect: Wolf, Eel, Turtle, and Snipe, just to name a few, and the Deer, leader of the four-legged, the Eagle, leader of the winged-ones. All life has the same rights, as human beings, we are no better than the rest of Creation.”

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