Springing into Action: Major Salt Spring Island Wetland Restoration Project

Braving the morning chill and dew-laden grasses, a team of 5 trudged augers, levels, probes, and flags across what was once Canada’s first organic golf course. Bouquets of electrical wires sprouting from the soil and the occasional lonely golf ball, forgotten through the years, betray the locale’s past life. Originally some of Salt Spring Island’s most productive farmland, half of the area around Blackburn Lake was converted to fairways and greens in 1992. In 2014, it is undergoing another transformation: one that will benefit man and beast alike.

Bouquet of wires speak to the history of the site.
A bouquet of wires speak to the history of the site.

The team mentioned above was composed of members of the Salt Spring Island Conservancy and the one and only Tom Beibighauser, wetland restoration specialist. If it is not already apparent by the company present or the blog you are reading this on, the ghostly golf course is set to receive a major facelift of the wetland variety. Through a phenomenal fundraising campaign; major grants from the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, Salt Spring Island Foundation, and Island Trust funds; and with the support of over 400 community members and volunteers the Conservancy was able to raise the $1 million necessary to purchase the 32.6 acre property in 2013. More than a dozen Species at Risk (including the rare Keen’s Long-eared Bat) and over 90 unique bird species have been discovered on site. Furthermore, 75% of Cusheon Lake’s Water (a major source of drinking water for island residents) comes from Blackburn Lake.

Tom and the team, later joined by yours truly and Neil Fletcher of the BCWF Wetland Education Program, spent several days mapping potential sites for wetland restoration. With 7 of the Island’s drinking water lakes experiencing algae blooms in recent years, wetlands could prove to have a large ecological benefit. Increasing the site’s diversity with wetlands would not only filter water before it reaches the lake, but would also increase the diversity of floral and faunal species. The nearly 30 potential wetlands sites identified by the team will be considered as part of the Blackburn Lake Nature Reserve’s management plan along with plans to control invasive species, incorporate educational components, enhance meadow habitat, and a number of other factors.

Tom and the BCWF’s visit to Salt Spring was also part of two public open house sessions that explored the possibility of including wetlands on the Reserve. On January 21st, Tom took nearly 70 locals through a slideshow of different wetland types and their benefit to the species that live in them. To sell the idea of constructing wetlands on the Reserve, Tom tested the group with images of constructed and natural wetlands, asking them which he created. Laughter erupted as the group was consistently incorrect, proving that within a couple years no one would be able to tell the difference. Neil presented on the BCWF’s role in wetland protection across the province, finishing with examples of people who have gone to protect, restore, and steward wetlands after taking one of our courses.

Tom and Neil answer questions at the open house.
Tom and Neil answer questions at the open house.

Tom presented the next day as well, but this time focused on how wetlands have been historically drained. With that in mind, the 19 participants joined Tom for a walkabout of the site where they were able to observe alterations to the landscape due to the golf course’s construction and historic agricultural activities. Though at first glance the landscape seemed almost pristine in it’s post-recreational state, diverted streams, ditches, remnant wetlands, headcuts, mounds of soil, and drain lines revealed the intense work gone into draining the land. The walkabout was also an opportunity to share ideas and get burning questions answered by a wetland restoration specialist. The group left with confidence that restoring wetlands on the Reserve would be a positive change.

By the third day, we started the journey back to the mainland. As Salt Spring Island faded into the distance, we knew we would return. Next time, excavators will resurrect Blackburn Lake to its former wetland glory!

The Salt Spring Open Houses were sponsored by Shell and HCTF.

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