A Plea to Protect Burns Bog as a UNESCO Site
Environmentalists tend to be a passionate lot, on fire with conviction about the importance of preservation, conservation, and the well-being of the planet. But, despite our convictions, not all of us are activists. Dana L. Miller of Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.), is an environmentalist who not only espouses her beliefs, she follows through with focused activities that support them. Miller is a vocal and dedicated advocate for protecting British Columbia’s Burns Bog with UNESCO designation as a World Heritage site.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Miller by phone from her B.C. home. We began by asking her to tell us what’s unique about Burns Bog and why UNESCO designation would help protect it. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
MILLER: Burns Bog is a domed peat land with an area of about 3,000 hectares. I think there are only two other raised or domed peat lands that are larger than Burns Bog. That’s fairly significant.
There are rare and endangered species within Burns Bog that we can’t afford to lose. For example, Burns Bog is one of only two sites with sandhill cranes.
We have whooping cranes, piping plovers, trumpeter swans, pitcher plants, and a tiny plant called a sundew. Wood bison were at one point in time indigenous to the area. And the red-backed vole lives in the area north of Burns Bog.
Throughout 2004 to 2010, I have been pushing for UNESCO World Heritage designation for Burns Bog.
BPGL: What would that designation mean to Burns Bog?
MILLER: It creates a buffer zone around Burns Bog, which is the largest raised peatland in North America. So it is a carbon sequester — or carbon sink, if you prefer. If anyone disturbs the hydrology of Burns Bog, it releases carbons into the air, as well as methane, which is destructive to the consumption of air by humans. So, it only makes sense to protect the bog.
BPGL: Is there an immediate threat to the bog, or are you advocating for a UNESCO designation to protect against future threats?
MILLER: Currently, there’s a road being built, called the South Fraser Perimeter Road. That road will impact the hydrology of Burns Bog.
They are dumping sand, dirt, and foundation across agricultural land, and packing it down to prepare it for the road to be built. It’s south of the Fraser River, which is the north, top portion of the Burns Bog land.
BPGL: Will the road cut into the bog?
MILLER: Yes. They’ve suggested that it won’t, but Environment Canada, in 2008-2009, confirmed that it will. Then they retracted their position when the Conservative Party of Canada became elected.
Environment Canada has rescinded their position and asked for amendments so the B.C. government can go ahead with the South Fraser Perimeter Road by moving the road ever so slightly away from the lands in the northern region of Burns Bog. However, it still will impact the hydrology, as it does cut into the lag area of Burns Bog.
BPGL: What will be the environmental impact of the road cutting into the bog?
MILLER: It’s an interesting landmass, because in some areas it looks a bit like a forest and in some areas it looks a bit like a wetland. And, in some areas, it looks a bit like a peatland. If you can, imagine a raised, or domed, landmass, and underneath it is a soft, squishy peat area and water below that.
When you cut and slice around the land, of course you’re affecting the flow of the water, the hydrology. When the peat dries out, that’s when the carbons and the methane are released.
The beauty of UNESCO designation is that it creates a buffer zone around the landmass to protect it from any development. There is no other designation — not a national park, not RAMSAR, not any other designation — that would ever protect Burns Bog quite as well as a UNESCO designation.
BPGL: How long would it take to get that designation? Is there any hope of getting it before the road is constructed in that part of the bog?
MILLER: It’s a fickle matter because of the fluctuating wills of government at various levels. In Canada, we have to rely upon the will of the federal government and the provincial government working together. Municipalities are only creatures of the provincial government; they don’t have much say, although they could voice concern.
Ultimately, we need the signature of the prime minister on nomination papers to be sent to the UN Committee for their experts to designate Burns Bog as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
That particular process could take a year, if our P.M. signed those papers, forwarded all the required documents, and put an emergency appeal and priority #1 on Burns Bog to be designated first, before the other nine Canadian sites on the list for consideration. If the P.M. doesn’t have the will to do it, to sign the papers and submit them, then it will take longer.
BPGL: Who is building the road? Is it the province? The federal government?
MILLER: The South Fraser Perimeter Road is a project built by the provincial government of B.C., and it is, in part, funded by the federal government.
BPGL: So, the prime minister would be stopping a project that his government is funding?
MILLER: Yes. The South Fraser Perimeter Road is a component of a larger, national infrastructure program called Gateway. Gateway is meant to nationally move products from overseas through the ports of B.C. to the rails of B.C. to inter-community sites, where the cargo containers are dropped off and unloaded and then moved by trucking companies across Canada on roads.
Although I understand the need for infrastructure in a nation — this is nation-building — it’s not done in an environmentally sustainable manner. And if we continue to build infrastructure in an unsound manner for the people of the communities that are affected by the infrastructure, we simply perpetuate cancers and early deaths of our citizens. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever that we’re putting products before people.
BPGL: Is there a proposed alternate route that could be used to avoid compromising the bog?
MILLER: There were several proposals. There was a northern route. There was a southern route. And then there was the Hoover/Naas route. The Hoover/Naas route was the best proposal; however, it was not seriously considered by the provincial government. The Hoover/Naas Proposal was created by two local Delta residents in B.C. They suggested that, if we’re going to transfer goods across B.C. through Delta, which is a haven for local agricultural use, why not use the existing railway at the most southern area, which would not impact Burns Bog at all?
BPGL: And nobody paid any attention?
MILLER: Local media, yes. Provincial media, some. National media, not so much, because they didn’t feel that it was a national issue. But if you tie the South Fraser Perimeter Road and its effects upon Burns Bog as a carbon sequester, then you can make it a national issue. Gateway is for national infrastructure. Reducing carbons is a national issue. But national media didn’t grab it. I guess the subject wasn’t sensational enough.
BPGL: What are the hot points of the industries that are pushing this route?
MILLER: The trucking association that was originally created to advance the issues of truckers seems to now advance the issues of truck company owners. Of course, we are aware of who lobbies government: It’s industry, often, because they have more money to do so. They want a road that will expedite the movement of the products in a faster manner so that it costs them less money in labor, fuel, wear and tear on the trucks, and so forth.
BPGL: How many kilometers would they save, in their contention, by having this southern route?
MILLER: That I wouldn’t know. But I do know that their argument is that, if one truck was moving from Delta port through to where it needed to be, they would save 15 minutes, approximately.
There are numerous trucking firms. But the pressure is coming from all of the companies and company associations overseas that move their products through cargo containers through the port of Delta, and then throughout the lower mainland to the Fraser Valley.
BPGL: Huge lobbying efforts, then.
MILLER: A tremendous amount of lobbying that has occurred over the past, probably 15 years.
BPGL: How did you get involved in this issue?
MILLER: In 2003, I connected with a gentleman named John Hague, whom I met through the Green Party of Canada. At the time, he was a Director at Large with the Burns Bog Conservation Society. I was a donor — probably a member — of the Society. He had suggested that we need UNESCO protection for Burns Bog. I asked him, “Could I please be involved in that?”
So I prepared a package with John — as well as Eliza Olson, the president of Burns Bog Conservation Society at the time. We forwarded that to a Member of Parliament.
We didn’t hear back from the Member of Parliament with anything substantial enough to move on, but at least it raised some awareness in Parliament about Burns Bog, its rare habitat and species.
John and I ran for the Green Party of Canada as candidates in the 2004 federal election. We built electoral district associations in the lower mainland — about three of them — in conjunction with several other candidates. That’s how the Green Party of Canada ran its slate of 308 candidates across Canada for the first time.
John has since retired. He left Burns Bog Conservation Society, so I continued carrying the torch.
BPGL: What is your position with Burns Bog today?
MILLER: I was a Director at Large with the Burns Bog Conservation Society for approximately six months. But I’ve resigned because, in their 21 years of existence, they’ve not created a plan of protection and conservation. Like I said, there’s been lobbying going on long enough that they should have had that as a foremost effort.
But what they’ve done, instead, is focus on a tremendous amount of education regarding the Delta Nature Reserve, which is the eastern portion of less than two percent. That is managed by the municipal government, called Delta Corporation. Delta Corporation is telling the Burns Bog Conservation Society what they can and cannot do in there, in terms of removing invasive species and when they can have educational tours.
So I don’t feel that the Burns Bog Conservation Society has done what it needed to do, creating a strategic communications plan for the protection of Burns Bog as a whole. I realize they were a lot of volunteers; it’s a society. But they’ve been around for 21 years, so I don’t see that we can really afford them an excuse for not having created a plan of action. So I resigned.
BPGL: Are you speaking today as a concerned community member or do you represent another interest?
MILLER: I’m speaking as a founder of Sustainable Earth, which is an unincorporated, unfunded company that I started. I am passionate about the protection of Burns Bog, fully and finally, in perpetuity with UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
I certainly haven’t made a dollar off my efforts to save the bog in the years that I’ve been advocating. I’m just deeply passionate about making sure that humans are healthy. And I know that the surest way of doing that is working with Mother Nature, not against her.
Here we have a gift! Burns Bog is a jewel, for not only Canada but the United States and all of North America. It’s a carbon sink. Never mind carbon taxes and cap and trade; if we were to start the protection of wetlands and peatlands across Canada and the United States, think of all the carbon storage we would create so that we didn’t emit this into the air, and we had a head start to reducing carbon.
BPGL: How many bogs are there in Canada that you know of?
MILLER: Oh, hundreds. Canada has about 113 million hectares of peat land/wetland. There are about 400 million hectares of peat land/wetland across five continents.
It’s always easier to get the protection of wetlands and peat lands when you have farmers, developers, and First Nations on your side. There’s a lot of the land — about 500 acres — around Burns Bog that are still owned by blueberry farmers and cranberry farmers, and people who are sitting on the lands and just holding onto it because it’s profitable, and they can get millions from the government if the government ever decides to buy them. I’m sure the same happens down in the United States.
We also have a lot of wetlands in First Nations territory. The sooner that connect starts to occur between the farmers, the developers, and the First Nations, to see the value of protecting those lands, the sooner we’ll be able to reduce carbons in the air from when the hydrologies of the lands are affected by development. That’s what is happening: Agriculture and development are releasing the carbons in the air from wetlands and peat lands.
BPGL: Are they harvesting the peat in Burns Bog? Or is it all protected?
MILLER: They did in the past, but not now. A tremendous amount of equipment got — pun intended — “bogged down.” They just left it there, because it’s a lot cheaper
BPGL: Can you tell us a bit about the culture of the area?
MILLER: It’s the traditional area of the Tsawwassen First Nation. They have access to Burns Bog under a landmark treaty ratified last year with the provincial government. It’s the first urban treaty to have been ratified in the history of British Columbia, Canada. Now the Tsawwassen First Nations are a free people. They are no longer ruled by the government of Canada.
BPGL: How do the Tsawwassen feel about the South Fraser Perimeter Road?
MILLER: They would like Burns Bog protected. I believe there are six traditional heritage sites there, like a small village. Within the agreement with the provincial government, the Tsawwassen First Nation — along with advisors of several other First Nations groups — received cash and land, as well as hunting, harvesting, gathering rights to Burns Bog. I haven’t heard any vocal protest at this time from the Tsawwassen First Nation or any other First Nations group.
BPGL: Are there any burial grounds or archeological preservation rights that need to be protected?
MILLER: This is part of the argument for UNESCO designation for Burns Bog. The bog is of environmental, scientific, and cultural importance, and that’s why it needs this higher designation to create a buffer zone around it. There are six sites of the First Nations heritage there.
But as an archaeologist friend once said to me, agreements are made to governments in cash, land, and other items of value to First Nations so that roads can be built in sensitive areas. So there will be a road, the South Fraser Perimeter Road, on or beside a First Nations village. I don’t know the size of that village. I understand it’s small, but they agreed to it.
My concern is that no First Nations group has been vocal about the full protection for Burns Bog.
BPGL: Who does Burns Bog legally belong to?
MILLER: Four levels of government got together in 2004, and they used $73 million from the taxpayers’ coffers to save Burns Bog. What that meant was, these four levels of government used the money to buy the core area of Burns Bog from developers and farmers in order to manage it at a government level, whether it be the Delta Corporation, or the province of B.C., or the federal government.
When they saved Burns Bog, they signed a covenant. But a covenant is not a legal document; a covenant is nothing more than an agreement of use and management of the land. So however the government of the day sees fit to manage and use Burns Bog, they can. And that’s why we need UNESCO designation, because it’s full and final and legal, and all levels of government will have to abide by the law. Canada is a signatory to the UNESCO agreement.
GBPGL: What do you think the odds are?
MILLER: I believe the road will happen, but I also believe we will get designation. What’s interesting about this is that Parliament — the Research Bureau, and so forth — they have to create the documents on these matters. They do research, and they’ve even admitted that a National Park designation couldn’t occur for Burns Bog, because the federal government would have to have clear title to ownership.
Right now, the federal government doesn’t own all of the land that they purchased with the other three levels of government in 2004. Of the full $73 million, the government of Canada contributed something like $28 million. The remaining funds came from Delta Corporation and the provincial government, as well as metro Vancouver.
It’s quite interesting. They purchased Burns Bog, and they claimed they saved it; but they signed a covenant and not a legal document. And right now, there is not a Species at Risk Act in B.C. that will protect any of those rare or threatened species in Burns Bog. In fact, the South Fraser Perimeter Road will run right through the habitat area of the rare red-backed vole.
BPGL: And nobody stops that?
MILLER: We’ve had demonstrations. We’ve had letters to the editors. There’s a petition circulating right now. It’s been announced in the Parliament. I’ve written a policy, submitted it to the Liberal Party of Canada. It was accepted, put into their 2008 platform, and they ran on it. But they weren’t elected to government, therefore we don’t have the nomination for Burns Bog occurring at this time. The government we have is regressive, not progressive in terms of environmental protection.
They have saved Burns Bog with $73 million tax dollars for the purposes of managing and using it to build a road. There isn’t any way of getting around that truth.
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