Technoparc Observations – Letting Some Light In

Like hundreds of other people, it was only in recent months that I became aware of the value of the wetlands at the Technoparc and the threat they are under from two separate development projects. I have listened carefully to the many disparate individuals and groups who have expressed opinions on what can be done to save this site for the wildlife and I have begun to despair at some of the mis-information being talked about in certain circles and accepted as gospel by the troops of the green movement. I am writing this in the hope of letting some light and realism into the debate … perhaps someone will read it? Apologies in advance for its inevitable length, this is a complicated subject.

(Note: What follows are my own opinions and absolutely not official statements from the established groups that I work with on this dossier.)

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Firstly – two important points:

  1. Our thanks to Joel for his tireless efforts to bring the site’s existence and its threatened future before us
  2. We must acknowledge that the conservation movement should have been on top of this five years ago. We all dropped the ball and so at this very late stage are probably going to be involved with damage mitigation rather than prevention. That’s reality.

 

Misconceptions:

The Technoparc is not one large area of wetland under threat from a single developer. There is not one single “Mr. Big” to fight with. In practice there are two areas of land owned by multiple organisations who pose separate challenges which need addressing separately.

  • To the east of Alfred-Nobel is the land owned by the Technoparc and slated to be the site of the new Eco-Campus. This includes a large wetland area, home to many waterfowl and Herons, Egrets etc. This is an important piece of habitat for a surprisingly large number of species when we consider that it is surrounded by industrial development to the north and a major airport to the south. The developers have stated that they will preserve the large shallow pond and go further by building a dyke around the southern edge to ensure a stable water level is maintained. The construction of this dyke starts this September and is due to be completed before next spring. It is important to note that this pond/wetland area is of relatively recent origin having formed on a former area of fields that lie at the bottom of the slope from the existing Technoparc developments and receive rain and snow-melt run-off from those buildings and their care parks etc that contributed to the formation of what we now see.
  • To the west of Alfred Nobel is a larger area of woodland bordering on a second wetland area where we have determined the presence of breeding Least Bitterns, a highly endangered species with special government protections under the SARA protocols (*more on that later*). This land is Federally owned land for the most part and is reserved for the creation of a future city nature park (Parc-des-Sources) and it is not part of the Technoparc. It is not going to be built on by anyone – too many people have taken it as gospel that this area will be drained and destroyed and I consider it is time that belief was put to rest before too much energy is expended. Any threat to this portion of the wetland complex has been expected to come from the proposed REM train line to the airport which will approach from the north and apparently has no alternative but to cross the area somehow. Recently, the REM developers have said that in order to protect the wetlands they will tunnel under the area they need to cross rather than lay their line on raised pylons across it – however the route to be taken by the tunnel is not yet confirmed. In actuality, at the moment it seems very likely from preliminary plans in the public realm that the tunnel will now go under the Technoparc extension of Alfred-Nobel and thus well to the east of the Least Bittern habitat and skirting the Heron Pond. For now we can only wait to see the final proposals and not jump to conclusions – remember, though, that the REM people have shown a willingness to take environmental issues into consideration. Worth noting too, that magical happenings apart, the REM line is going through one way or another. With 5+ billion $$$ behind it plus three levels of government support and a nation’s economy to be stimulated by “spades in the ground” there is almost zero likelihood that the airport link of the REM will not be built.
  • **  I have learned since first posting this that another route for the REM may be possible and is being discussed – this would avoid the site altogether but I have no details. Hopefully we will hear more about this before long.
  • One story doing the rounds in recent weeks and widely believed was that the developers were already draining the wetlands. This was patently false, was confirmed as false by officers of Environment Canada who visited and the very currency of this belief did some damage to the credibility of the cause in official circles.

Here is an extract from the REM Technical Briefing which indicates their currently – but not necessarily final – favoured line for a tunnel below the site. I think it is clear that this is perhaps as good an acknowledgement as we can expect of the existence of an environmental risk and an accompanying solution. Certainly the line shown here is better than any other means of crossing the area that has so far been spoken of.

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Here is a more detailed map to clarify the situation:

rem-2

 

What can be done (in the real world)?

As said earlier, we have all come to this very late in the game. Various groups are trying, by different means, to ensure the minimal amount of harm is done to the important habitat BUT despite the wishful thinking of some people the reality is that these lands will not, indeed probably cannot, remain untouched. Cannot we start by talking to the developers and the authorities rather than by immediate confrontation? There was a successful preliminary meeting on 4 August … why no follow up?

One thing should be made clear, at the start. There is an idea out there that “all the Technoparc people have to do” is to donate the land to the government in return for a tax receipt and the government will then designate it a federally protected wildlife reserve and bingo, problem solved. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! Why? Those promoting this idea (and I agree, it would be wonderful were it to be possible, but it’s dreaming) have not understood what needs to be done to create such a designation – it doesn’t happen overnight. There are procedures to follow. There are huge hurdles to be got over before such a decision could be made. I was personally involved in recent years in the designation of a major wildlife reserve an hour or so north of Montreal and have first hand experience of the hoops to be jumped through. On average such designations take at least five years to become official. So, no magical thinking and no waving of pixie-dust. We have to be realistic and pragmatic – the bulldozers are already warming up.

Ideally, there should be one body speaking for the preservation of the site and its wildlife and plants. But, there isn’t. Montreal has many small local groups working on local conservation files and who have taken an interest in this site and so at the moment we have two loosely allied groups. On the one hand there are the Sierra Club, Sauvons la Falaise, Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme, Les amis du parc Meadowbrook, the Green Coalition and many, many individuals all weighing in on the situation and suggesting things of greater or lesser utility that could be done. These groups, at the moment spearheaded unofficially by the Sierra Club, are aiming, somewhat unrealistically, to stop all development. On the other hand, there are long-established and more science-based conservation groups such as Bird Protection Quebec, Regroupment Québec Oiseaux etc who are quietly active in the background and working to engage the developers and local politicians in dialogue. It would be wonderful if these groups could sit around a table and decide on a common strategy, but there is little sign of that happening just yet.

In the last few days, the first grouping, unofficially led by the Sierra Club, have sent lawyer’s letters to the federal and provincial ministers responsible for environmental matters. if you have not seen these then I urge you to read them; you can download copies at these two links:

I understand why these have been sent and I would like to think that they will be effective in at least putting a temporary hold on immediate developments, but I have my doubts.

In these letters, and in some statements made at press conferences, there is evidence of a misunderstanding of how wildlife protection works. Much emphasis is put in the letters on the presence of a breeding pair of Least Bitterns in the western wetland area. These are a high value, protected vulnerable species with not many extant individuals in Canada, let alone in Quebec and their presence alone ought to be sufficient to put a halt to proceedings. Unfortunately, the protection and recovery strategy for Least Bitterns that has been set in place by the government is based on designated habitats rather than on the presence of individual birds. The consequence of this being that for “our” birds to be protected, this habitat will first of all have to be added to the official list of Least Bittern breeding sites and that, according to statements from the ministry, could take at least a year. It almost certainly is not going to be effective in rapid response to the lawyer’s letters.

Where the letters may score a point is by pointing out that the government permits issued that allow the works to proceed were based on out of date environmental assessments that reported few if any of the vulnerable species of concern that are now known to be present. At the very least, a pause in construction while a process of reassessment is put in place might be in order.

Primarily, these letters put the governments on notice (not a bad thing) but probably will have minimal immediate effect in terms of immediate on the ground protection. Stopping the works scheduled to be effected this winter is unlikely – but who knows – to be the outcome. Remember, the Least Bittern wetland is separate from the one actually on Technoparc property and will not be affected by the dyke.

Others in this grouping are already talking about street protests, marches, even (one person at least) of lying down in front of the bulldozers. This confrontational approach certainly gets media attention, which is important, but rarely actually stops the works going ahead. Some are justifying such thinking by referring to the example of the 14,000 citizens who have signed the petition to preserve the fields near the Anse-a-l’Orme nature park from the imposition of 6000 houses and who could ideally be mobilized to join in this fight too … but there are 14,000 signatories to that petition because many, many people live on the edge of the fields and will be personally affected by developments. Nobody lives on the doorstep of the Technoparc, few even know of its existence and for the most part the only visitors are a couple of hundred birders. It is flying in the face of reason and experience to believe there is going to be the mass public pressure we would like to see.

Out of sight means out of mind for most people.

The second group working on this are concentrating on making effect dialogue wth the developers. On the whole there is a recognition that, like it or not, at least some development will happen in the next few weeks and months and that rather than shouting “stop it right now”, it is probably better to try to put in place a scheme of science-based monitoring and advice and dialogue such that real threats are mitigated or modified. Sitting down and talking to the developers and local politicians, explaining to them the things they don’t know about the biodiversity of the land they are responsible for and helping them to do a better job will pay off in the end.  Those less confrontational groups will speak for themselves in due course, but my personal instinct is that theirs is the preferred approach and the one most likely to achieve acceptable outcomes.

 

Something everyone can do

The creation of the Amis/Friends du Technoparc Facebook Group (currently 145 members and rising) was intended to provide a forum for exchanging thoughts – and is successful in that – and to give any visiting a rapid and easy and widely disseminated place to post information and photographs of building activities so that (a) the developers know they are being watched and (b) any observed damage to the wetlands outside the strict boundaries of the dyke etc are recorded and shared immediately with the expectation that the developers will rapidly react and tell their workers to behave themselves. This is something everyone with a smartphone camera who visits for a bit of birding can contribute to. Please bookmark the link.

There is also a petition you should sign at www.change.org (goo.gl/Z5K74k)

 

Useful Links

What more can a man ask for?

eisenI have been reading and very much enjoying three books by Frederik Sjöberg, a Swedish naturalist, cultural columnist and translator with a particular interest in hoverflies (*details at the end if you would like to read them – I recommend them all but in particular “The Fly Trap”). His books are more random memoirs than about wildlife, in which he diverges frequently and interestingly on the trail of long-forgotten Swedish naturalists and artists. In the third book his particular focus is on Gustaf Eisen who started his long life as a taxonomist and the world’s foremost expert on earthworms and ended it as a famous art historian. In this latter phase he lived, with a cat, in an apartment beside Central Park in New York spending his evenings learning to read cuneiform writing and his mornings walking in the park feeding birds. I was struck by the following paragraph written by Sjöberg:

“His mornings were spent, as usual, in Central Park. He knew over a hundred squirrels as individuals – by name – and we can assume that their friendships were mutual. He must have been one of the real characters of the park and clearly highly respected as such, since we are told that the park administration hired a limousine every spring to drive Eisen around the park so that he could point out the trees in which they should fix new nest-boxes. What more can a man ask for?”

Indeed. That would suit me very well as an epitaph,

___________________
Frederik Sjöberg *“The Fly Trap”* (excellent review at https://goo.gl/UqQS0D )

Frederik Sjöberg *“The Art of Flight and the Raisin King”* (both together in one volume)

Do a “Sasquatch Hour” and sharpen your greenbirding skills

A fun and easy green challenge for birders.

sasquatch-birderThere’s Big Days, Big Years, Big Sits and a dozen other challenges, green or traditional, that allow birders to pit their skills against each other … there are also plenty of birders who are just not competitive and who shrug and wander off into the woods pishing quietly to themselves and that’s fine. At the same time, there are also birders who would perhaps like to have a go but don’t have the time or energy it takes to get organized and do the thing properly for a whole day or year.

Enter the Big Foot Hour … also known, for obvious reasons, as the Sasquatch Hour (thanks Jane for the alternative name).

This idea was devised by the good people at Bird Protection Quebec as part of a suite of green birding challenges they are issuing to ALL Canadian birders during the “Canada Goes Birding” (“Canada célèbre les oiseaux“) phase of their centenary celebrations in 2017 … and if you haven’t heard of this yet, you soon will. It’s infinitely adaptable, however, and something any birder can do any time simply for the interest. It brings some focus to our walks in nature.

Simply put, to perform a Sasquatch Hour you just set off walking, anywhere you like, for 60 minutes and count all the species of birds that you encounter in that period. That’s it. Minimal planning, minimal scouting. Just an hour’s walking, tally up your list and go off for a beer or a coffee with your friends.

You don’t plan to take part in “Canada Goes Birding” during 2017?  Not an issue … do a Sasquatch Hour simply for your own interest and pleasure. Share your count on Facebook or your blog or keep it to yourself. It’s an enjoyable way to sharpen your skills, keep score and to set yourself a personal target. Choose your day, your hour and your location to suit your local birding conditions and to maximize your bird list. That’s all there is to it. What could be easier?

AND … There’s a good chance if you are reading this that you submit sightings to eBird or some other citizen science venture. You undoubtedly have a favourite personal birding patch that you visit often and study. So why not do a regular, say weekly or monthly, Sasquatch Hour and use it to keep track of the birds on your patch or walking route through the seasons and around the year? Standardizing the counts in this way makes them more meaningful.

Do a Sasquatch Hour in 2017 and then tell us how you get on.

Greenbirding Started Here

noha

A policeman saw a truck driving down the road with the back full of penguins. He pulled it over and, not getting a satisfactory explanation from the driver and being concerned for the welfare of the birds, suggested that the driver take the penguins to the zoo “right now!”  The driver agreed that was a good idea. Next day the cop saw this same truck going down the road with the penguins still in the back but this time the penguins were all wearing sunglasses. He pulled the truck over again and said,”I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo.” The driver smiled at him – “Yeah, that’s right, thanks for the suggestion. We went and we had a helluva good time. We’re going to the beach today!

The original Greenbirding logo from the old website
The original Greenbirding logo from the old website

Some years ago this domain (www.greenbirding.ca) was the home of a site promoting the virtues of “Greenbirding” which in essence was and is the idea that we probably don’t have to add yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to see lots of good birds. A small, but important, idea which many birders follow to this day by leaving their cars at home and using their feet and cycle wheels in pursuit of birds around their birding patches. In time it became evident that once the idea was out there, a formal grouping of greenbirders with their own forums and website really wasn’t necessary. The sort of people who think this is a good thing are the sort of self-motivated conservationists who can get themselves organized … and anyway, they were and are all far too busy writing their own Greenbirding blogs!

The cover of the last edition of the Bigby newsletter from 2010 - click to download a copy
The cover of the last edition of the Bigby newsletter from 2010 – click to download a copy

So Dr. Bigby (coincidentally sharing the name of the challenge that has become known as a Big Green Big Year, or BIGBY) wandered off to look at birds on his patch, while retaining ownership of the domain “just in case”.

And now, a few years on and thanks to a superb web hosting deal, we are back … but this time simply as the good Doctor’s personal blog. Somewhere to ramble inconsequentially on matters mostly conservation-associated but not exclusively so. Birds will feature prominently. You do not have to be a birder, green or otherwise, to find something interesting here .. at least, that’s the hope.

For now, let me draw your attention to three excellent Greenbirding-related things:

  • The Green Birding book … if you haven’t got a copy yet check it out here (print and ebook formats)
  • The Green Birders’ Facebook page here
  • For Canadian birders – the “Canada Goes Birding” green birding contest being organized by Bird Protection Quebec as part of their 2017 centenary celebrations. This is for birders throughout Canada – bird for an hour, a day or a year and prove that your province has the best birders. Details here (English) et ici (Francais)