For Peat’s Sake!

Coming together to protect the Northern Saskatchewan muskeg

by Valerie Barnes-Connell

The wetlands of Thursley Common, Surrey, England in the evening winter sun.

What is muskeg, and why is it important to protect it? Many residents of La Ronge, Saskatchewan and the surrounding area are finding out, and they are concerned about a proposed peat moss mining project near their homes.

The word muskeg is taken from the Cree maskek and the Ojibwe mashkiik. Peat is formed when dead mosses and other plants slowly form layers of compacted material, which can be many metres thick. Much of northern Saskatchewan and other northern parts of Canada and the circumpolar area are covered with muskeg, also called bogland or peatland.

Peat mining comes to Saskatchewan

In November 2018, Lambert Peat Moss Inc. made a proposal to the Saskatchewan government for a peat harvesting development on four parcels of muskeg south of La Ronge, totalling up to 2619 hectares (approximately 6472 acres) over an 80-year period. The project would involve clearcutting trees, stripping the land of stumps and vegetation, construction and maintenance of roads and drainage ditches, harvesting peat moss, and restoration of the landscape.

Industrial peat extraction

Industrial peat extraction

There has been some peat mining in Saskatchewan since the 1950s, but there is a growing awareness of its harmful environmental and sociocultural effects. A community engagement meeting held by Lambert in September 2020 caught the attention of Miriam Körner, a local author, artist, and wilderness guide, who alerted other community members. A number of concerned residents formed the group For Peat’s Sake: Protecting Northern Saskatchewan Muskegs and created a Facebook page of the same name that now has more than 1000 members.

Group members began to inform themselves and share information about the many valuable properties of muskegs. They reached out to other local residents and groups such as local trappers, Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB), and Métis Nation Saskatchewan, and organized a campaign of contacting government officials and the media, and a speakers’ series and film presentations on their Facebook page.

“The many layers of the muskeg, the rich composition of plant life and water, teaches interconnection of all life, people, animals, birds, plants … what are we going to leave our great grandchildren?”

Elder Eleanor Hegland offered her thoughts on the importance of muskeg at a community gathering and ceremony. She grew up and still lives on the muskeg, and taught culture and language in LLRIB schools for several years. She remembers as a young child digging in the muskeg and being taught by the elders not to destroy it, “because it cleans our water; it gives us life; to them the muskeg was sacred.” She also noted that many plants that people have used for medicine for hundreds of years grow in muskeg, and said, “That’s the thing, it’s our pharmacy … for a lot of people, the land provides.”

Carbon bomb

Climate activists and others have identified many reasons to preserve muskeg intact. As Eric Reder of Wilderness Committee puts it, “I don’t like to use war analogies, but mining peat is like releasing a climate change bomb.” Environmental analysit Roger Harrabin explains, “A wet, pristine peat bog soaks up CO2 and, unlike trees, has no limit to the amount of carbon it captures … But a dry, degraded bog … is a big source of CO2 as the carbon in the bog oxidizes.”

Lambert pledges to reclaim and restore the mined peatlands: “The Decommissioning and Restoration Plan will aim at re-establishing vegetation cover and restoring hydrology so that the sites will be on a trajectory that will lead to the return of peatland ecological functions and services.” A close reading of this statement raises doubts. At the rate that peat accumulates (approximately 1mm per year) how long will it be before the peat recaptures the amount of carbon it stored prior to mining? Several lifetimes, at least.

Flood, drought, and fire

Muskeg serves to mitigate both flood and drought conditions, as moss and peat soak up or release water. Wildfires have swept through boreal regions in the last several years, and bogs can act as fire breaks. However, mined fields, drained of water and stripped of vegetation, lose all of these beneficial properties. They burn readily – and once started, peat fires can burn underground for months and even years. If Lambert is permitted to go ahead with its plans, the La Ronge area could see an increased risk from forest fires, which alarms many local people in light of the 2015 wildfire season that resulted in the evacuation of 14,000 people. Ironically, a mined field in one of Lambert’s properties in Québec was burned over in a wildfire in the summer of 2020.

Biodiversity

The area that Lambert proposes to mine is home to woodland caribou, which have been in decline for decades and are listed as “threatened” under the federal Species at Risk Act. It will be important to consider the cumulative effects of peat mining and other land disturbances in the area, together with climate change, in order to understand the potential effects of Lambert’s proposal on this population.

For peat’s sake

Many residents of the La Ronge area, Indigenous people and settlers alike, value the muskeg for much more than tax revenue for provincial coffers, employment for 25 people (which may be seasonal), and “offsets” for caribou habitat, which would involve restoration of areas outside of the disturbed area. Hegland speaks of using the muskeg as a healing tool in her teaching days. When she had a student who had a bad weekend at home, she would take them to the muskeg behind the school. She would lie with them in the muskeg and tell them to “Let it go… it’s healing for the kids.… The many layers of the muskeg, the rich composition of plant life and water, teaches interconnection of all life, people, animals, birds, plants…. Why it really bothers me so much, what are we going to leave our great grandchildren?”

In the video called “Standing Together to Protect Muskeg: ta-kistîthihtamahk ikwata-manâcihtâyahk wâpâstâskamikwa,” Körner summarized a view that was common to many group members by saying, “The Western industrial view of land as a resource to be exploited clashes with the Indigenous view of land being sacred.”

The project is currently in the environmental assessment process with the Saskatchewan government, but the group is advocating for a federal process. Some members have expressed the view that consultation is not a satisfactory way for corporations and government officials to engage with First Nations and Métis. They would prefer a more cooperative approach, with the aim of protecting the values that they assign to the land, not simply its use value.


Valerie Barnes-Connell lives in LaRonge, Saskatchewan.


Watershed Sentinel Cover April/May, 2021

This article appears in our April | May 2021 issue.


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