In the Weeds

Gardeners are a congenial lot who enjoy their bucolic settings. It is hard to rustle their feathers. Even in Fort McMurray’s online gardening community, members are extremely respectful when discussing the different approaches to horticulture. Mention glyphosate however, and they stand alert. Tell them that the city will spray the Birchwood trail newly-developed firebreak with Roundup, and you have a full blown feud.

In August 2017, the Fort McMurray Today reported that the Eagle Ridge and Timberlea firebreak areas adjacent to the Birchwood trails would be re-graded and sown with grass by the end of 2017.  However, residents adjacent to the area report that the seeding was not complete everywhere and the “weeds” are rampant.

All gardeners know that leaving a bare dirt patch for any length of time is a recipe for disaster. I don’t blame our hard-working Recovery Team for this miss; we’ve all done it! It’s the solution that rankles.

The City’s proposal? Spray the weeds with Roundup and then seed with grass.

For the good part of ten years, I walked the “Birchwoods” regularly with a friend and our pack of six dogs. It is a beautiful urban forest system sporting 130 km of groomed trails. They are accessible from most of our suburbs in both summer and winter; clean, natural, and teaming with wildlife.

The 2016 wildfire changed the margins of this beautiful forest drastically. In a herculean effort to save the Birchwoods, and the thousands of homes that back onto them, fire fighters bulldozed a wide swath to separate the trees from homes. Returning residents were saddened, but practical, about the need to maintain this once-treed space as a groomed firebreak.

It is unclear when the firebreak was graded and covered with topsoil. However, a quick look today shows that areas where grass seed wasn’t sown immediately are now knee-high in “weeds”. There is no doubt – the battle to plant an easily-mow-able lawn has been lost.

Firebreak behind Kildeer park in Eagle Ridge – no seeding done

What should be done now? Many residents have no problem with the city spraying Roundup, a readily-available herbicide that many lawn growers use themselves. Just as many others, however, are horrified.

There is not a winnable regulatory argument here. Our foremost Canadian authority, “Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency” has given glyphosate the green light in a 2017 re-evaluation. It concludes that glyphosate “does not present unacceptable risks to human health or the environment when used according to revised product labels”. Clearly, we have accepted, explicitly or tacitly, extensive use of herbicides in industrial agriculture.

There are, admittedly, some environmental benefits. Using herbicides reduces tillage and the erosion of top soil that comes with it. (Think Kansas dust bowl).

There is growing global concern about the increasing reliance on herbicides, but even the World Health Organization has published contradicting reports. Finally, Fort McMurray is not one of Canada’s 170 towns or cities that have enacted full or partial bans on pesticides for cosmetic uses.

However, it just doesn’t feel right to spray our beloved Birchwoods with herbicide. This area isn’t a farm, nor is it a full on urban park. It is an urban-wildness interface. Is there a more natural solution?

What is required, anyway, to maintain a firebreak? According to our municipality’s 2017 Wildfire Mitigation Strategy, the following:

Dozer guards and fuelbreaks completed during the 2016 wildfire will require regular mowing and/or burning of native grass for a minimum of 30 metres from structures and/or back lot lines to maintain fuelbreak effectiveness.”[2]

There is no requirement to grow a golf-course green. It is acceptable to allow the area to naturalize and then simply mow it. Would this not be cheaper? And simpler? Are the plants naturalizing in these spaces now actual “weeds” or just the Boreal forest re-seeding itself? Photos of areas in Timberlea and Eagle Ridge show that naturalization is occurring at great speed.

Firebreak behind Brosseau – grass and weeds

Application of the herbicide is a much more complex operation. Buffer zones, depending on wind speed, must be maintained to ensure spray drift doesn’t occur into residential areas, parks, or even the forest itself. This area is complex, multi-use, land that backs directly onto residential streets and therefore “domes” have been proposed to reduce spray drift. In addition, the area must be cleared of human traffic for at least 12 hours afterwards.

This leaves me with another concern.  Do I trust our city to execute this more complex operation without any hiccups, when the much simpler, basic horticulture practice of seeding immediately after grading was not done?

To outsiders, it must seem ironic that Fort McMurray residents, used to living beside or working in heavy industry, want their wilderness pristine. It’s true. One of the trade-offs for working at site all day, is coming home and walking the Birchwoods in the evening. The act of breathing deeply within the lungs of the Boreal Forest brings a sense of renewal.

It is time we renew our relationship with nature. We don’t always have to reach for the stock solution. I would like to see the city go back to the drawing board on this one. There are creative methods for naturalizing and/or weed control out there. We are in no rush. The lush green “weeds” are doing their job in the firebreak – reducing the risk. Why not just let them be?

Naturalized area behind Lindstrom

If you have concerns, or want more information, contact your Ward Councillor, call the Pulse line, or check out some of the links below.

Alisa Caswell has a degree in chemical engineering. She spent ten years working in the natural gas pipeline industry and another ten in oil sands. She has had roles in operations, energy conservation, and previously held the position of Chair – Oil Sands, Canadian Industry Program for Energy Conservation (CIPEC). She lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta.