Almost 100 percent of Garry oak meadow ecosystems in Saanich’s major parks are in poor ecological condition, dominated by invasive grasses.
GARRY OAK ECOSYSTEMS have been important to humans and biodiversity for millennia. Indigenous Peoples shaped and maintained these ecosystems for thousands of years. The District of Saanich has a significant responsibility for these ecosystems that remain in its parks system. Unfortunately, a high percentage of these special areas have become extremely degraded over the last few decades, with insufficient action by Saanich.
I created a report card to highlight this degradation that has occurred in Saanich Parks over the last few decades. Each category has been carefully considered and assessed.
My wife and I moved to Saanich in 1985. Since then, we have regularly visited Mount Douglas (PKOLS) Park, particularly in the spring, and have enjoyed walking the trails with our family among the spectacular Garry oak meadows, which used to be throughout the upper open portions of the park. Over time, we noticed these ecosystems becoming more and more degraded by invasive species, in particular invasive grasses. Without restrictions, park users continue to walk on the rock outcrop communities disturbing moss and lichen species and compacting the meadows. Today, few wildflower communities, many of which used to be intact Garry oak meadows, remain in this and other Saanich parks.
As recently as 2017 the camas meadow at the top of Knockan Hill Park was present and glorious. However, many years of trampling by people, and by dogs fetching balls, even when the remaining wildflowers are struggling to bloom, have severely impacted this meadow.
Knockan Hill, camas meadow, April 2016 (photo by Ted Lea)
Knockan Hill, dominated by invasive grass, April 2020 (photo by Ted Lea)
Knockan Hill’s dog ball fetching area in former camas meadow, October 2021 (photo by Ted Lea)
People have full access to walk on special areas such as Glencove Cove-Kwatsech Park, which has multiple plant species at risk and federally mapped areas of critical habitat for these species.
The vision for Environmental Integrity in the 2008 Saanich Official Community Plan (OCP), known as “Sustainable Saanich” states: “Saanich is a model steward working diligently to improve and balance the natural and built environments. Saanich restores and protects air, land, and water quality, the biodiversity of existing natural areas and eco-systems, the network of natural areas and open spaces, and urban forests.” It goes on to say that to look after the natural environment “…requires awareness, cooperation, innovation, and action.”
The 2011 District of Saanich Park Natural Areas Management Guidelines states:
- “While use of the parks will undoubtedly increase as the region grows, the rare and valuable natural resources within the park natural areas must be protected.”
- “Our use and access management goals are to meet the legitimate, appropriate and authorized recreational demands of park users while protecting areas of high or medium ecological integrity, and to educate park users regarding respect for park natural areas.”
- “It is important that we gain sufficient knowledge of the vegetation and wildlife makeup with our park natural areas. This will include inventory, mapping and monitoring of the ecosystems. As we move forward, we will integrate more active management in dealing with degraded sites and in protecting native plant communities and habitat.”
Earlier this year, the District of Saanich signed the United Nations (UN) Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021 to 2030 Proclamation. At this time, Councillor Judy Brownoff stated that: “We are committed to restoring natural areas and biodiversity within our parks to benefit the long term health of our community.”
Saanich has not met these commitments regarding natural ecosystems in its Parks in terms of mapping, assessment, protection, or restoration. Many biologists and UVic professors have pointed out the need for restoration in parks. Few restrictions occur in Saanich Parks to protect the areas of highest ecological integrity. Signage, restrictive use, and fencing are minimal or nonexistent. The signage that does exist is unclear in stating the requirement of park users to remain on trails within Environmentally Significant or Sensitive Areas.
Many highly committed volunteers remove invasive shrubs in Saanich Parks and have had very positive success in the forested areas of Mount Douglas (PKOLS) Park and Doumac Park, and elsewhere, and within a Garry oak meadow in Playfair Park. However, the dominant invasive species in Garry oak and related ecosystems are the numerous invasive grass species, which volunteers have little ability to deal with. Many other Saanich parks remain covered in invasive trees and shrubs, such as hawthorn, holly, blackberry, daphne, and broom, as well as English ivy.
Saanich’s lack of mapped information led to the destruction of an area of Trembling Aspen Woodland Sensitive Ecosystem ESA in Tillicum Park in 2020. The Saanich Parks Department did not know it existed. Saanich Council approved a development that destroyed this extremely rare ecosystem because a staff report indicated that there was no Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) present.
The Resilient Saanich Technical Committee (RSTC) was created in 2020 by Saanich Council to provide advice to Saanich on biodiversity, climate change adaptation and a stewardship program, mainly in response to the many negative issues of the EDPA. Early findings by the RSTC suggest that the Saanich Environmentally Significant Area (ESA) Atlas has major faults. The RSTC has not endorsed publication of the new ESA Atlas, “for a myriad of reasons” and states: “Primary among them is confusion for the public in the form of out-of-date information, inaccuracies, contradictions, and overlapping designations.”
A University of Victoria submission to the RSTC in April 2021 by seven academics states the following: “We applaud the Resilient Saanich stated goals of conserving existing biodiversity through a network of parks and protected areas. However, in an urban and urbanizing region with a small relict percentage of historically continuous and rare Garry oak ecosystems, Saanich must also place significant effort on effective restoration.” “More than 95 percent of Garry oak ecosystems in the Province have been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” “Our expertise suggests that successful restoration depends on setting clear goals, measurable objectives, and monitoring to track progress.”
Beginning in 2016, multiple community organizations recommended a private landowner stewardship program to Saanich Council. Since that time there has been no action by Saanich to initiate such an important program, which, by working collaboratively with residents, providing education and incentives, could create significant positive outcomes and biodiversity enhancements within the district.
I have recently been involved in a preliminary assessment of the ecological condition of the major parks in Saanich. Almost 100 percent of Garry oak meadow ecosystems in these parks are in poor ecological condition, dominated by invasive grasses. This is very troubling and should be a major concern to all environmentally minded individuals and especially to Saanich Council members.
There appears to be no plan by the District of Saanich to restore the highly degraded Garry oak ecosystems and manage species at risk in Saanich Parks. It appears that the Saanich Parks Department is critically underfunded to manage natural park areas.
Saanich Council needs to act now to provide the Parks Department with the necessary staffing and financial resources required to be able to undertake the management of parks restoration for ecosystems at risk, and species at risk. Saanich needs to prioritize ecological integrity over recreational values in these special ecosystems. This would also assist in honouring Indigenous Peoples and their long-term stewardship of Garry oak and other ecosystems.
As the report card indicates, Saanich has a failing grade in many ecological categories. For Saanich to be a “model steward” or to be considered “Sustainable Saanich,” there must be immediate action to protect and restore its special ecosystems, and species at risk.
Ted Lea is an ecologist and provincial expert in ecosystem inventory and mapping, and Garry oak ecosystems.
For more information, see Saanich’s Natural Area Action Plan, the Resilient Saanich Technical Committee report, and a presentation made by the author to the Resilient Technical Committee. Also see https://www.saanich.ca/assets/Local~Government/Documents/Committees~and~Boards/RSTC/Agendas/2021-12-16-full-agenda.pdf