Preserving the flora of the Garry oak meadow ecosystem in the face of development.
WHILE COMPLETING A PhD IN WILDLIFE BIOLOGY between 1970 and 1985, Louise Goulet worked in some of British Columbia’s most beautiful and remote areas—including the Stikine, the Kechika and the Liard River valleys. She often travelled by helicopter or even by horse. Pilots would ask her and her female colleague if they were sure they wanted to be dropped in the middle of a remote BC valley, by themselves. “We’re sure!” she would chirp.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Goulet completed wildlife impact assessments and protected areas strategies, evaluating the impacts of potential infrastructure projects, like dams, while working for BC Parks, BC Hydro, and the Province’s Ecological Reserves program. She eventually became the first executive director for the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) after her move to the Island. Living through what she calls the golden time in BC (during the NDP Mike Harcourt years), her motto was “Now is the time.” In just over five years, the Province designated over 500 protected areas and doubled the BC parks system. When the Liberals came into power in 2001, she tells me, the Parks budget was cut by 65 percent.
When asked if things are changing for the better in the Capital Region, Goulet doesn’t even pause: “If you’re in conservation, you better be an optimist.” Sitting in the vaulted-ceiling kitchen of her self-designed home, 20-foot tropical plants soaring in front of the back garden windows, her stories roll forward with the humour and excitement of someone who has long loved her work. Now she’s focusing that enthusiasm on southern Vancouver Island. But will her dreams for Island ecosystems come true?
Upon her move to Vancouver Island, Goulet, turned her attention to Garry oak meadow species. “I wanted to contribute to conservation,” she says, “and I wanted to learn something.”
Her husband, Michael, ran a surveying business that gave him access to many of the region’s large-scale land developers. Goulet used Michael’s contacts to establish plant salvaging arrangements on many large-scale development properties, often removing the entire top layer off shallow soil sites, saving native plants such as Roemer’s fescue, nodding onion, and camas. She even successfully transplanted Garry oak and arbutus seedlings—notoriously difficult because of their long tap roots. She stockpiled the bulbs, soil and seed in her own garden, giving them away to other gardeners, to Native Plant Study Group members, and organizations like GOERT.
Now that she and Michael are both retired, however, their developer contacts have thinned. New methods of conservation will be needed if we are to protect the species that once thrived here.
Garry oak meadows have been identified by many as the south coast ecosystem most likely to survive climate change. Both Goulet and Briony Penn have called the ecosystem a refugia that may act as a seed bank if other ecosystems—coastal Douglas-fir, Western hemlock, for instance—fail to adapt to the lengthening droughts and uncertain weather patterns that climate change is already bringing.
In recent decades, however, Vancouver Island’s southwest coast has lost hundreds of acres to development, including many of the remaining shallow soil Garry oak meadows in Langford, Colwood, Saanich and even Metchosin. Losses include parts of Christmas Hill, Broadmead heights, and the current McKenzie interchange construction, for example.
With last summer’s sale of 110 acres on Skirt Mountain (Bear Mountain) and extension of the Bear Mountain Parkway, more of these fragile ecosystems will disappear in coming years. Langford has shown little interest in preserving parcels like the south face of Skirt Mountain, which is currently used as a recreation and hiking area. Many other properties, thanks to the skyrocketing real estate market, are now out of reach of conservation organizations unless donated by their owners.
Goulet rues that the next generation of environmental leaders don’t have as much time or money as did hers—the baby boomers. Her concern reminds me of a meadow on Mount Helmcken where I used to walk. Formerly a high mountain swath of moss and flower-covered bedrock with lodgepole pine and a small forest pond, it was paved and carved into lots just over a decade ago. When one day I emerged from a bluff on the trail to the blacktop road that had been cut across it, something inside me shattered. It took years to get back on the path of environmental action. “Frustration can keep you doing things,” says Goulet; but it can also stultify a generation into inaction or despair. As organizations like GOERT see precipitous drops in Federal and Provincial funding, it’s even more essential that public awareness and action do not falter.
As a first step, says Goulet, the resilience these remaining species provide should be better protected by both Federal and Provincial governments. “At a certain point you have to secure the land base,” she says. “You need a good salesperson to convince developers to donate critical areas.” With a 123 percent projected growth rate in Langford between 2001 and 2026, remaining parcels are disappearing fast.
The onus, however, doesn’t just lie with funding for protected areas. “We also need to get the public to value what’s out there. Then we steer the action. Perfection is the enemy of good,” she advises. Perfection, for ecologists, might include preserving every last acre of Garry oak meadow in the region, as well as restoring many other sites. Part of valuing native ecosystems, argues Goulet, means that every resident on the South Island should cultivate these species in their own yards.
“When I talk to gardeners,” she tells me, “I have to remember that they want a garden.” So she advises them to plant native plants that have the colour and blooming cycle of a horticultural species, but the benefits of a native species. Common harebell is a perfect example. Similar to blue hyacinths, or bluebells, which are invasive, the harebell blooms for six months, supports native insects and looks good in a residential garden. Use of plants like the harebell contributes to the refugia that Penn and Goulet stress is so important, and adds to the seed bank in the region.
Goulet would also like to see municipalities in addition to Saanich formalize a plant salvaging program, which, she says, should be mandatory before any development can occur. Saanich’s program, which residents can join for free through the municipality’s website, provides liability protection for developers after residents have completed a training workshop.
Participants are notified by email when a site opens and can arrive, shovels in hand, for free plants.
Goulet loves the physical aspect of salvage, and stresses that though native plant study groups and books are important parts of conservation, the key is getting people out on the land. “It will keep you young,” she laughs, “if it doesn’t kill you first!”
Goulet now grows seed and parcels out bulbs to garden tour visitors (led by Habitat Acquisition Trust and the Native Plant Study Group) and through private visits by plant ecologists, Parks Canada staff, and the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, to name but a few. She also supplies growers like Kristen Miskelly and parks such as Playfair in Saanich and Uplands in Oak Bay with great camas bulbs, which can be difficult to locate in the wild.
When planting natives in the garden “we don’t know what is going to happen, ecologically, with climate change. I’m confounded every single time,” Goulet says. Still, a seed bank that has its roots in all our gardens will help to assure the survival of not just Garry oak ecosystems, but the region’s diversity, beauty and health into the future.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.