‘Pretty amazing when you think about it’: author advocates for northern Peatlands

Author Ed Struzik paddles down the Thomsen River

Valerie G. Barnes Connell JordanNorthern AdvocateFor Peat’s Sake: Protecting Northern Saskatchewan Muskegs group celebrated World Peat Day June 2 with a virtual speaker’s forum with author Ed Struzik.Inspired by a canoe trip into the Thomsen River and Banks Island and the discovery of a Peatland close to 30 years ago, Struzik, who later became a journalist and author of seven books, has dedicated his life to supporting these, essential, but fragile areas.On his first trip they canoed through barren land until the area became greener as they traveled and there were muskox everywhere, and estimated 80,000 along with caribou, wolves and fox.When trying to figure out what was causing the difference from other areas they travelled, “I kind of realized the common denominator was that there was peat there,” Struzik said in an interview with the Northern Advocate.Struzik lived in the Northwest Territories and Yukon most of his growing up years, but after the canoe trip, which took a month to complete, “I started visiting peatlands all over the world.”He learned much of Europe has mined peat for energy and agricultural purposes and when the land is mined out, the land sinks and water rushes in.“That’s why Holland, for example, has such a problem because they mined out all their peat.”Peatlands, also known as bogs and fens and a lesser degree, marsh, hold water and thus slow both flooding and wildfire activity.“You remove peat, you know, as we did from the Great Lakes of Canada, essentially all those nutrients from the farmland inland, are going straight into the Great Lakes and creating all the algal bloom, because nothing is filtering the water.”Firefighters will say that peatlands, bogs and fens are “their best friend because, once a fire gets a certain size there is basically not a lot a water bomber or 1,000 firefighters on the ground can do to stop it.” Rain or snow if they come or “if it comes up against a bog or fen or swamp or marsh. Cause it can’t burn through that.He spoke of the Fort McMurray fire of 2016, where firefighters thought there was peatland a few miles out of the town, “enough for them to get on top of it.”What they didn’t know is the peatland had been drained to grow trees. Mostly black spruce were growing in the area. “Black spruce are highly combustible, so instead of slowing, it actually raced through and got into the town.”The point is it serves these kinds of wastelands… they offer us a lot of services and we don’t appreciate [them]. They can slow a wildfire, they can mitigate a flood, they filter water, and if you think about it, the moose, caribou and other animals, during the fire where could they go? A lot of people think they just get burned by a fire and die, but that’s not true. They take refuge in these wetlands and they just hunker down there until the fire goes away and they come back.”Apart from being a refuge for wildlife, the peatlands “are like a grocery store for like berries you pick in the fall, how many pharmaceuticals like Labrador tea, that have proven medicinal … these are found in the peatland.”While Struzik said, peatlands represent just three percent of the world’s landscape, “It stores twice as much carbon as all the world’s forest combined. That’s pretty amazing when you think of it … more than the Amazon rainforest.”The important story – look at peatlands from an economic perspective and the value they maintain when left in the ground.“It’s a lot cheaper, more economical and you get a bigger bang for the buck if you try to either protect or restore peatlands … if you really want to deal with climate change, you’re better off protecting or restoring peatland… they provide a lot of other services that we really don’t appreciate.There is no dollar value placed on peat, marsh, but flooding and wildfires cost billions of dollars. “Had we had peatlands to soak it up, it may not have, it wouldn’t have stopped it, but it may not have mitigated itself and it wouldn’t have [damaged] so much property. I’m thinking rather than having conservationists come in and bang the drum, what we need to do is get bonified accountants to come in and put a value on all of these other services peatlands offer and say, ‘here’s the value of this,’ so for a 10 to 20 or 100-year period for all these services. I think that would get people’s attention.” At the time of the For Peat’s Sake presentation, Stuzik was travelling into the Northwest Territories to an area where the permafrost in the peatlands is “thawing so rapidly; it’s literally turning the whole area into a drunken forest. The black spruce, they’re no longer rooting into permafrost … when the permafrost thawed they essentially begin to lean over each other, and they call that a drunken forest.”Struzik’s complete presentation, along with much, more information, is available on the For Peat’s Sake: Protecting Northern Saskatchewan Muskegs Facebook page.