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Brock University Uses Possibly Flawed Study to Defend Planned Assault on Forest

by Dr. John Bacher

Behind Brock University, by the Niagara Escarpment in the Lockhart Drive forest. - Photo credit: Daniel Nardone
Behind Brock University, by the Niagara Escarpment in the Lockhart Drive forest. - Photo credit: Daniel Nardone
Brock University Sign in the Lockhart Drive forest. - Photo credit: Daniel Nardone
Brock University Sign in the Lockhart Drive forest. - Photo credit: Daniel Nardone

Brock University is using what I believe is a flawed environmental constraints study to justify its opposition to a proposal by the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) to change the protective designation of "Escarpment Natural" of a 16 acre forested tract it owns along Lockhart Drive in St. Catharines. This represents six per cent of a larger block of forest known as the Niagara Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest.

The Niagara Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest was identified in a study of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) by the Niagara Region in 1980. The study popularly known as the Brady Report was later used by the Niagara Region to designate Environmental Protection and Environmental Conservation (ECA) areas. These are considered to be provincially significant forests.

Brock is battling the NEC because it seeks to facilitate the potential expansion of an applied research center, based on a former school, into the Escarpment-Decew Falls Forest. As part of its case it commissioned a “Natural Sciences Environmental Constraints Report”, completed in February 2015. It was authored by LCA (Lisa Campbell and Associates) Environmental Consultants.

LCA Environmental Consultants has been involved in a number of controversial land development projects in the Niagara Region involving ecologically sensitive Carolinian forests. One was to develop an environmental constraints study in connection with the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan in Niagara Falls. Surprisingly, a section of this report got embedded into the text of the new Brock “Natural Sciences” report, concerning if the Lockhart Drive lands are to be considered a provincially significant forest.

Campbell’s report does agree that Lockhart Drive lands are part of the larger block of Escarpment forests identified in the Brady report. She points out that, “the subject lands are immediately adjacent to the Niagara Escarpment face and cannot be separated as a separate vegetation community.” She found that there was a “predominance of Sugar maple, hornbean species, and oak trees with an understory of spicebush in the shrub layer and avens species with grasses and Virginia Creeper in the ground cover.”

Although agreeing the Lockhart Drive lands are part of a large Escarpment forest block, Campbell denied the area is part of what is termed legally as a "provincially significant forest". To justify this conclusion, Campbell turned to her report on the Thundering Waters Forest. This area is located twelve miles away. She quoted from a report she authored regarding lands north of Oldfield Road. Here, except for a small linear forest near a hydro line that protected the habitat of an endangered species, the Round-leaved Greenbrier, tree cover was stripped away by a developer in 1992.

Bizarrely, quoting from her work without acknowledgment that it seemingly refers to Thundering Waters rather than Lockhart Drive, Campbell concluded that, “No woodlands are present on the subject lands; however, the woodlot south of Oldfield Road would be considered significant due to its association with the PSW.” (Provincially Significant Wetland)

Campbell sidestepped the issue of if the Lockhart Drive lands are significant forests by inserting text from an earlier report describing a deforested landscape in Niagara Falls. Her writing described lands north of Oldfield Road which were largely abandoned farm fields, devoid of any forest cover. These are in total contrast to the mature Carolinian forest lands north of Lockhart Drive.

In their ringing endorsements of Brock University’s battles with the Niagara Escarpment Commission, the councils of the Niagara Region and the City of St. Catharines, and the professional planners that advise them, all missed how the report that the university used to justify its position sidestepped the issue of provincial significance of woodlands based on a study on Niagara Fall’s Oldfield Road. A study of one of the worst recent assaults on Niagara’s landscape was used without citation to justify the university’s plans to remove forest cover adjacent to a large intact block of forest below the Niagara Escarpment.

As a side note, when the Blue-Spotted Salamander was considered a regionally rare species, and therefore an important consideration in wetland scoring points, Campbell was not able to find any south of Oldfield Road. After the species was no longer listed as regionally significant, she found five Blue Spotted Salamanders in her survey in the Lockhart Drive lands.

Other amphibian species Campbell found on Lockhart Drive include the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander, the Western Chorus Frog, the American Toad and the Wood Frog. She was not able to provide an estimate of the numbers of Chorus Frogs. This is a vernal pool obligate species which is experiencing significant declines in Ontario. Campbell found its numbers could not be calculated since it was heard in “full chorus.”

Campbell’s report did not examine the possibility of the old growth nature of the Lockhart Drive forest. However, this issue was examined informally by the former director of the Canadian Wildlife Service, Dr. Frank Banfield. According to in-person conversations, Banfield says he found that the eastern half of the forest was of a successional nature, while the west side is old growth. In a similar way, Campbell found that one side was characterized by an abundance of pioneering Green Ash, while the other half was marked by a higher number of hickory, oak and walnut.

Campbell’s report also acknowledges the presence of bird species that are characteristic of large blocks of mature and old growth forest, which are vulnerable to habitat fragmentation. Although not conducting breeding period acoustic surveys to determine if the lands are used for nesting by endangered bat species, the report found that similar habitats such as snags and cavities in living trees provided probable roosting sites for “primary cavity nesters.” These are the Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker and the Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

In her study Campbell made many references to a recovery strategy for birds developed by Ontario Partners in Flight (Bird Studies Canada). However, in her analysis there is little relating the various recovery strategies for the species prioritized that are found in the Lockhart Drive forest.

One priority species for Partners in Flight is the Northern Flicker. The recovery strategy stresses the need to reverse this woodpecker’s serious decline. Another is the Rose Breasted Grosbeak, a species that benefits from the younger half of the Lockhart Drive forest.

What little media discussion there has been about the findings of Brock University's Campbell report has focused on the report's documentation of the presence of two species at risk. These are the Wood Thrush and the Eastern Wood Pewee. The fact that "wood" is present in these species names highlights the reality that the basic strategy to protect these species is to safeguard and expand their forest habitat. Partner in Flight summarizes this quite well in its plan to rescue the Wood Thrush. Their plan involves restoring forest cover in the various regions of southern Ontario to thirty percent. Currently, forest cover in Niagara is only at 14.5%. This means that development needs to be kept out of existing forests as part of a strategy to double woodland cover.

The Wood Thrush, Eastern Wood Pewee, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker and Red-Bellied Woodpecker are all species which reveal the folly of Campbell’s report which justifies the wiping out the Thundering Waters Forest and woodlands situated on Lockhart Drive, Garner and Kalar Road. Brock University should not plan for a devastating deforestation, but should instead encourage, as Partners in Flight’s pleas for, a doubling of forest cover in the Niagara Region. This is needed to prevent species’ extinction and migitate climate change. This should begin with a commitment to protecting the forested lands it owns. 

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Topics: Environment
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