Peat moss harvesting under fire

Environmental groups and cottagers have spent the last year trying to block the development of four peat moss mines 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Opponents of the projects claim the mines will destroy vital boreal bogs, damage a critical moose habitat, release immense amounts of greenhouse gases and increase sediment loading into Lake Winnipeg.

However, an Alberta horticulturist said environmentalists who worry about peat lands in Manitoba have no clue what they are talking about.

“These people are a misinformed minority,” said Ieuan Evans, a long-time agrologist and horticulturist in Alberta who recently wrote an article on the sustainability of Canada’s peat moss industry.

“(From their perspective), anything that we do agriculturally in Canada is spoiling the environment.”

Last summer, the Manitoba government handed out licences to three companies looking to develop peat mines in the province’s Interlake region north of Riverton.

This year another company, Sunterra Horticulture, requested a licence to expand an existing peat moss mine in the same region.

However, the proposed mines have provoked a strong reaction from aboriginal groups, environmentalists and cottagers in the region, who appealed the province’s granting of licences.

One of the proposed mines would be in the Hecla/Grindstone provincial park, and conservation minister Gord Mackintosh said earlier this year that he had received 1,500 submissions about the mine in the form of letters or names on petitions.

A provincial spokesperson said government officials are still reviewing those appeals, but people following the issue expect a decision on the mines this fall.

Eric Reder, Manitoba campaign director for Wilderness Committee, Canada’s largest citizen-funded wilderness protection group, said his organization opposes the mines because peat moss mining releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and increases sediment loading into Lake Winnipeg. As well, mines are located in a critical habitat for moose.

“The Washow-Fisher Peninsula, that is probably the greatest concentration of moose left in southern Manitoba,” he said.

More significantly, Reder added, the environmental destruction is unnecessary because peat moss is an unnecessary commodity.

“For peat, the only use for peat is horticultural. It’s a soil conditioner. It’s not an essential product,” he said. “We can replace peat with other products.”

The only worthy use for peat is to flavour scotch whiskey, he added.

Evans said he doesn’t understand how the opponents of peat moss harvesting associate it with environmental destruction.

“Where you get the damage from, I have no idea,” he said.

“When you take peat off a peat bog, the area where the peat accumulate, they allow it to flood and it re-accumulates peat.”

Evans said environmental groups in Canada have likely been influenced by the situation in England, where the few remaining peat bogs are threatened.

“The tweedy flowers listen to Britain and garden magazines in the U.K. and they’ve been influenced by this,” Evans said with a laugh, obviously enjoying dishing out provocative quotes to journalists.

“If we were the U.K., I’d be very much (defending) the peat bogs … but in Canada there are vast amounts of these bogs.”

Paul Short of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association, said Canada has 25 percent of the world’s peat lands while England has one percent.

“Manitoba has … about 21 million hectares (52 million acres) of peat land. It’s a huge amount.”

The peat moss companies in Manitoba, Sunterra, Sun-Gro, Berger and Premier Tech Horticulture, harvest peat from 8,900 acres of land, mostly in eastern Manitoba, which represents a fraction of the total provincial resource, Short said.

As for the proposed mines north of Riverton, the Manitoba government recently placed a two-year moratorium on new peat leases.

However, Short said the legislation doesn’t affect existing leases, including the proposed mines north of Riverton.

“They (the government) were very clear about it. (They) would enable the existing peat leases to continue to pursue the licensing and permitting required on those existing leases.”

Short said the intent of the moratorium was not to kill the industry but to allow the province time to develop a peat lands strategy so that Manitoba can develop the resource in a sustainable manner.

Canada’s peat moss industry:

  • Canada has 270 million acres of peat land, which is more than 25 percent of the world’s peat acres
  • Canada is the world’s largest producer and exporter of sphagnum peat moss for horticultural use, producing 98 percent of the peat moss used in the United States
  • to harvest, drainage ditches are dug around and through the bog to drain the peat. Harrows loosen the top peat moss, which then dries in the sun before it is vacuumed for harvest
  • home gardeners, professional growers and mushroom growers buy most of the peat moss produced in Canada
  • Quebec and New Brunswick account for 30 percent and 38 percent of Canadian peat moss production, respectively. Western Canada produces the remainder
  • Around 42,000 acres of bogs are used for peat moss extraction in Canada
  • Peat moss harvesting creates 3,000 seasonal and permanent jobs in Canada
  • In Manitoba, 120 people are employed by peat moss companies

Sources: Province of Manitoba, Canadian Peat Moss Association and the Peatland Ecology Research Group

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