Canoeing to Swishwash Island, BC (Photo by NCC)

Canoeing to Swishwash Island, BC (Photo by NCC)

Giving nature a facelift

NCC and Next Environmental join forces to protect and restore natural spaces

Preparing the canoe to go to Swishwash Island, BC (Photo by NCC)

Preparing the canoe to go to Swishwash Island, BC (Photo by NCC)

Environmentally degraded lands around British Columbia may be offered a new lease on life thanks to a new partnership between the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and NEXT Environmental Inc. The two organizations have come together to advance the conservation of ecologically significant land in British Columbia, including sites that have been damaged by industrial activity.

NEXT specializes in investigating and cleaning up contaminated land. This is the first step in any project that aims to restore lands that have been damaged by an industrial past. NCC has tackled a few major restorations of heavily damaged lands, most dramatically the restoration of the Campbell River Estuary.

A field trip to Swishwash

Gavin collects a soil sample from Swishwash Island, BC(Photo by John Klein)

Gavin collects a soil sample from Swishwash Island, BC(Photo by John Klein)

NCC and NEXT kickstarted their partnership with a trip to Swishwash Island Nature Reserve in September 2013. Swishwash is a small island in the mouth of the Fraser River that sits as a natural jewel and haven for wildlife in the midst of an increasingly urbanized landscape. NCC received the island by donation from BC Packers in 1999 after it was used as a fish-packing plant for nearly a century. Now, after 14 years of conservation management, Swishwash Island is beginning to return to its natural state as a thriving habitat for migratory birds, small mammals and the all-important Fraser River salmon.

The field team met on the shore of the river and prepared a canoe and a kayak for the short crossing. Gavin, Reid and John from NEXT, Tim Ennis from NCC and Dick Loomer — a retired physician and NCC’s volunteer steward for Swishwash Island — disembarked on Swishwash's muddy shores to spend the morning examining the island, each bringing insight from their different areas of expertise. While Gavin, Reid and John conducted soil and water sampling, Tim and Dick checked bird nesting sites and areas known for beaver, mink, coyote and river otter use. All were looking for evidence that the island’s natural values are recovering after decades of industrial use.

Dick, who is known as the Warden of Swishwash, proved to be an expert guide. With over a decade of experience in helping the island recover both naturally and through scientific management of species, he has planted hundreds of native trees and spent thousands of hours removing invasive plants such as blackberries and Scotch broom. Today the island sits as a protected, natural sanctuary for local wildlife in the midst of an area that has been badly compromised by urban development.

Swishwash Island's conservation importance

A heron on Swishwash Island, BC (Photo by NCC)

A heron on Swishwash Island, BC (Photo by NCC)

Swishwash Island is located within one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world, in an estuary used by hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds. Unfortunately the last century has seen the destruction of habitat along the Fraser River for both fish and birds. Many of the sloughs, wetlands and side channels have been paved over or otherwise altered for housing complexes, industry or dikes. There are few natural habitats left in the lower Fraser River estuary. As time passes and the human population demands more space, the impacts on fish and wildlife habitat in the estuary will increase. However, the creation of Swishwash Island Nature Reserve has protected vital habitat in the estuary and will foster an appreciation among the local residents of estuary and wetland conservation.

What the soil samples revealed

A few weeks after the site visit, Gavin received the analytical results for the samples he and the others had collected at Swishwash Island. All of the samples tested had either non-detectable or below-standard levels of contamination. Considering the past century of industrial use, this was just about as good a report card as Swishwash Island could get.

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