Green and growing?

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by Marc Nadeau

The landscape of North Grenville has changed in recent years. Forests are being cut down, brush burned and roots swept up into windrows. The land is then developed for urban use or planted for cash crops, with no more of an epitaph than ‘End of story’.

But there is a bigger story that gets little attention. The common refrain supporting land clearing is that the land is being returned to agriculture. One could envision the land being returned to farming practices of 70 years ago, with farmers living and working on the land and cows grazing in the fields. Modern agriculture, however, is not that quaint.

Today’s farmland carries a far heavier burden than in days gone by. Heavy machinery can now enlarge fields, drain land, and apply chemical fertilizers to eliminate species that  compete with crops. The farm operation is now the unchallenged ruler of the land and its resources. It is a system with little tolerance for outsiders. The loss of treelines between fields removes the corridor that animals use to move about in their habitat.

The windrows of tree trunks, or the burning piles dotting enlarged fields, are a frequent sight. The clearing machines are replaced with tile drainage equipment, ensuring that the land will quickly release its reserve of water after snow melts, increasing water flow and the risk of spring flooding. When there is no cover on the land, soil and nutrients are not held in place and will erode into the streams. The quality of river water is diminished, resulting in more turbidity and excess nutrients. Later in the season, there is less water flow in the little brooks and creeks that feed the South Branch. During dry summers, like this year and last, such water practices are clearly not beneficial.

This raises many questions for the municipality and its residents. Is this a matter that concerns only the agriculturalist and land developer? Should the rest of the community not have a say as to whether forests stay or go? Is there a plan that ensures that a certain portion of the municipality remains tree-covered? Does the local government have powers to address forest clearing?

As in every situation, there are two or more sides to the story. Families and agri-businesses earn more income from an enlarged land base. In strictly dollar terms, removing forests to create cropland increases the real estate value. This is driven by a strong demand for corn and soybeans in the local and global markets.

Our economic system leaves little choice but growth or stagnation. It is difficult to envision an economic system that balances financial and environmental considerations, which may leave people feeling powerless to act. As Canadians and residents of North Grenville, however, we should be aware of how the changing landscape affects us, as well as future generations.

There are significant costs that don’t have a monetary value. The loss of habitat for woodland species is top of the list. Think of the dwindling moose and bear sightings, not to  mention declining bird populations. The forest and the many species are removed to grow crops of a single genetic strain. We have devalued nature by not recognizing its benefits to our wellbeing, and now we have a situation that is reminiscent of the rush for land in the Wild West. This rush needs to be slowed and given sober second thought, and the municipality should be a significant contributor to the discussion.

Should we make an effort to live as part of nature, or should we continue to think that we are separate and in control?

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