‘Overwhelming but not impossible,'

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — When Bianca McGregor went to look at the damage to one of P.E.I.’s protected natural sites, she was sad to find she couldn’t get very far due to the number of fallen trees.

The damage left behind by post-tropical storm Fiona was extensive. Branches and tree trunks blocked most of the walking paths, and hanging foliage loomed overhead in every direction.

“Like most Islanders, we woke up the next morning to pictures of devastation and it caused a sense of urgency where we wanted to get in as quickly as we possibly could to see what we are dealing with,” McGregor, executive director for Island Nature Trust (INT), said during an interview with SaltWire Network earlier this month. “There is a lot of deadfall. It’s sad for sure.”

The organization is assessing the damage to its 66 natural areas, which cover 8,000 acres across the province, and is currently prioritizing clearing the areas most used by the public, like walking paths and hiking trails.

It is working to ensure all compromised trees on the sites are taken down and moved to clear areas of the forest floor vacant of deadfall so regeneration of the foliage can start.

“Our approach is steady as it goes. We’ll make sure the properties that people frequent are safe and then we’ll start rebuilding our plants,” said McGregor.

Much of the plant life in these areas was wiped away by the storm, so replanting is also something on the to-do list.

This cleanup effort will not be quick or easy, said McGregor.

“We have to go in and reassess all of our plants and do them over again because pretty much every property has been affected in some way shape or form,” she said.

Though the task ahead is daunting and could take years to complete, McGregor’s demeanour and attitude towards the cleanup are very positive.

It’s important to look at the silver linings in this situation, said McGregor.

“Prior to Fiona, we had these intact ecosystems that people are now seeing and using the word ‘devastating,’ which is true, but imagine if they hadn’t been there to begin with,” she said. “Nature did its job. We witnessed it. Now there’s a chance for us to go in and help nature rebuild, so it can do its job next time – because there will be a next time.”

For this reason, INT is encouraging the public to participate in its fundraiser, Mend a Patch, to assist in rebuilding the natural areas.

The fundraiser was started last year and allows the public to donate land they wish to see protected. It also allows for monetary donations, where partners in conservation will match and triple the donation, which goes toward the purchase and upkeep of natural sites.

“We need more natural protected areas to provide the ecosystem services that we relied on during Fiona,” said McGregor. “Whatever that fund makes, we can take and put back into tree planting.”

Developing and protecting natural areas with as little human intervention is crucial now more than ever, said Bradley Knockwood, an aquatic ecosystem research assistant with St. Mary’s University science department, in an interview with SaltWire Network on Oct. 19.

“Whenever we have large weather events like Fiona, we need wetlands that have the ability to capture excess water resources,” Knockwood said.

In addition, these sites act as natural carbon sinks, as water holds carbon better than most elements, reducing the negative risks of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Wetlands are the most productive and important ecosystems, so their health is integral to securing a safe future climate-wise,” said Knockwood.

With more of these wetland systems being destroyed every year due to increasingly extreme weather events, the future of these areas looks uncertain.

That said, it is not too late, he said.

“What we’re seeing now is kind of a slow regression into habitat encroachment. If these areas aren’t left alone, it will have significantly more impact on climate events.”

MacGregor agrees.

“It’s overwhelming but not impossible,” she said. "The sands will shift, the tides and the winds will bring the sands back up. If we give it a little bit of a nudge and helping hand, it’ll do it that much faster.”

Rafe Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian