How wood ash could save Muskoka’s watershed from ‘ecological osteoporosis’
Dr. Norman Yan, chair of Friends of Muskoka Watershed
Friends of the Muskoka Watershed launch AshMuskoka, the 1st nonindustrial wood ash recycling program in Canada to scientifically solve calcium decline
by Alison Brownlee Bracebridge Examiner February 28 2019
Wood ash could save Muskoka’s lakes and forests — but a controlled and collaborative effort is needed, says Friends of the Muskoka Watershed.
Dr. Norman Yan, chair for the non-profit environmental research and advocacy organization, told District of Muskoka engineering and public works committee members in early 2019 that residents, researchers, government, maple syrup producers and other partners could collaboratively replenish calcium in the region’s watershed by collecting and carefully distributing cold nonindustrial wood ash in specific forests within the watershed.
“All living creatures need calcium,” said Yan. “Everyone in this room is about four per cent calcium. But, in the environment, there are many creatures that need more calcium than us.”
He noted, for example, that bird eggs and crayfish are roughly 30 per cent calcium, while turtles are 15 per cent and bass fish are eight per cent.
Plants, he said, need calcium as well.
But the nutrient’s rates in Muskoka’s forests, soil and lakes are in steep decline.
“And scientists have coined the phrase ‘ecological osteoporosis’ to refer the problem of widespread environmental calcium decline,” he said.
Yan said the main cause of calcium decline is acid rain, which has stripped tonnes of calcium from the land. He told committee members that while rain falling on the region today is significantly less acidic than it was in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to environmental efforts, a half-century of heavier acid rain has already taken its toll on the environment.
Many forests in Muskoka, he said, have 70 to 80 per cent of available calcium held in trees.
“So, there isn’t enough calcium left in the soil for the forest to grow back, if it was clear-cut,” he said, as an example.
And he commented that commercial logging also contributes to calcium depletion here, as the industry removes calcium-rich trees from the watershed.
He also noted calcium depletion was slowing the recovery of lakes from the effects of acid rain.
“Calcium provided a natural buffer for acidity and much of that natural buffer in many areas in Muskoka is gone,” he said. “I’m a fresh-water biologist, but I’ve been dragged out of the water and back into the forest because I have come to realize that, if we can protect the forest, the forest will look after our lakes.”
And nonindustrial wood ash, he said, contains 30 per cent calcium as well as other valuable plant nutrients, though those nutrients are depleted over time, especially if not stored properly and exposed to elements like rain, and nonindustrial wood ash also has lower metal levels than industrial wood ash, so it would more easily meet government environmental standards.
Muskoka residents and visitors, he said, produce roughly 300 tonnes of nonindustrial wood ash each year, which is enough to launch the program and test its sustainability.
That doesn’t mean, though, that people should just start dumping their wood ash in area forests and lakes.
Yan said the AshMuskoka project aims to launch Canada’s first nonindustrial wood ash recycling program to solve calcium decline in watersheds in a scientifically controlled manner.
“Wood ash can be recycled now in your compost in Muskoka, but it’s not actually targeted to solve an environmental problem in the forest,” he said.
Friends of the Muskoka Watershed launched AshMuskoka in January 2019. The three-year applied research project follows the organization’s previous pilot program, Hauling Ash to Solve Ecological Osteoporosis, which started in 2017.
Yan said the project would first focus its scientifically controlled effort on the northeast area of the watershed where depletion is most severe before, hopefully, expanding not only across the entire watershed, but also across the province, especially southern Ontario.
But at first the project would be launched in Lake of Bays-area maple sugar bushes.
Why sugar maples? Yan noted maple trees needed more calcium than other Muskoka forest icons, such as birch or pine, and so they are the first to suffer from calcium depletion in soil and the first to prove the benefits of calcium addition. Without calcium, sugar maples and other trees grow less bark, become weaker and are more susceptible to insects, wind and climate change, while also being deprived of essential nutrients they need to live.
He noted Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks data shows a 40 per cent calcium decline in seven Dorset-area lakes in the Township of Lake of Bays since 1980, while additional data showed a 62 per cent decline in surface soil calcium and an 18 per cent calcium decline in sugar maple leaves.
More calcium, he said, would mean more soil nutrients, healthier forests and lakes, and a more ecologically resilient watershed.
The ash, he said, would ideally come from residential, commercial and resort sources to start, before hopefully building a collaboration with the forestry industry to repatriate calcium-rich Muskoka wood ash from southern Ontario to the Muskoka Watershed.
“But there is a lot to do before we get there, including trying to figure out how we add 100 tonnes of ash where we want it in the watershed and make sure we get all the approvals,” said Yan. “We have to learn about required doses, how much is actually needed and how that varies from soil to soil and place to place.”
Wildlife impact, phosphorus mobility, potassium levels and other concerns are also under consideration.
“But so far all the impacts appear to be positive, rather than harmful,” Yan later told this newspaper.
Project partners included the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association, District of Muskoka, Dorset Environmental Science Centre, Westwind Forest Stewardship, Learning for a Sustainable Future, Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre, Trent University, Laurentian University and University of Victoria.
Three staff are also in place for the three-year timeline.
Yan told committee that the project, if successful, would not only enhance public engagement in environmental protection, but also create healthier forests that are more resistant to insects and climate change, increase carbon capture in area forests, restore calcium rich fauna, and set a wood-ash recycling and environmental program example for Canada.
So, said Yan, how could district and area municipal governments help? They could:
• Participate in the project advisory committee;
• Help with collection, short-term storage, transportation distribution permits;
• Provide collection and short-term storage at landfills;
• Help market the program, and
• Liaise with municipalities in southern Ontario on the program.
“Let’s work together to help solve ecological osteoporosis,” concluded Yan.
Committee members expressed their support for the program and, while discouraging the collection of wood ash at unstaffed solid waste bin sites across the region for fear of abuse and contamination, they seemed to already be supportive of ash collection at area transfer stations and landfills.
Staff noted fire hazard concerns at collection sites, but stated the district would work with the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed, ministry and area fire departments on the program, while offering collection locations at district-owned waste management facilities across the region. The Friends of Muskoka Watershed, said staff, would fund the materials and labour to maintain the collection system.
A collection trial was scheduled to start April 22 on Earth Day 2019.
Visit friendsofthemuskokawatershed.org to learn more about the project, the dos and don’ts of wood ash collection, and how to get involved in AshMuskoka.