Natural disasters – how we respond makes them worse


In an approaching world where there is no longer truth nor love … where the Earth is viewed as dirt, and trees as lumber … a desperate cry for justice, the last trumpet, breaks the silence of the indifferent majority.… Anonymous

Society’s current reaction to inevitable disasters is denial, detrimental land practices, and the lack of civic preparedness.

Human beings have the uncanny predilection to deny not only their own vulnerability to chance circumstances, but to the blatant threats which threatening their own survival. Natural disasters are made worse by our failure to recognize the accumulative effects of how we continue to mismanage the physical landscape. Above: “Brushing”- the euphemistic practice of slashing trees along road clearances is intended almost solely as a rural make work project to keep public work employees off summer unemployment. All photos C.Huggett.

Be it the individual cell, organ, or organism if one component fails invariably the individual’s well-being suffers and is left vulnerable. Evolution doesn’t encourage redundancy, and even a “vestigial organ” like the appendix is found to have a function in human digestion. Ecologists extend this thinking to species, ecosystems and even the biosphere. Remove one component and the ecosystem is vulnerable to collapse. It is denigrated to a new lower equilibrium.

Above: Beaver dams help slow surface run-off en route to larger water bodies and act as sediment traps. But farmers frequently break dams to increase water for cattle downstream. Beaver ponds that encroach on adjacent hay fields are similarly targeted for drainage. 

Land degradation is what rural Ontario is encouraging with government-sanctioned subsidies to industry, dysfunctional infrastructure maintenance, modern forestry and agricultural practices. Here in Renfrew County, the Madawaska Valley is not immune. Draconian land practices have only become worse since the arrival of the pioneers centuries ago with the introduction of affordable, and thus more ubiquitous, heavy machinery such as tractors, skidders, graders, loaders and bulldozers. Along with the jacked-up $60,000 pick-up truck, heavy equipment remains the conspicuous pride and joy of the bona fide rural landowner.

The ecological concept known as “the issue of scarcity” states that a commodity’s worth or value is proportional to its scarcity. In a landscape blanketed by the appearance of limitless lakes and forest, these natural assets are viewed as less valuable than lakes and forests found in an urban landscape. Similarly, gold and diamonds would be considered less valuable if their availability were as abundant as marble and coal. Hence, in the Madawaska Valley, where historically “the land of the big pines” out represented the conifer forests of other eastern Ontario jurisdictions, this natural grandeur has continued to be taken for granted, abused and exploited.

These large poplars were cleared both along the road right-of-way and on private property. An agreement to sell them to a local mill was forfeited when the number of logs did not justify transportation costs to the mill.

Floods, ice storms, tornadoes and fires were always part of the natural landscape. Some, like periodic flooding, had beneficial effects such as dispersing nutrients into the floodplain for plant growth. The release of carbon in ground fires, while sparing the larger trees with thicker bark, would release a burst of energy into the soil system. Many insect pathogens and bark beetle infestations would be wiped out.

But the frequency and severity of these natural events has escalated and is adversely impacting the human built landscape.

It’s not the increase and severity of disasters which present the greatest existential challenge. It’s how we historically continue to respond to them.

While humans have evolved with short-term horizons limiting them to contend with immediate survival needs, the scheduling of catastrophic events – while recently accelerated by climate change – are still spaced too far apart for most people to take precautions.

The Ontario Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act requires that municipalities implement a program to enrol “disaster response volunteers” for municipalities like Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards. In this latter instance only one citizen signed up. The apathetic turnout was probably not dissimilar in other Renfrew County municipalities. The Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” desperately needs resurrection along with a heavy dose of civic responsibility.

How we make disasters worse

Compacted soils are a major culprit. Do not underestimate the morphological damage from impermeable surfaces caused by the growing number of municipal and logging roads, parking lots and the roofed footprint of dwellings and additions. The water during freshet and summer thunderstorms is no longer absorbed by the spongy forest floor. Instead it gravitates over the exposed compacted landscape carrying a mother lode of sediments to the nearest water body. The result: flash-flooding of waterfront homes, sedimentation of spawning beds, nutrient overloading causing algae blooms and oxygen depletion of lakes.

Surface run-off drains into the closest water body. In this instance Brennans Creek at Stack Road in Killaloe Hagarty Richards. Raised waters cause flash flooding downstream and flood low-lying dwellings.

Rural roads – an underestimated detriment to the environment

The annual brushing, widening, grading and ditching of unpaved roads throughout the Ottawa Valley is invariably a major contributor to floods, surface water contamination and agricultural soil loss. Clearing herbaceous vegetation and trees along rural roads exacerbates gully and rill erosion by removing the interception provided by leaves against rain droplets. Soil loss is the result when graders eradicate bordering root systems which suck-up thousands of litres daily. As roadside trees are undermined by the passing of maintenance equipment, these guardians are quickly cut down and chipped or, if salvageable, are sold to the local mills.

To many residents “SLASHING” is a more appropriate term for the indiscriminate hacking that trees are subjected to by these brutal machines. It is abhorred by the more discerning residents as just plain ugly. Brushing causes blowing and drifting snow in winter and summer dust problems which municipalities respond to by applying costly toxic dust retardants. Ditching along roadsides, and along fields, also referred to as “channelization,” not only creates a larger impermeable road width, but increases the velocity at which water races toward the closest lake or river causing flash flooding of fields and human habitations.

Any public works department which is widening rural roads over time by unrestrained grading is an indication of its failure

The proliferation of bent and leaning road-side traffic signs and even hydro poles by municipal graders is indicative of this trend. Fear not, the re-instillation and replacement of traffic signs keep public work employees working during an otherwise slow summer season. It reminds me of stories about Ontario forest fire employees during the past century who intentionally set fires to keep themselves working and collecting their summer salaries.

Conversely, retaining a creek’s natural meander reduces its speed allowing time for moisture to be absorbed on route to its final destination. Crowning a road bed by adding fill to its centre, and not subtracting it from the edges, coupled with a periodic application of gravel keeps the road surface dry.

These are universally accepted environmental engineering standards adopted throughout many parts of the world but fail to be applied in many parts of rural Canada.

Logging roads often cause more damage than the tree harvesting itself. This access road through the Steps  Renfrew County Lot was damaged by an adjacent lot owner who illegally “upgraded” the road to accommodate his personal off-road recreation and improve access to hunting platforms on County property.

Why are rural roads not maintained this way? Hiring and labour practices often mean not the most qualified engineers and graduates are chosen. In rural Canada untrained friends and relatives may secure the positions. Roadside trees are cleared by “brushing” to keep local municipal workers employed during the slow summer maintenance season. Merchantable trees cut along rights-of-way represent a small but lucrative extra for local truckers/ surrounding mills. Finally, the increased road clearance/ width along many residential rural roads makes them more conducive to industrial transport to and from surrounding gravel pits, forestry operations and mills. Truckers, industry, and public works employees share a close camaraderie, lost to many of us engaged in other sectors of society.

Roads are being widened to accommodate the transportation of manufactured homes, as a a consequence of a shortage of local skilled labour.

The extended line of sight intended to reduce deer/car collisions, while valid along a small minority of highways, is often used as a township’s main alibi. Elsewhere Ontario townships and cities for decades have planted conifers along roads to reduce blowing snow, gully/ sheet erosion, dust and enhance property evaluations by the trees’ contribution to aesthetics.

Above left: A Blue Spotted Salamander along with hundreds of Spotted Salamanders attempt seasonal crossing to a wetland on the opposite side of Stone Church Road. The road has been widened almost an extra lane in the past five years making the migration each year increasingly dangerous from predation and vehicles. At right: A Garter Snake just finished consuming an American Toad and ventures onto the road verge now a formidable obstacle to reach greener pastures on the other bank.

Residents who fear reprisal from public works employees stoically watch as municipal workers, including hydro crews, adamantly spray defoliants, chop and chip trees along rights-of-way in front of their homes. Ironically, our collective silence remains our greatest enemy as a public road right-of-way, at least on paper, belongs to us. Appalled residents pack up and move to greener pastures. The neighbourhood is degraded and attracts a less discerning population. The practice continues and worsens. Multiplied a thousand times and the insidious cumulative effects of degraded roads opens up the rural landscape to catastrophic events.

Humour aside, this sign located on the outskirts of Renfrew County symbolizes society’s preoccupation with roads as a necessity than trumps all other human values, including plain decency.

Editor’s Note: Christopher Huggett, retired conservation biologist, intends to follow this opinion piece with another look at natural disasters in the Valley entitled “Part 2: How we are encouraging flooding along lakes and waterways.”

One comment

  1. Al Best

    Trees are often removed from shorelines as well. The stated purpose is often to improve the view. The folly of this idea is that it is the existance of trees along natural shorelines that constitute a key component of the view. The towering pines in the interior of Algonquin Park (Lavielle, Dickson and Big Crow Lakes) are the view.

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