Cara Cornell doesn’t claim that the whole world feels protective and passionate about the wetlands near her home.
But she knows she does.
When she wakes at 5:00 a.m.—her sleep has been interrupted for the past few weeks by anxiety about the birds and animals—she hears a chorus of songs starting the day. Hummingbirds, swallows, finches, cedar waxwings and red-breasted sapsuckers. There are Douglas red squirrels, several families of them now.
Cornell fears for her little piece of paradise, her place in this world where she finds peace, as a result of a pipeline expansion project—Trans Mountain—carrying notoriously dirty tar sands oil from Canada’s Alberta heartland to the coast of British Columbia.
The project’s progress has been temporarily halted after some sapsucker nests were discovered, forcing workers to put down tools. But she believes it will soon start up again.
“I want them to go under the wetland,” Cornell says The independent. – This is a critical habitat for nesting birds and animals. It is home to bears, rabbits and bobcats.”
“I must speak for the birds and the animals. I see them every day. This is their home too.”
This summer, Cornell joined members of several environmental groups in drafting a “notice of motion,” which seeks to force Trans Mountain (TM) to place its pipe — part of an expansion of the original project — under the wetland. They will also ask the company to agree to comply with a number of environmental safeguards as it cuts through forests near Cornell’s home in Rosedale, 7 miles west of Vancouver.
Their action comes at a critical time, as the effects of the climate crisis intensify, and against a backdrop of decades of controversy over Canada’s extraction and distribution of polluting fossil fuels.
The government of Justin Trudeau joined almost every other nation on earth in a pledge to cut carbon emissions as part of the Paris Agreement, and limit global warming to 1.5C and prevent catastrophic climate impacts. In 2020, Canada committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Canada is a wonderful country, but it didn’t happen by accident and won’t continue without effort,” said Trudeau, who had made tackling climate action a goal of the 2019 election campaign.
Currently, the extraction and sale of oil and gas accounts for more than seven percent of the national GDP, and the industry is centered in Alberta, with its vast Athabasca tar sands deposits.
And companies like TM are powerful players in the wider political landscape. TM, now owned by Canada’s government, also says it has also employed thousands of people since the first pipeline opened in 1953.
The section that runs through Rosedale is an extension, and TM says it is subject to 156 conditions, enforced by the Canada Energy Regulator (CER), a government agency.
“Our wishes are to have the wetland protected,” says Peter Vranjkovic, of the group Protect the Planet, which has engaged in non-violent, direct action to try to protect habitats.
“That means the pipeline company should drill under it or put the pipe around it.”
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Pointing to the way activists have grown accustomed to fighting to fight to save patches of habitat, patch by patch, rather than whole forests, he says the Rosedale wetland, near Bridal Veil Falls State Park, has old-growth trees, which include to make it so special. Such aboreal veterans are particularly critical for carbon storage.
“It’s a beautiful, wild area. It has never been cleared, or if it was, it was 150 or 250 years ago, so the trees are overgrown and nobody has developed this one spot, he says. Some of the trees have started to decay, which makes it even more tempting for birds.
There are barn owls, and barred owls, and other “unique species that we don’t find anywhere else that have been recently logged”.
Another activist who has joined the government’s petition is Lynn Perrin, from the group Pipe Up, made up of residents of southwestern British Columbia. She says the importance of the wetland near Bridal Veil Falls has increased as a result of clear-cutting and depletion of nearby areas.
“In addition to nesting birds, the wetlands are home to amphibians such as the endangered coastal giant salamander,” she says.
Cornell is quick to point out that the effort to save the wetland near her home is a team effort involving many people.
Last year, the project was halted for five months or so after activists spotted small nests of Anna’s hummingbird, a migratory species known for its sparkling lime-green feathers.
“They’re tiny—just four centimeters (an inch and a half),” said Sara Ross, a member of the group Community Nest Finding Network (CNFN), which spotted the bird and alerted federal authorities.
In June, Ross found nests belonging to red-breasted sapsuckers, which again forced the work to stop, at least until the breeding season ends in late August.
“I will use every little nest to stop this project. Because we cannot build more fossil fuel infrastructure, she says.
“It will kill our world. It is killing our world. This is not about nests, this is about using any means necessary to stop this expansion of the tar sands, for my seven-year-old, for my child, for myself.
She adds: “We can’t do it anymore. So I just have to help our government do the right thing.”
Ross says the Canadian government and TM are spending huge sums of money promoting themselves as environmentally responsible, and extracting tar sands and transporting it over 600 miles, which has no impact on the environment.
Nevertheless, she says that such an image is false.
“They market tar sands oil as environmentally safe, which is bulls***. Tar sands are the dirtiest fuel on the planet. It takes the most water to refine, it changes the climate more than anything else. You can market it however you want, that’s not true.”
TM was purchased by the Canadian government in 2018. A spokesperson says the entire operation is overseen by CER and its own teams that monitor bird nesting sites.
“Trans Mountain has developed more than 60 environmental protection and management plans related to specific aspects of construction,” the spokesperson says.
“These plans have been approved by CER and must be implemented before, during and after construction along the pipeline right-of-way, at facilities and related access areas.”
Regarding the Bridal Veil Falls area, the spokesperson says “prior to construction activity in the Bridal Falls region, various surveys were conducted by Wildlife Resource Specialists and appropriate buffers were established, including a buffer associated with red-breasted sapsucker cavities.” .
A spokesperson for CER says that their experts “conducted thorough environmental and socio-economic assessments before the Trans Mountain Expansion Project was approved. This included an assessment of the corridor for the project including wetlands, waterways, wildlife and the marine environment.”
The spokesman adds: “There was also a series of hearings which looked in detail at each part of the route for the project, including the route in and around Bridal Veil Falls.”
A spokesperson for the British Columbia government’s Department of Environmental Protection says several studies were conducted before the project began to assess the impact, and these were accepted.
When asked if the pipeline can go under the wetland, the spokesperson says that if TM “wishes to make changes to the project that are not approved within the environmental assessment certificate, it will require them to apply for a change that will include an assessment of the proposed changes”.
The spokesman says Douglas squirrels “have not been identified as a species at risk in British Columbia”.
Cornell and her husband, who has a business locally, have lived in the area all their lives. They moved to their home in Rosedale, next to the wetland that spans “two football pitches”, five years ago.
She says opinion in society is divided about the pipeline. Some support it, others don’t. Not everyone feels able to speak up.
When asked about the likely cost of laying the pipeline under the wetland, she says she doesn’t know, but assumes it will be more.
Still, she asks what price can be attached to the wetlands, full of birds and animals and trees, a sense of calm
“The feeling I get when I walk along that wetland — it’s a sunny day, I can feel the wind, I can hear the birds, and you can see all those birds — it really just makes you feel peaceful, and it reminds you about peaceful times in your life, she says.
“And we have to have those places. Some people don’t identify, and they don’t know, but that’s what those places do for people, and that’s what it does for me.
She adds: “I really hope we can protect it and save it.”