By Dani-Elle Dubé
Dr. P.T. Dang is dwarfed standing among the tall mountains of sand piled several feet high. He points out towards the clearing and recounts a period when the dunes were 10 times larger than it is today. This, he says, spells trouble for animal life.
But this is no exotic geographical formation somewhere far away. Only a few short kilometers from the Woodroffe campus at the corner of Pineland Avenue and Vaan Drive, lies the mysterious and ancient Pinhey sand dunes, a natural complex that has been steadily shrinking in size up until 2011.
And thanks to local groups, including one at Algonquin, efforts are being made to preserve the site that many unique life forms call home.
Over 80 years ago, the sand dune complex extended 2 km in length, stretching from the Nepean Sportsplex to the Greenbelt Pathway. However, by the time Dang was aware of the lands, they were collapsing.
“In 1925, the dune complex was very large,” explained Dang, president of Biodiversity Conservancy International. “But due to housing complexes, tree planting and invading vegetation, the dune got smaller.”
Only two per cent of what existed in 1925 remains today.
“The thing that this offers that has huge value is diversity,” said Rebecca Trueman, organizer and chair of Algonquin’s applied science and environmental technology program upon why she got involved. “There’s no place like this in the area at all.”
Biodiversity Conservancy International then teamed up with the National Capital Commission and Ontario Trillium Foundation in 2011 and created the Pinhey Sand Dunes Restoration Project. This hands-on initiative encourages community involvement in partially restoring and maintaining the prehistoric site.
“I think it’s great,” said Dang on Algonquin’s involvement. “Participation from the college is a huge contribution. We also have some help from the geology department at Carleton University.”
Algonquin students are able to put their volunteer hours accumulated from their involvement towards their volunteer hours for their co-curricular record.
Restoration of the area includes removing debris, impeding vegetation and some of the 30,000 encroaching trees that were planted by the city in the 1950s.
By removing these trees, Henri Goulet, a doctor of agriculture, says that they are not destroying another ecosystem in the process.
“The ecosystem in the forest is immense,” said Goulet, president of SOS-Dunes, a sub-organization of Biodiversity Conservancy International. “It’s a very common (ecosystem) in Ottawa. There is no special species in that forest that I cannot find elsewhere.”
Erin Stitt-Cavanagh, coordinator of the environmental management and assessment program at Algonquin, however, warns that precautions have to be taken to not disturb the area.
“When you’re either introducing or re-introducing new species into the area, you have to be very careful and see if that’s going to be beneficial to a balanced environment,” explained Stitt-Cavanagh, “You have to ask yourself if you’re trying to maintain the status quo — maintain the sand dunes as they are today — or if we are hoping to change them. If the answer is we’re trying to maintain them, then we have to be very careful about what species we introduce and what means of bioconservation we take.”
The purpose of the project, says Dang, is to save the remaining dune habitat and ecosystem.
“With the tree planting, more than half of the dune species disappeared,” said Dang. “So with that, we’re trying to restore and save this land. Maybe in the future we’d like to reintroduce some species to the dune.”
One species that is threatened with extirpation is the Ghost Tiger Beetle. The beetle lives in extremely warm areas and can only be found in the Pinhey sand dunes where the surface can reach up to 70 degrees.
“If we fail to restore the habitat,” said Dang, “then this species can be extirpated within four to five years.”
Extirpation is defined by EcoJustice, a Canadian charity and legal advocate for healthy environment, as a wildlife species that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but exists elsewhere.
Today, the beetle is not found within a 200 km radius of the city and is only seen in a handful of areas in Canada.
“I think when you look at any rural or urban ecosystem, it’s important that we do our utmost to maintain a stable environment for all of the organisms that are living there,” said Stitt-Cavanagh. “It’s happening nation-wide where bioconservation is becoming more and more an essential focus.”
According to the World Wildlife Federation of Canada’s 2012 Living Planet Report, “biodiversity has declined globally by around 30 per cent between 1970 and 2008.”
And to date, the Endangered Species Act reports 98 per cent of Ontario species are at risk.
As for now, about 20 Algonquin students along with various others in the community are dedicating their time to maintaining the dunes.
“It’s important to get people outside,” said Trueman as to why people should get involved. “But also, it’s something that’s positive for our community. Just think of how many things we do that destroy [species]. Now’s the time to give back a little. It’s a good plan.”
FACT BOX – Pinhey Sand Dune Rundown
|Shrunk from around 2 km to around 40mThe surface can reach between 60 to 70 degrees Celcius during mid-June to August.
The Pinhey Sand Dunes were once the bottom of the Champlain Sea.
Species affected: Ghost Tiger Beetle, Big Sand Tiger Beetle, Ant Lion, Dune Spider, Nature’s Bad Hair Day grass, Sand Mushroom, Star Fungus, Pink Ladyslipper Orchid
The Pinhey Sand Dunes is listed as a Geoheritage for the National Capital Region as of Oct. 20.