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A milestone for Delta's Burns Bog

Burns Bog is the largest domed peat bog on the west coast of North America.

This year marks a big milestone for the “lungs of the Lower Mainland” as it's the 20th anniversary of a government purchase of Burns Bog.

In March 2004, four partners - federal, provincial, regional and municipal governments - jointly purchased 2,042 hectares (5,045 acres) of the ecologically sensitive site to be protected as a conservancy area.

Delta Mayor George Harvie, who was the city's general manager back then, during the March 18th council meeting, made note of the anniversary, saying helping negotiate the deal is one of the highlights of his career.

He said more than 300 additional acres have since been added.

While Delta is committed to its role in the environmental stewardship of Burns Bog, there was a long time the now protected area had an uncertain future. 

Way back in 1961, for example, the idea of using Burns Bog as a landfill surfaced when a private company tried to get permission to develop a dump in the heart of the bog.

Nearby residents at the time objected, expressing fears about smells, vermin, polluted water, smoke and dust. Another private company also tried to locate there, but was turned down.

Later that year, council agreed to use a different corner as a sanitary landfill and there was little, if any, backlash to that idea. The dump and bog have co-existed since the Vancouver Landfill opened five years later.

City on the bog

Various ideas were floated, but in the spring and summer of 1988, Deltans debated a proposal to build a $10.5-billion city covering 6,000 acres of the wetland.

A couple of years earlier, a proposal was made to build a deep-sea port and major industrial development on 5,000 acres of the bog. That proposal sank, as did the subsequent application by Toronto-based Western Delta Lands Inc. to cover Burns Bog with a development that would have housed 125,000 people.

Called Delta Centre, the latest project was pitched as “an integrated community with full accessibility to modern technology and communications service to address the growing trade with the Pacific Rim Nations.”

In a large advertisement in the Optimist in May of 1988, the company promised that at maturity, the city would feature sheltered sidewalks, pedestrian laneways and pathways with “skycab” and “jitney” passenger service throughout the city core.

The company said the development, “will instead be a fully connected, glass-fibre wired, integrated settlement for those who want to fully participate in building a better future for themselves and their children...”

In addition to housing, the proposal included a 10-berth seaport, “generous” container storage areas and a manufacturing and distribution complex.

Western Delta Lands, the development arm of the McLaughlin family, also noted environmental scientists identified just two areas of the property “where efforts to preserve it may still be warranted.”

The development would have covered the largest domed peat bog on the west coast of North America. 

Plan meets quick resistance

The newly formed Burns Bog Committee tried to raise public awareness that year, saying the development would have disastrous environmental implications.

Later that year, the Burns Bog Conservation Society was formed.

The proponent behind Delta Centre submitted a survey to council, indicating 36 per cent of respondents favoured the proposal, while only 27 per cent disagreed and a whopping 37 per cent were undecided.

However, when hundreds turned out for a public hearing that took place over several days in May of 1988, it was clear a vast majority were opposed. Many urged council to reject the proposal outright or begin a study on the long-term impact on the ecological, environmental and social issues.

On June 22 of that year, council defeated the plan, but Alex Leman, planning consultant for Western Delta Lands, soon vowed the company would not walk away from the project.

“It's a huge parcel of land in an urban area that is well serviced by road, water and rail and can also provide excellent industrial and manufacturing opportunities,” he said in an interview that summer.

More plans pitched for the future conservancy area

In the coming years there were other threats to the bog, including a plan by Western Delta Lands to build a $94-million racetrack on 350 acres. That proposal fell through in 1993 when the B.C. Racing Commission rejected it.

In 1999, two years after the conservation society presented a 25,000-name petition to the B.C. government calling on it to preserve the bog, a proposal was pitched to build a giant entertainment centre that would have included a new home for the PNE.

When the plan was unveiled, former NDP Tourism Minister Ian Waddell called it a “win, win, win” that would have preserved part of the bog, however, many warned the viability of the ecosystem couldn't be maintained if a large portion was covered with asphalt.

After hearing the public outcry against the scheme, council turned down the proposal and urged the province to acquire the bog to save it from development.

Protecting the bog, finally

In 2004, the four government partners, including Delta, announced the purchase of a large area of the bog. Wanting to make sure the site was maintained using the best science available, they agreed to come up with an overall management strategy.

Metro Vancouver’s Burns Bog Scientific Advisory Panel was established in 2005 to provide scientific and technical advice on hydrology and bog ecology to a management team, while an Ecological Conservancy Area Management Plan was completed in 2007.

Delta assumed responsibility for managing the area's hydrology and over the years has undertaken a number of projects, including internal ditch dams to ensure the environmentally sensitive wetland doesn't dry up.

In 2012, Burns Bog obtained a Ramsar designation.

The international recognition, created from the Convention on Wetlands held in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty meant to embody the commitment of member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance.

Hoping to raise the water table in part of Burns Bog, the City of Delta earlier this year, issued a request for bids for a qualified consultant experienced in wetland hydrology and ecological restoration to prepare a conceptual restoration plan for a section located in the southeast corner of the ecological conservancy area, west of 96th Street.

The area includes an agricultural drainage ditch, which the city notes has lowered the water table over decades, resulting in a change from the natural bog plant community to a birch forest with a salal understory.

The water table is now substantially lower compared to undrained areas in the bog, the city notes, adding that the goal is to raise the water table in the birch forest area, restore bog plant communities, as well as restart the peat-forming processes while also providing the appropriate conditions for the bog to develop a transitional lagg plant community and accompanying hydrological functions.

The bog is not open to the public but the Delta Nature Reserve is open next door.