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Case made for creating wildlife sanctuary in Vienna Woods

Timothy Schafer
By Timothy Schafer
March 26th, 2018

One of the city’s oldest and rare stands of forest now has a champion as the city considers putting the aged acres on the chopping block.

The Vienna Woods — located near the airport — is an 11-acre section of desert forest, with the city owning six of the acres, and the school district holding the deed to the remaining section.

But there is an intention on the municipal front to move the property to private interests. On March 12 Gene Koch and Fred Marshall called on the city to reconsider, and to move to protect the forest as asanctuary for fur, fowl and human activities.

Marshall — who worked for Forest Service for many years — told council the forest is one of the last areas of a very unique ecosystem in the region. Dominated by Ponderosa pine, yellow pine, dryland desert andbunchgrass, as well as a host of wildlife, birds and raptors, the 90 year-old forest contains one of the last remnants of the “dryland” ecosystem, he explained.

“And it’s quite a unique one and it’s becoming more rare as we develop across the province,” Marshall said. “So I would like to think it would be worth preserving as a protected area for the city as a park.”

Koch agreed. In his statement to council to open the delegation presentation, he said keeping the woods as a sanctuary would improve air quality in the city, remove noise (by creating a buffer) and prohibit dust, while providing a sanctuary for endangered species of birds, raptors and other creatures.

Council questioned the two on the merit of keeping the woods, as well as its health. Coun. Julia Butler wondered if the city did sell the land and a developer decided to clear-cut it, how would the action affect the remaining woods that belong to the school district.

“Would they be in danger of exposure and blowing down the neighbours’ trees?” she asked.

Trees create a buffer for each other, so if a section of woods was clear-cut there would be blow down along the edges, said Marshall.

Coun. Neil Krog asked how fast that forest stand would “torch” if a wildfire came through.

Marshall said the fire risk in the area is moderate — without much heavy ground fuel — but the main challenge to reducing wildfire risk would be wind, depending on the amount of dry grass at any point.

“To manage the stand and reduce the fire hazard load with a little more management could reduce the risk to low,” said Marshall.

Coun. Christine Thompson asked if any of the birds listed in a report on the forest actually nested in the forest. Marshall said owls did, as well as some smaller birds.

“But you still need these active buffers to protect the nests in other areas,” said Marshall. “I would say active nests in the area are low,
but the use (from birds) is high.”

Koch made a plea for conservation now, as opposed to later when the situation became dire.

“As you remove the forest … in essence, in time the birds will just die,” he said. “What I am distressed about is I don’t want to see us wait to see some of these animals on an endangered species list.

“Why can’t we just manage what we have today so they never come onto the endangered species list? There’s nothing quite like the beauty of wildlife right in the wild and it’s so close … so it’s really critical that it just be salvaged.”

Mayor Frank Konrad wondered about the proximity of the forest to the city’s airport.

“In my information, airports, planes and birds don’t mix, what is your response on that?” he asked.

Marshall said that was true, that birds and planes were not a good combination.

“But the big problem is with large waterfowl, geese and ducks, swans, birds like that, but the birds that inhabit this area are negligible for their effect, they are all too small,” he replied.

Plus, most of the birds of any size were nocturnal, he added, and the planes did not fly at night.

The area has been classified as a mature forest and under the “other ecosystems” class in a city report on sensitive ecosystems inventory
mapping, said Butler.

“With the amount of pine beetle in there is that a threat? Is it going to wipe out these trees in the near future?” she asked. “Do these trees have much of a life expectancy in them?”

The main threats to the area are the mountain pine beetle and wind, Marshall noted.

“I would say the forest health risk to this area is low,” he said, with the forest having a life expectancy of up to 400 years.

Last year the city set aside some property on Johnson Flats for a sanctuary, but there was no move yet by council to determine the fate of the Vienna Woods. The information from the delegation was taken under advisement for a pending decision on a potential sale of the woods.

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