As published by The Guardian, September 16, 2011
by Doug Sobey
We are all aware of the criticism the provincial government has been receiving over the attempt to recreate the Bonshaw Hills in Borden – or is it waves? But I have become aware of a threat to the Bonshaw Hills themselves. A rumour has been going around that the government is seriously considering a bypass along the Trans-Canada Highway at Strathgartney. You may well wonder, as I did, what there is to bypass at Strathgartney – for there is no town, not even a village – in the area.
Rather than rely on rumour, I went into the Department of Transport and asked officials whether such a bypass was being considered. They told me it was, though the final route had not been decided. Apparently truckers have to use a lot of gas to get up that hill at Bonshaw and a bypass could cut their costs (Using a map I measure the savings to be less than half a kilometre in distance and perhaps less than 15 metres of height.) They also mentioned a safety issue, an accident spot of sorts, but they weren’t specific. However, local people I’ve talked to aren’t aware of any accident spots along that short stretch of road.
I believe the real reason for this ludicrous proposal is that there is federal money for work on the Trans-Canada Highway (for bypasses, straightening, etc.) and the department has been assiduously looking for places at which to spend it. They’ve identified three: Tryon, Crapaud and Strathgartney. However, because the money won’t cover all three, choices have to be made. You might think that Strathgartney, being the least justified, might be the least likely. However, that can’t be counted on. There has been some opposition at the other sites, especially at Crapaud, where some businesses in the village have objected to being ‘bypassed’, despite the fact that it would create a more peaceful highway for both the residents and the school. Let’s face it, when there is federal money available provincial governments don’t usually spend much time looking a ‘gift horse’ in the mouth. Well, we know what happened to Troy when they took their gift horse – so what have we Islanders to lose?
Firstly, this is not a pure gift: there will be a big financial cost to the taxpayers of this province, who will have to match the federal money dollar for dollar. In the next provincial budget this could be $10 million – or perhaps much more. It is not going to be a cheap road to build, running, as it does, across steep slopes running down to the West River.
But there will be other costs:
There is the destruction of Strathgartney Park (if the road goes through the park, which from a map seems the most likely route). The park is one of the most attractive spots in the Bonshaw Hills. It is maintained; it is a lovely place for a picnic; it has a nature trail; and it does have visitors who enjoy a quiet woodland walk. The local community rallied to its support when the previous government was going to close it down, and I hope they will rally again.
Then there is the destruction of one of the most scenic viewpoints on the Island: the panoramic view down the West River. For many years there has been a parking spot along the road for motorists to pull off and take in the view. Should the bypass be constructed, the view will remain – but with a new highway cutting across it.
There is also, potentially, and this again depends upon the route, the destruction of the woodland at Strathgartney. And this is no ordinary woodland. It contains the last example of pure beechwood on Prince Edward Island, a tree that once made up most of the hardwood forest of the Island. John Stewart in 1806 said “beech grows in great abundance, probably better than half the Island is covered with it, in some districts forming nine-tenths of the forest.” So how could a woodland that covered half the Island when Europeans arrived have been reduced to just a few acres? Well, after 300 years of destruction from forest clearance (unfortunately for beech, it was a marker of good soils), forest fires (due to its thin bark, it is very sensitive to fire), cutting for firewood (it made the best firewood, and old trees once cut, do not grow back at the stump), the final nail was a fungal disease, the beech canker, which hit the Island in the 1920s, killing practically all of the beech trees in a single year, leaving only a few diseased root-sprouts remaining.
On account of this beechwood, the Strathgartney woodland is a protected natural area. However, because the last government passed legislation giving itself the power to “de-designate” natural areas, “protected natural areas” are no longer protected in perpetuity (as the act originally intended), but only as long as there is no one with eyes on a property and with influence.
Then there is the destruction of the Strathgartney estate – and perhaps house – once a fine representative of a landlord’s estate and dwelling. Though, sadly, both have suffered in recent years, it is at least still intact.
This is such a foolish proposal that we might think it will never take place. But foolish proposals have been carried out before: you may wish to suspend your judgment on the berms at Borden until you see the finished product, but we cannot afford to suspend our judgment on the bypass at Bonshaw until after it has been carried out. I thus urge all persons who have a concern for the landscape of this Island to act to kill this ridiculous proposal in the seed.
Dr. Doug Sobey of Bedeque is an environmental biologist. He is also a research associate of the Institute of Island Studies at UPEI and for 20 years has been carrying out research into the past and present forests of the Island.