by Glen Herbert
First the bad news: the forests and lakes in Muskoka are in decline due to the leaching of calcium, the result of decades of acid rain. Now the good news: researchers at Trent University, in partnership with colleagues around the world, have learned that there is something that they can do about it: spread ash. Non-industrial wood ash is 30% calcium (who knew?) and when spread on the forest floor it raises calcium and reduces acidity. One application is enough for decades.
It’s a seemingly simple solution to an intractable global problem: climate change. “The healthier forest will sequester carbon faster than anything else you can do,” says Tim Kearney, Project Director for ASHMuskoka, an initiative begun in 2019 by the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed. “The 2 Billion Trees project that the government wants to do, that’s a great project. But you have forests here,” he says. The point being that adult trees are already capturing carbon at rates that seedlings can only aspire to. “How about getting that existing forest healthy again?”
On Earth Day this April, RLC took part in exactly that. Working with ASHMuskoka and Shelby Conquer, a researcher from Trent University, they distributed ash in a forest just outside Bracebridge. It was, in some senses, a national milestone. As Conquer notes, all distributions prior were done as part of an ongoing study to gauge viability, amounts, and rates of success. This distribution was the first—both here and in Canada—not done as part of an investigation, but solely for the benefit of the trees themselves. “We know it makes a difference,” says Kearney. This thanks to the work of people like Conquer. “We’ll still monitor it, we’ll still measure it, but we know it’s going to work.”
For the students, and for the school, the day marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship with local and international agencies to, quite literally, change the world. In the months and years ahead, students will distribute ash and test leaves and soil at regular intervals to gauge results. Come the fall, they’ve been invited to attend advisory meetings of the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed. “We’d like to see students report on the work that they’re doing, and any issues they may behaving,” says Kearney. “It would be nice to develop that relationship, so that they can communicate back to the advisory team, and we can see if there are ways we can help them out.”
“It’s about putting solutions into the hands of people. I don’t know of too many people that don’t want to be involved. It’s more a problem of ‘How do I get involved? What can Ido?’ Doing things like this is really beneficial, and it brings the community together.”
—Shelby Conquer, Trent University School of the Environment
It’s an example of taking learning out of the classroom and applying it to real-world problems. With teacher Emily Windrem, the students gain insight into how calcium affects pH, and the solubility of the various elements involved.
Of course, it’s also a lesson in stewardship, and citizenship, and what it means to play a role. “When I see this work done, and I look at this forest,” says Kearney, “I feel like I’m leaving a legacy.And I think that boils down to the kids, too. They know that we have a problem in this world, and it’s called climate change. But when they look at it, it looks so huge, so big, that they don’t know what to do. … Things like this, kids can relate to it. And they can see that it’s not that difficult to participate.”
The data gathered by students will be used in classroom learning, but will also inform recovery efforts, locally and beyond. Interacting with the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed—the group includes leading researchers as well as dedicated volunteers—for many students will be a particularly galvanizing experience. “This is a long study that we’re going to be a part of,” says John Dinner, Foundation Years teacher and lead on the ash initiative. “It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.”
The distribution this past Earth Day was featured in a report on CTV, which you can see by clicking here. For more on ASHMuskoka and the governing body, the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed, visit ashmuskoka.ca.