People walk through the bog during the 2018 Earth Day pilgrimage. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Delta’s Burns Bog Conservation Society celebrates 30 years

Executive director Eliza Olson recalls her time at the helm of the grassroots organization

While wind whistles through the branches of a hemlock tree, a strand of sphagnum moss grows taller. Its progress is slow — the moss grows only two millimetres a year — but its result is mighty: the largest raised peat bog in North America.

Burns Bog has been quietly forming below North Delta’s bluff for the last 5,000 years or more. Its sphagnum mosses have been accumulating water and acidifying the bog since they first started growing, reaching a total size of 4,800 hectares in the 1930s.

But since the early 20th century, the mosses have been chipped away by peat mining, farming and industrial uses. In the 1970s, the bog was only 4,000 hectares. Today, about 2,500 hectares of the bog are protected from development and people, after four levels of government came together to purchase and protect Burns Bog.

It’s those 2,500 hectares, and the unprotected peat lands that lie outside of it, that Eliza Olson and the Burns Bog Conservation Society have been looking over for the last 30 years.

Enter Eliza

It was a political woman that first heard about a proposal to develop Burns Bog into an industrial site and deep sea port, and later into a 125,000-person city.

In 1987, a nearly 50-year-old Eliza Olson was outraged.

“There’s people all through Delta that value the bog, but I think the people of North Delta value it more because we can look over it and see it,” she said.

The council candidate and teacher had lived on the bluff above the bog since 1972, and had been concerned about wetlands since she was a young girl watching her father stop work to let a mother duck cross the road. At the time, Olson didn’t know much about the bog’s ecology, but that wasn’t going to stop her from opposing development in the wetland during the election.

“I was laughed at, called Chicken Little, a sensationalist,” she said. “Now I didn’t win, but there’s the saying: a no to something is a yes to something else.

“The yes is to 30 years of heading the society.”

The society is born

In January 1988, a proposal came forward from Western Delta Lands Ltd. to build a $10.5-billion city on Burns Bog, complete with a 10-berth seaport and a manufacturing and distribution complex.

“Of course, everybody thought ‘Oh my god, the woman knew what she was talking about,’” Olson said about the proposal coming forward to council. “And so I sort of got sucked into the vortex of Burns Bog.”

That March, Olson and other concerned residents held a public meeting at Seaquam Secondary to oppose the development, bringing in Vancouver environmentalist David Suzuki to speak to the crowd. It was the first meeting of the Burns Bog Committee, an ad hoc advocacy group that had one mission: save the bog.

RELATED: ZYTARUK: We’ve been horrible neighbours to Delta’s Burns Bog

That June, council voted against the proposal 5-2. “But we knew we won the battle, but not the war,” Olson said.

That November, the committee applied to become the Burns Bog Conservation Society, with Olson as its executive director.

‘It’s about time conservation won the war’

The first meeting of the Burns Bog Conservation Society was in Olson’s house, and the topic of conversation was the challenges facing them on the road ahead.

“The first challenge was people sort of drifted away because they thought the bog was saved,” Olson said. But the second challenge proved that wasn’t the case, yet.

Proposals came to council in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1999 for different developments in the bog, including industrial sites, a horse-racing track and an entertainment centre that would have included a new home for the PNE. The society opposed each development and sent in a 25,000-name petition to the province, asking it to preserve the bog.

In 1999, a report by the Wilderness Committee spoke out against the PNE proposal, arguing that the provincial government needed to make amends by purchasing and protecting the bog.

“The champions of Burns Bog’s immeasurably valuable have for many years fought one battle after another against an array of destructive development ranging from ambitious to totally off-the-wall,” the report reads. “It’s about time conservation won the war.”

Eventually, it did.

In 2004, Canada, B.C., Metro Vancouver and Delta came together to purchase just over 2,000 hectares of Burns Bog and turn it into an ecological conservancy area. The cost: $73 million.

Over the years, bits and pieces have been added into the conservancy area, which is strictly protected from human interference. And in 2012, Burns Bog became part of the Fraser River Delta Ramsar site, making it known as a wetland of international significance.

The importance of education

For Olson, saving the bog was important work. But the best work comes now that large chunks of it have been saved.

“It’s nice to say we influenced the purchase of the Bog and the Ramsar site, but I think the thing that delights me the most is when former summer students come back and tell me that their life changed,” Olson said. “Even non-summer students, their lives changed because they went into the bog.”

Burns Bog has been a place of education since the mid-20th century, when a different organization called the Burns Bog Protection Society set aside the Delta Nature Reserve as an outdoor classroom in the bog in 1971.

“Thank goodness they did get that piece, or we’d have no part of the bog accessible to the public,” Olson said.

When the Burns Bog Conservation Society began, building on the work the protection society had started, and a large component was about education.

RELATED: Burns Bog Escape gets funding from B.C. government

“Why we did focus on education is because so few of us” knew much about the ecology of bogs, Olson said. “And we just figured if we didn’t know anything, neither did other people.”

The society’s first field trip was with a group of Grade 7s in 1992. Later, after the Nature Reserve’s board walk was nearly complete, a society staff member took a group of Grade 1 students in for a field trip.

“There was a number that were oohing and aahing and squealing because of the water and the muck and that,” Olson remembered. The students had entered a part of the bog where the boardwalk wasn’t finished, and they were standing on the oozing ground.

The staff member turned around and saw one first grade girl standing quietly.

“I lost my boot,” she said.

The team ended up packing up and turning around, Olson remembered. “We never did find her little purple boot. So it’s still there.”

Field trips continued, despite the lost boot, and in 1998 the first summer day camps were added. In 2017, the society’s first “Bog Escape” program got off the ground.

Like the bog, the society isn’t stagnant.

On Oct. 13, the Burns Bog Conservation Society held its 30th anniversary party: a celebration of three decades of work, and a look towards the work to come.

The society is still working to protect areas of the bog outside the 2,500 hectares — including 63 hectares on Highway 91 that could potentially be developed by MK Delta Lands. The proposal would see the creation of nine lots for logistics centres and light manufacturing built on land that was formerly used for peat mining. The proposal also includes 133 hectares being given back to the city for protection.

Despite the land that would be added into the protection area, the society opposes the development because of its potential impacts to the natural flora and fauna of the bog. And, Olson said, the society will continue to oppose all development that encroaches on bog territory.

“It will constantly be under threat,” Olson said about the bog. “Just stop and think,”

Roads, like Highway 17, can be built outside bog land but still impact its water flow, she said. Fires still spark in the acidic peat land and smolder their way through the mossy undergrowth. Developments like those proposed by MK Delta Lands are still making their way to council.

“Someone told me that it would be an ongoing process, and they were right unfortunately,” she said. “There’s always people with ‘green eyes.’”

RELATED: Burns Bog Conservation Society petitions to halt MK Delta Land development

But there are positive things in the future too. Olson hopes the society will be able to build what she called a “world-class education centre” in Delta, to help educate people about the bog. The centre, which she hopes will be in North Delta, would include a museum, interactive education and space for organizations to collaborate.

Right now, it’s not clear how this project would happen.

The Burns Bog Conservation Foundation, which was formed 10 years ago to build up funds for capital projects, is slowly raising money. Land prices make finding a location a challenge.

But, Olson said, the project will find a way to thrive.

After all, she said, “I’ve learned to accept miracles.”

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