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A Nest of Disagreement

Does the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project threaten eaglets?

Carrie-May Siggins 29 Jun 2005TheTyee.ca

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An eagle's nest is bringing conservationists and the Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project into disagreement once again as construction continues along the controversial highway

The Nest Environmental Stewards Team (NEST) is claiming that construction surrounding an active eagle's nest by Horseshoe Bay is breaking Ministry of Environment regulations and is potentially disruptive to the raptors. The Sea to Sky Expansion Project claims they're well within guidelines.

This morning, the Ministry of Environment gave the green light for the company in charge of construction, Kiewit, to drive a manlift with a mechanical arm close the nest to observe the eagles. NEST is concerned that the close proximity of the manlift to the nest will disrupt the eagle's nesting activity. Jim Cuthbert, a biologist and member of NEST, claims someone from the company could climb a near-by tree and still effectively see the birds without the disruption.

It is only the latest example of the growing tension between the citizen's action group and the Sea to Sky Improvement project.

Before construction began, the Ministry of Environment created two zones around eagle nests to protect them from disruptive noise. Clearing isn't permitted 500m from the nest, and rock blasting must be 1000m away.

But some permitted construction activities such as vegetation removal, roadside construction, movement of boulders and others are threatening the nesting patterns of the birds, says Cuthbert. "We feel that there is a serious encroachment on the protection that was offered by the zone."

But Peter Milburn, executive project director of the Sea to Sky Expansion Project, claims that the only activity that is not allowed within the exclusion zone is tree clearing. Other than rock blasting and drilling, any other activity is allowed. So no matter how far into the zone the company treads, it's within the guidelines.

"We're 100 per cent committed to abiding by what was set out, and we have been so far," says Milburn. Milburn says that Kiewit is adhering to the Ministry of Environment's regulations.

An independent environmental manager hired by Kiewit is on site most days observing any activity that might have an impact on the surrounding environment, says Milburn. And any recommendations made by the manager are closely abided by.

But an e-mail from the contractor's environmental manager, Andrew Allan, to NEST member Susan Cameron, shows that Allan instructed the contractor to stop all grubbing (the process of clearing the soil for construction,) when they discovered the nest was active "Once the eagle was observed in the tree by [Ministry of Transport] personnel," writes Allan in the March 1, 2005 email, "I instructed Kiewit to halt all blasting and clearing and grubbing within the required limits."

A separate e-mail to Cameron, written by Doug Kelly, the environmental coordinator of the Sunset Beach to Lions Bay section of the Sea-to-Sky Highway Project, reinforced that "no clearing or grubbing" is permitted within 500 meters of the nest.

But "grubbing is occurring," says Cuthbert, "and they've indicated in writing several times that that's not allowed."

Some grubbing is allowed within the exclusion zone surrounding the eagles, says Brian Clark, the Ministry of Environment's regional manager for the Lower Mainland. "If it's slow, low scale, low noise, low activity," says Clark, the activity is allowed. "We're basically making a judgment call here."

The eagles are "used to a certain amount of human activity. So if activities within that zone aren't going above the normal noise level too much, that's probably good enough."

But Jim Cuthbert doesn't believe it is good enough. He claims that the noise caused by the machinery is loud enough that residents in the surrounding area have expressed concern.

"It's clearly in contravention with the intent of the regulation. It follows from anyone's point of view that large, loud heavy equipment working close to an eagles nest is not considered acceptable," says Cuthbert. The mechanical arm being used this morning is only the latest example of that heavy machinery.

NEST is asking that construction be moved to another part of the seven-kilometer stretch until August 15, when nesting season is over, and the eaglet found in the nest is better able to take care of itself.

One of the potential consequences of disruption during the nesting season is abandonment of the nest. Studies have found that if a tree is disrupted, parents will leave the home base and the eaglet to defend for itself, which it almost always can't. It's also possible that the parents will not return to the nest the following year.

Campbell's Liberals have been widely accused of sacrificing environmental protection for the sake of economic development. Some worry that the new Ministry of Environment (the ministry was formerly known as Water, Land and Air Protection) may not effectively enforce its own rules.

But Clark says that the Ministry is trying to balance the concerns of all parties. He says that although the project is taking environmental protection very seriously, there is a road that needs to be built. "It's not that we're bending to development, we're just saying what development can we allow and still meet everyone's intent in protecting the eagles?"

But Cuthbert is skeptical. "Unless the community had spoken up, there is a thought that the protection that we've been able to facilitate may not have been applied and therefore there's a risk of the eagle family being disrupted."

Carrie-May Siggins is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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