So you want to know about the Burns Bog Pilgrimage. Many Unitarians have heard of this annual meditative walk, usually in conjunction with the Earth Day Service put on by the Environment Team. For others, Burns Bog is a big mystery- what is it, why is it so important, and why would Unitarians help organize a pilgrimage to a ‘swamp’?
Karl Perrin, long-time member of the Environment Team, answers those questions and more…
What is Burns Bog?
Burns Bog is an ancient domed bog in Delta, B.C. It is ten times the size of Stanley Park. It provides habitat for several threatened and endangered species. An NDP provincial govt. had planned to pave half of it as a new site for the PNE. Gordon Campbell countered that if he became premier, he would preserve it. After his government was elected, four levels of government bought out private owners, and designated it as conservation lands off limits to all but a few trained volunteers preserving the wetness of the bog in dry weather. Several members of the UCV Enviro Committee participated in building dams to prevent the central dome from drying out, and potentially catching on fire.
Why Protect Burns Bog?
In addition to being the largest protected urban wilderness area in the world, Burns Bog is part of the valuable Fraser River delta. Over five million migratory birds rest in the estuary on the Pacific Flyway. The acidic water prevents aerobic or anaerobic bacteria from decaying plant and animal matter, so carbon is preserved deep under the surface for millenia. Therefore, unlike forests where wood becomes CO2 and CH4 within a couple centuries, the carbon builds up creating the central dome, and only sphagnum moss thrives in many parts of the bog. Under pressure the carbon would eventually become coal but it is also susceptible to fire. Therefore, human activities have been banned, since in the past, human pollution and sparks from machines led to fires which were very difficult to put out.
Why is wilderness in a city so precious?
Burns Bog is a remnant of the last ice age. It has survived partly because travel in it is difficult. It not only takes CO2 out of the air, and produces O2 for animals to breathe, it also provides habitat for numerous animals such as Sandhill Cranes and other birds, and rare plants, as part of the interlocking ecosystems of the lower Fraser River. It also acts as a giant sponge for rain, but also for spring freshets of the Fraser River. Indigenous peoples have used it for food and medicine for millenia. Its quiet, flat “emptiness” complements the high rise human activity of Vancouver. It is a giant pause, in so called “development”.
Theory: If You Love It, You Will Protect It
The first Pilgrimage to Burns Bog in the 1990’s was a multi-faith walk into the knee-deep bog before it was protected. For decades it had been considered worthless, and the Vancouver City Dump was expanding into it, along with cranberry farms, and peat mining operations on its fringes. That 1990’s multi-faith pilgrimage, working with the Burns Bog Conservation Society and Don DeMill, was the first time a group from Greater Vancouver declared it to be a sacred site. Some like Don, loved it by interacting with it on an almost daily basis, exploring its mysteries in hip waders. Don made a movie about it, “A Road Runs Through It”, loosely based on a movie, “A River Runs Through It”.
Others had discovered its value scientifically, exploring and identifying its flora and fauna. Its unique beauty was quite different from the towering old growth forest of Vancouver Island. It is quite flat, and virtually hidden from view except from the high point at the centre of the Alex Fraser bridge. So it’s hard for humans to feel, smell, taste, hear, or even see it. But once you experience its miniature fauna and flora, maintaining ecological difference from surrounding eco-systems, yet inter weaving with all of them, you will marvel at its stubborn self preservation. Then you may love it, as a pause from bull dozing, and seek to preserve it from advanced machinery and fire. It’s a quiet wet pause in the middle of an urban space.
In April, 2007 Greenpeace activist Rex Weyler gave an Earth Day sermon at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver. He challenged us to remember the residents of Strathcona/Chinatown in Vancouver who, against all odds, stopped a proposed freeway from bull dozing their community in the 1970’s. Rex challenged us to stop the Gateway Project, which would put a freeway through the edge of Burns Bog. It would provide a high speed road for container trucks coming from the proposed expansion of Delta Port. That road was called the South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR). The Gateway Project included the SFPR, the North Fraser Perimeter Road, and the new ten lane Port Mann bridge. Rex challenged us to stop all of it, even though the transport minister declared it a “done deal”, the day he announced it.
And so some of us at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, and other multi-faith nature loving leaders, joined forces to renew the Pilgrimage to Burns Bog in 2008. We met on Annacis Island and announced our religious and political intentions to stop the Gateway Project. With banners and signs we walked across the Alex Fraser Bridge, and rested at the entrance to the Delta Nature Reserve, which includes a boardwalk to a small remnant of Burns Bog. In subsequent years we played with the format, but always with the intention to fall in love with Burns Bog, and protect it from the proposed Highway 17 on its edge. We had a welcome by Aline Laflamme. We had cello music by Nick Epperson, and singing by Singers of the Sacred Web. We had opening and closing speeches by environmental and religious leaders. After about 2014, the Burns Bog Conservation Society made it a permanent part of their annual calendar of public events. It continues as the Earth Day Sunday Pilgrimage to Burns Bog.
What Didn’t Work?
The South Fraser Perimeter, and the whole Gateway Project, was built. We lobbied Gordon Campbell’s Liberal Government, but the economics behind it were too powerful. It addition to preserving Burns Bog, we opposed the urban sprawl engendered by a bridge which would expand cheaper bedroom communities east and south of the ten lane Port Mann bridge. The bridge was built for commuters, which meant more greenhouse gases, GHGs. There was a lot of pent up public demand among existing commuters for a new bridge. The expansion of high speed roads for container trucks was favoured by those who wanted to expand Vancouver’s port status. Burns Bog never attained the wilderness status of Clayoquot Sound’s old growth forest, possibly because it doesn’t have huge awesome trees, and it is not a recreation site for humans. The “If you love it, you’ll protect it” theory only worked as a theory. It’s not an easy place to understand or to love. For most people, it is still a non-place, an absence, not a presence, ten times the size of Stanley Park
What Did Work?
Many of us learned and thought a great deal about how a domed bog works.
We created an alliance of artists, scientists, environmentalists, political and religious workers who continue to fight Climate Change, and the desecration of wilderness and species at risk.
The million tonnes of carbon buried under Burns Bog is still there, and the remaining Bog continues its role as the “Lungs of the Lower Mainland” inhaling CO2 and exhaling O2. No fire yet.
A living Burns Bog is still a contributing part of the Fraser River estuary. The millions of migratory birds, fish, and mammals that depend on it, are still alive, in spite of the threat of Delta Port Expansion. APE (Against Port Expansion), based in Delta, has been fighting the industrialization of the lower Fraser River for many years.
We built a coalition of faith and environmental groups which continues to fight for our planet’s health and beauty. The fight continues locally and globally.
For more information, check out Burns Bog Conservation Society
Karl Perrin, June, 2020