Maxwell Creek Watershed Project Field Files Part 3: Mapping the watershed
Spatial data tells geographically, temporally, and ecologically informative stories. Understanding land-use and ecological change over time is essential to making decisions about the future of ecologically sensitive areas.
Multiple practitioners working under the umbrella of the Maxwell Creek Watershed Project (MCWP or “the Project”) have contributed to this third instalment of the Field Files series, a photo essay illustrating the important role spatial data and mapping plays in establishing landscape-wide restoration projects. All maps were made by Nicholas Courtier, who also assisted with map captions. Ruth Waldick from Transition Salt Spring and Shauna Doll from Raincoast Conservation Foundation contributed to building a narrative around these maps.
All maps were made by Nicholas Courtier
One of the first steps to initiate this Project was to compile satellite imagery, ecological and biophysical maps, data layers, and any other field data from the watershed to begin to understand surface water flows, hydrological features, forest structure, and land-use history among other things. Spatial data has been further supported by a growing assortment of field observations from fixed, long-term monitoring stations (water flows, forest and vegetation plots, etc), experimental/treatment plots, data loggers and wildlife cameras.
Ultimately, this work aims to tackle the complexities of addressing cumulative impacts of climate change on local ecosystems while also navigating interagency collaboration. The goal of the Project is to better understand and define the efficacy of nature-based solutions, such as the installation of green infrastructure, in increasing climate resilience and enhancing ecological integrity and biodiversity.
There are three actionable objectives of the Project
Forest restoration Like on many Gulf Islands, intensive silvicultural (i.e. timber harvest) activities on Salt Spring Island throughout the 20th century shifted structurally complex and biodiverse Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forests to stands that are predominantly homogenous in age, with limited species diversity, closed canopies (i.e. dark), and a lack of wildlife and wildlife features (e.g. wildlife trees, coarse woody debris, etc.). This is certainly the case in the Maxwell Creek Watershed. Despite more than 20 years of protection, the forests within this watershed are dominated by silvicultural characteristics (i.e. dense, low-diversity, and even-aged). This has implications for biodiversity and increases vulnerability to climate change/weather extremes. The MCWP focuses on developing, testing, and demonstrating techniques to recover ecological functions and reduce fire hazards within modified forests of the Southern Gulf Islands.
Wetland restoration Climate induced drought, extreme heat, and exceptional rainfall events have increased the frequency and severity of local emergencies such as road washouts, landslides, and loss of electricity and emergency services. The state of ecosystems in the Maxwell Creek Watershed exemplifies the extent of modification imposed on the landscape since settler arrival in the late 1800’s. This includes the loss of approximately 75% of wetlands from this area. The MCWP aims to understand and define priority areas for restoring wetland functions lost due to the installation of roads, ditches, and agricultural drainage systems.
Baseline observational studies As described above, the Project has been designed to increase fire resilience and ecological integrity in forests and wetland ecosystems. Restoring a more complex forest structure requires an understanding of historic and baseline conditions. This means collecting information on factors creating areas of high vulnerability (eg., fire, washout/flooding, loss of biodiversity/habitat), and identifying key variables influencing ecological functionality in the watershed.
The study area: Maxwell Creek Watershed
The following photo essay describes the role spatial data has and will continue to play in helping the Project’s community of practice to achieve these goals.
The Maxwell Creek Watershed was chosen as an area of focus for a number of reasons. In addition to being a protected area at low risk of future development and disturbance, the watershed is essential to the resilience of the Salt Spring Island community. It supplies potable water to nearly 50% of year-round island residents, including the Village of Ganges and the hospital. Maps 1 through 17 will provide additional information about the study area, land-use history, and many other additional details that have been considered in the design and implementation of the MCWP.
Key data layers
Each map in this collection was taken from the same area within the Maxwell Creek Watershed as noted in the caption of Map 4. By featuring the same area overlaid with different spatial data layers, we are able to demonstrate how different layers can tell different stories about the same place.
There are two major access challenges that might arise in the context of a landscape level project like the MCWP. The first is on-the-ground property access. Maps 18 to 21 were created to illustrate administrative details relating to land ownership and management within the Maxwell Creek watershed. As the maps show, an overlapping matrix of ownership, ecological protections, zoning, and development permissions can be challenging to navigate. In the context of the MCWP, it has meant that multiple collaborative partnerships had to be established prior to beginning an on-the-ground work. These partnerships will need to be maintained throughout the project’s lifetime via regular communications and permitting processes.
The other major accessibility issue for a project like this is typically data access. Because of the multi-jurisdictional landscape, with a variety of historical land-uses ranging from industrial (e.g. forestry) to protective (e.g. ecological reserves), there are multiple datasets available with different owners. Luckily, many of these datasets have been compiled and made publicly available to anyone with interest in seeking them out. Some of the datasets used to create the maps in question were accessed through the following websites: