$733,000 study will use woodstove ash to help heal Muskoka’s damaged forests and waterways
BRACEBRIDGE – The ash from Muskoka’s fireplaces and woodstoves can help the region’s forests and waterways, protect vital aquatic creatures, and even increase the amount of maple syrup we produce.
And thanks to a $733,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a three-year study beginning in January will determine the best ways to get the ash where it can do the most good.
“I encourage residents to take part in this project and I look forward to seeing the results of the study.”Norman Miller, MPP for Parry Sound-Muskoka
The Ontario Trillium Foundation has announced a $733,600 grant to the HATSOFF project, which is coordinated by the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed (FMW). The project will focus on ways to collect the wood ash, as well as doing field tests to determine exactly how much ash should be spread in different types of forests. “This is a great example of how individual community members can work together to make a real difference for our local ecosystem,” said Norman Miller, MPP for Parry Sound-Muskoka. “I encourage residents to take part in this project and I look forward to seeing the results of the study.”
HATSOFF (Hauling Ash To Save our Forests’ Future) is a unique collaboration between scientists, municipal officials, and property owners, including the region’s maple sugar producers. “We’ve known for a long time that calcium is a key factor in our forests and waterways,” explained Norman Yan, one of the nation’s leading freshwater biologists and the chair of the FMW. “Decades of acid rain have flushed a lot of that calcium away, with widespread environmental effects. But wood ash is an efficient way to return calcium into the forest and from there into the waterways.”
A smaller study, which FMW completed in 2018, confirmed that the ash is not toxic. It also determined that many people who heat with wood are willing to donate their ash and have it spread in the forest. This next phase of study will begin by recruiting 100 to 200 Muskoka residents who are willing to donate their ash. FMW will be partnering with the District Municipality of Muskoka to set up collection sites at waste transfer stations. “In the meantime,” said Yan, “if you want to contribute your ash to help save our forest, please stockpile it for now. Details on where and how to donate it will be coming early in 2019.”
In the first two years of study, five to ten tonnes of ash will be spread in test plots located in sugar bushes in Muskoka. (Sugar maple trees are particularly prone to calcium loss and tend to respond very quickly when calcium levels are restored). Graduate students and research scientists will monitor the sites, studying the impact of the ash on tree growth, bird populations, water quality, and a wide range of other factors. In the final year of the study, FMW aims to have 1,000 Muskoka residents share up to 100 tonnes of ash (believed to be 1/3 of the annual wood ash production in the District), to allow a watershed-level field test. The ultimate goal is to have a province-wide ash collection system, sufficient to supply hundreds of tonnes of ash every year. “This will take tonnes of material out of the landfills and have an enormous impact on the health of our forests and waterways,” said Yan. Since much of the wood burned in southern Ontario came from central Ontario forests, he added, bringing it back to the region closes a recycling loop.
Calcium depletion backgrounder:
Where did all the calcium go? A century of acid rain and historically poor logging practices have flushed calcium from the soil and from the lakes and rivers. Most of Muskoka’s lakes have lost 25% to 50% of the calcium they need. Even though acid rain has largely stopped, and forestry practices have improved, without intervention it will take centuries for calcium levels to rebound.
Why is this a problem? All life needs calcium. In Muskoka, forests are about 2% calcium by weight, and when calcium isn’t available, the trees and other forest plants can’t grow as quickly or efficiently. Many aquatic creatures – particularly hard-shelled creatures like crayfish, turtles and molluscs – are even more dependent on calcium. Crayfish diversity in many lakes has already declined by 25%. When trees aren’t growing as quickly, they can’t capture carbon as efficiently, impacting their ability to help fight climate change. In lakes, the tiny crustacea and molluscs are often filter-feeders, performing a vital function in cleaning our waterways. Just one group of species filters the entire volume of Lake Muskoka every week in the summer.
Is this a problem everywhere? No. The problem is most severe in areas with thin soils, granite bedrock, and a history of being exposed to acid rain. Muskoka and other parts of central Ontario are uniquely positioned to feel the brunt of this problem.
What will wood ash do? Wood ash is about 1/3 calcium by weight, and also contains many other key nutrients. Much of it is absorbed into the soil and quickly taken up by trees and other plants. What isn’t absorbed by the plants will make its way into the lakes.
How much ash will it take? It will take roughly four tonnes of ash per hectare over many thousands of hectares to restore the calcium balance. That is far more ash than Muskoka residents produce. The lessons learned in this three-year study will be used to help develop a province-wide ash recycling program, to bring wood ash from southern Ontario.