Threats to St. Albert's Historic Grey Nuns White Spruce Forest
Updated: Apr 21
St. Albert is the home of a wonderful forest. A rare, urban first-growth white spruce forest called the Grey Nuns White Spruce Park falls on the western limits of the city near Ray Gibbon Drive and McKenney Avenue.
The forest is home to a diverse selection of wildlife from reptiles and amphibians such as red-sided garter snakes and Canadian toads to mammals such as short-tailed weasels and snowshoe hares with over 170 species of birds being reported in the park in the last three years on the citizen science project, eBird.¹ It is also home to trees up to 160 years old.² This forest is one of the only first-growth white spruce forests that is found within urban limits in all of North America.
St. Albert’s Protection of the Park
In 2011, The city of St. Albert classified the forest as a Municipal Historic Resource which according to Alberta’s Historical Resources Act, protects historic resources from demolition or alterations that take away from their heritage value.³ The city also developed a management plan in 2014 with the goal of managing the park for the health of the forest, the people using the park, and the educational and awareness resources the park provides.⁴
Many threats are addressed in the management plan and are being managed with varying success but there is one glaring omission from the plan, anthropogenic noise.
Impacts of Anthropogenic Noise on the Animals of the Forest
It has been well documented that anthropogenic noise greatly affects both amphibians and birds since both species rely on auditory communication to thrive. To learn more about the impact and what we can do about it see my post, “The Impact of Human Noise on Songbirds”.
There is a large amount of evidence suggesting that anthropogenic noise impacts birds and amphibians and it is crucial that we take this into account when conserving habitat. Sound cannot be ignored when protecting an area. If we ignore this type of pollution we will either reduce the amount of suitable habitat for many species or reduce the success of the species that live in the habitat. This will have a negative impact on the biodiversity of the park and alter its value as a heritage site and its value to the community.
Environment and Climate Change Canada has identified that noise greater than 50 dB is associated with the disturbance of nests and nesting birds.⁵
The Forest Is Under Attack
The Grey Nuns White Spruce Park is facing some large threats in the near future with regard to anthropogenic noise. One is a supermarket anchored shopping center and the other is the expansion of a highway.
The Shopping Centre
Just north of the forest, within 300 m, there is plans to build a shopping centre with a large supermarket as the anchor store. This will inevitably increase noise in the sensitive forest habitat and is completely unnecessary with multiple supermarkets just down McKenney Drive and a strip mall with a local food store a short walk away.
A possible solution would be to develop a shopping centre with smaller local shops similar to the the Shops at Boudreau centre in St. Albert or to move the location of the shopping center to the other side of McKenney Drive.
The shopping centre is one issue but a bigger concern is the highway. Ray Gibbon Drive borders the park to the west. Plans were just announced to make this road into a four lane highway over the next few years. Doing this would bring much more traffic to the road and would immensely increase the noise levels.
The best solution for the forest and to prevent alterations that impact its value would be to not expand the highway. It is most certainly already impacting the forest but any expansion would only increase the negative impact. We need to invest in alternatives such as an LRT expansion and further improvements to multi-use trail systems to promote walking and cycling.
Short of this ideal solution, there are some ways to help mitigate the impact. A T-shaped, solid sound barrier would be one option but the negative impact on wildlife movements of such a barrier would be a negative consequence. Animal overpasses or underpasses would need to be constructed to offset this impact. Another possible barrier would be dense vegetation, this would not impact wildlife movement but it would also not be as effective of a sound barrier.
Another inexpensive and effective way to mitigate the negative impact of the highway would be to use traffic restrictions. One of these would be to reduce the speed limit of the highway. Reducing the speed limit to 40 km/h would reduce the noise considerably, increase traffic flow at busy times, and cost virtually nothing to implement. Another traffic restriction that could help would be to restrict loud vehicles such as motorcycles and heavy trucks.
The Grey Nuns White Spruce Park is a rare treasure that St. Albert has already recognized it needs to protect. We must take proactive steps now to ensure that the risks to the forest are stopped and the forest thrives for many years to come.
If you want to support the protection of this park please sign the online petition.
1. eBird. 2018. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: March 27, 2019).
2. Brierley, Pamela. (2014). Grey Nuns White Spruce Park management plan. May 2014. Retrieved from https://stalbert.ca/uploads/PDF-reports/Grey-Nuns-White-Spruce-Park-Management-Plan-2014.pdf
3. Historical Resources Act, RSA 2000
4. Brierley, Pamela. (2014). Grey Nuns White Spruce Park management plan. May 2014. Retrieved from https://stalbert.ca/uploads/PDF-reports/Grey-Nuns-White-Spruce-Park-Management-Plan-2014.pdf
5. Environment Canada. (2018). Risk factors for migratory birds. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/avoiding-harm-migratory-birds/reduce-risk-migratory-birds.html