Oak Hammock Marsh — legislature passed amendments to Wildlife Act to allow projects in protected areas

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
The Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh were supported by powerful allies also expressing opposition to the revised Ducks Unlimited (DU) Canada project at the former St. Andrews Bog, such as the American Ornithologists Union, the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. The contentious office building in the marsh was gaining international attention from environmental groups as far away as Australia and Sweden.
No one argued that DU had not over the years been a friend of marshlands, initiating many reclamation projects. What was being criticized was the appropriateness of building an office complex in an important wetland habitat and a private group using publicly-owned land for that purpose.
It was argued that it set a bad example to allow a private company to use public land for fund raising by locating the DU Canada complex at the marsh and went against the Selkirk-Interlake Planning District, which had earlier issued a permit for the project.
The RM of Rockwood council had passed an amendment changing land use from agricultural to any use determined by the provincial natural resources department “to be compatible with the purpose of a Wildlife Management Area.
Gary Goodwin, the project supervisor at Oak Hammock Marsh, argued that it was a one-shot-deal for the zoning change to allow the construction (Stonewall Argus, July 4, 1990).
Opponents to the project said the zoning amendment would set a dangerous precedent.
“Are we going to maintain Oak Hammock Marsh for what it was intended?” asked opponent Harold Syrett during the planning district hearings, “or open it up for any third party to violate it ... you have to make a decision ... will this preserve he marsh for future generations.”
“The problem here is the Clean Environment Commission held hearings into this project when Ducks Unlimited’s plans were not finalized,” David Punter, a University of Manitoba botany professor, told Winnipeg Free Press reporter Donald Campbell (April 8, 1992).
“We get into these situations time and time again ... because the decision to give a licence is not based on biophysical data; it’s based on guesstimates without any scientific fact.”
The CEC decided in favour of the project on July 12, 1990, in what was at the time regarded as a controversial process. In order to break a tie, additional commissioners, who did not attend the CEC hearings, were brought in and voted to approve the DU project. On the basis of the CEC approval, DU received an environmental licence to proceed from the province on October 25, 1990.
On July 25, 1991, the legislature passed new Wildlife Act amendments, giving Natural Resources Minister Harry Enns the authority to approve projects in protected wildlife areas. This power would be cited in later court cases.
“I can’t recall a more controversial office building,” biologist John Shearer, a spokesman for the Manitoba Naturalists Society, told Free Press reporter Campbell (October 6, 1991). “But, then again, I can’t recall one ever being built in a place such as Oak Hammock Marsh.
“Usually buildings are put in cities or towns, where people expect them to be.”
Meanwhile, DU and the provincial government “stressed that land affected by the project will be restored.”
In a Free Press article in the April 8 issue by Stevens Wild and Campbell, Premier Gary Filmon 
described the additional land being altered by the construction project as a “positive change.”
“The fact of the matter is it’s material that’s being replaced with original native habitat covering,” said Filmon. “That’s not disturbing it in a negative way, that’s disturbing it in a positive way.”
Then Opposition Leader and former Premier, Gary Doer, called the addition of the office complex a “black eye” for Manitoba that marred the province’s environmental reputation in North America.
Meanwhile, Hilary Versavel, chairman of the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh, argued that “special land” was being “lost,” as the meadows destroyed would be replaced by hills and grasses.
 Supporters of the project countered by saying that the wetland in question was originally rehabilitated farmland and the amount of land permanently removed from the habitat would be a mere 2.3 hectares.
Landscaping for the centre's roof called for native prairie plants and the planting of aspen, oak and shrubs. The windows and overhangs were designed to lessen bird strikes. And, the centre was intentionally built on the fringe of the marsh in an area where existing roads and parking lots were located. 
To offset the impact of using four hectares for the building, sewage lagoons and parking lots, 64 hectares of additional land were purchased by DU Canada and donated to the province for incorporation into the wildlife management area. 
Whatever the arguments against the project, the courts continually ruled in favour of DU and the approvals the project received from the province and the planning district. 
Court of Queen’s Justice John Scollin dismissed the civic court case the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh had launched against Ducks Unlimited, the province and the South Interlake Planning District. He ruled that the $10-million DU office did not violate any laws.
“The building was viewed by the government as a necessary or integral element in the successful future operation of this joint management venture,” according to the justice’s summary. “Ducks Unlimited has undertaken considerable long-term financial and other responsibilities for achieving the stated objectives of the Wildlife Act.”
Justice Scollin ruled that the long-term lease entered into by the Manitoba government with DU Canada was legal as was the building permit issued by the planning district. The Court of Appeal on March 24, 1992, upheld Justice Scollin’s ruling that the lease between DU and the province was not contrary to provincial laws.
In a March 25, 1992, article, Free Press court reporter Paul Samyn wrote that the three-judge panel “seemed to have little patience for the arguments made by the lawyer for the grassroots environmental group during the three-hour hearing.”
“You are supposed to come here and present a case that will persuade us and you are not — you are just talking words,” Justice Joseph O’Sullivan told Colin Gillespie, the lawyer representing the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh.
The judges reached their decision within minutes of Gillespie’s arguments and without hearing the lawyer from Ducks Unlimited.
At the time, the project was half completed and was then given the green light to proceed.
Over time, the controversy died down and since then the centre has been lauded around the world as an example of environmentally-friendly construction.
The day prior to the complex first opening to the public on October 5, 1992, the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh held a vigil which they termed the marsh’s “Last Peaceful Day.”
But when the official opening was held a year later on May 1, no evidence existed of the two-year long controversy. Instead, Winnipeggers flocked to the marsh, a 30-minute  drive north of the city, to “critter-dip” and stroll along the boardwalk and trails, as well as take part in indoor activities such as environment-related programs in the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre.
“It’s great here,” said Charles Niedermayer, who drove from Pine Falls with his wife and two grandchildren to take part in the ceremonies (Free Press, May 2, 1993). “I don’t know what those people (protesters) were saying about the building being too close for the ducks to nest. I saw mallards nesting right by the boardwalk.”
While 90,000 people toured the marsh in 1992, the opening day in 1993 witnessed an influx of 17,500 visitors.
Mel Dagg, an outdoor writer for the Free Press, wrote on May 16, 1993: “As anticipated, the birds and animals have almost entirely ignored the new building, and visitors ... we have yet to hear from a disgruntled visitor.”
Bob Wrigley, the director of the interpretive centre when it opened, presented a powerful argument in favour of the DU presence, mentioning that more than half of North America’s wetlands had vanished over a 100-year period and there was great need to reverse that process. “The only way to do that is to change people’s idea that wetland is wasteland (Free Press, September 30, 1992, Randy Turner). We have to teach people the value of wetlands, how critical it is to them.
“The best place (to educate people) is right here. You can show them wetlands ecology through films and exhibits inside, then go outside and see the real thing.
“It’s a way of bringing the marsh right into the building without disturbing the wildlife.”
When the marsh received its prestigious 2002 British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award, it was hailed as a world-class wetland preservation and education site.
“The Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre is a designated Ramsar site (a designation specific to wetlands), situated in Manitoba, Canada, and is known as a birding hotspot,” said the London, England-based panel when announcing the 2002 award. “The Interpretive Centre aims to raise awareness of the importance of wetlands and has assisted with the planning and development of interpretative centres and programs across North America and the West Indies. 
“The centre is a unique blend of museum, science centre, classroom and wildlife area. Working closely with museum and science centre associations, developers, scientists and managers, visitors encounter a life-changing experience in a vibrant wetland habitat through a mix of modern technology and real-life outdoor experiences with minimal impact on this valuable resource. It encourages people to support wetland conservation and create a healthier environment for both wildlife and people. 
“Actively involving the local community in different environmental monitoring programs with wildlife and plants, together with the recent integration of the aboriginal community into these programs, the project has contributed to the surrounding community by offering educational programs, exhibitions and workshops. It has become a social centre where volunteers gather to plan future activities and deliver programs. Visitors are also encouraged to participate in on-site recycling programs. 
“Built using limestone from a local quarry (Rockwood), the centre was designed to blend with the natural environment and limit the loss of wildlife habitat. The building is hidden behind berms that reduce heating costs and uses groundwater cooling technology to cool the building in the summer.” 
Oak Hammock Marsh is a 36-square-kilometre Wildlife Management Area which features restored prairie marsh, aspen-oak bluff, waterfowl lure crops, artesian springs, 30 kilometres of trails and some of Manitoba’s last remaining tall-grass prairie. 
It is important habitat for 25 species of mammals, 296 bird species, numerous amphibians, reptiles and fish and countless invertebrates. 
The number of waterfowl using the marsh during migration can exceed 400,000 at one time. With such a plenitude of ravenous birds staging in the marsh, portions of the wildlife management area are planted in cereal crops specifically to provide migrating waterfowl with a food supply in order to mitigate crop loses that would otherwise be incurred by nearby farmers.
In 1987, Oak Hammock Marsh was designated a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance for wildlife and people. The Ramsar Convention is the only global environmental treaty that deals with a particular ecosystem — wetlands. The treaty was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and the convention’s member countries cover all geographic regions of the planet, according to the convention’s website.
Beyond the borders of the WMA and a surrounding buffer zone, the province operates a managed hunting area with the co-operation of local landowners. 
The amenities of the interpretive centre include modern wheelchair-accessible indoor facilities, a 120-seat   multimedia theatre, a scenic-view cafe and gift shop, meeting rooms, a rooftop observation deck and interactive exhibits. 
Centre staff deliver curriculum-based programs (preschool to university) in French and English, conduct public programs for visitors and members, and have eco-adventure packages for adult tour groups.
To keep public disruption of wildlife and habitat to a minimum, access to the marsh is by foot using the network of dykes and boardwalk.