Dave Barnes, founder and chairperson of the Assiniboine Food Forest, is hoping Brandon City Council will support the AFF’s attempt to obtain a permit from Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation to raise money for a proposed wetland at the food forest. (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun)

Assiniboine Food Forest, a non-profit conservation organization in Brandon, is on a mission to convert an unused field in the city’s east end into a protected wetland after its previous efforts were reportedly thwarted by another organization.

The forest itself is owned by the City of Brandon, which has a conservation agreement over the land with Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, a private, charitable organization. Assiniboine Food Forest leases the land from the city as well as manages and funds it independently.

The organization requires a land-use permit or a memorandum of understanding from MHHC, as outlined in the conservation agreement, to move forward with its plan. However, members of the food forest say the MHHC has previously denied its request to turn the property into a wetland.

This is why AFF is now lobbying the city for support in petitioning Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation to grant a land-use permit for the creation of the wetland. Members will make their case at Monday’s city council meeting.

Dave Barnes, founder and chairperson of Assiniboine Food Forest, said this plan is something the organization’s board has been pursuing “for years.”

“It’s been eight years and we’ve had one meeting, and at that meeting, [MHHC] said, ‘don’t ask us for a wetland,’” Barnes told the Sun.

The AFF board wants to convert a field that was partly clearcut for timber back into a pond and wetland, in a project the group has named “Rewilding Brandon.” According to Barnes, the location sits at the mouth of an ancient creek that flowed for thousands of years. The land was privately grazed by cattle up until the 1960s.

With the natural habitat long gone, restoring it to a wetland just makes sense, Barnes said. This would include building an earthen dam that would collect snow melt for the proposed wetland. The cost of the entire conversion would be $500,000.

“We’re looking to raise all the funds ourselves; there’s no ask from the city or from MHHC for funding. It’s simply to get permission to help restore wetland and [positively] effect climate change. And yet we have not received a response, even though it’s such an obvious win.”

Even if the board did receive permission to begin raising funds, any real construction would still require approval from the City of Brandon, he added.

According to Barnes, the MHHC denied the food forest’s original request for a land-use permit because the group believes the installation of a dam would “fail.” Barnes said this opinion is not shared by the Calgary-based environmental design team, Matrix Solutions, the AFF board has worked with to bring its plan to fruition.

The Sun contacted the company but didn’t receive a reply by press time.

The conservation agreement between MHHC and the city “restricts development,” said Curtis Hullick, MHHC’s habitat field manager in Brandon.

“There is concern from MHHC with potential flooding of this project being within the flood plain of the Assiniboine River,” Hullick said.

However, MHHC is “open” to working with the city to see if the proposed field is an appropriate area for wetland restoration. Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation asked Assiniboine Food Forest for details on the full scope of the land-use plan for the property in 2013, Hullick said.

“A better understanding of the entire project with all the details would be beneficial for everyone.”

The conservation agreement, which Barnes sent to the Sun, was signed on June 24, 2014, between the MHHC and the city. Conservation lands outlined in the agreement include any current wetlands or wetlands that could return to the land through “natural or man-made causes” and any enlargements of wetlands resulting from increased water levels.

According to the agreement, the city has the “sole right” to control access to the land by third parties but is responsible to MHHC for any damages to the lands or breaches of the agreement.

The city has historically supported Assiniboine Food Forest’s goals, Barnes said, adding he hopes that support continues.

“When we went to council in 2013 … and asked them for their land, and said we wanted to start a protected spaces network in the city so we could protect natural habitats … and restore ecosystems using permaculture, we had unanimous support. It was amazing.”

The forest, which is open to the public, grows fruits, nuts, herbs and root vegetables and contains 10 acres of old-growth oak woodland as well as 30 acres of weedy field.

“It’s a beautiful space,” said volunteer Ingrid Gatin. “It protects habitat and nature.

“There’s all kinds of varieties of native plants and food, apple trees and saskatoons and natural ecosystems.”

When it comes to wetlands in Brandon there are many things the city needs to address, said Mayor Jeff Fawcett, though he couldn’t provide more detail until after the Dec. 5 meeting.

“It’ll be presented to us, and we’ll have to make a decision … it’ll be something we look at,” he said.

Brandon stands to benefit from more wetlands, said Rochelle Johnson-Boswell, programming and community relations co-ordinator with the Riverbank Discovery Centre. The non-profit works to develop the Assiniboine River Corridor, which runs for 17 kilometres through the city and includes parks and public lands.

“This will help with snow melt and stormwater runoff, reducing the pressure on our already fragile drainage water system in the city,” Johnson-Boswell said.

Assiniboine Food Forest’s complete proposal is available online at assiniboinefoodforest.com.

By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 30, 2022

This item reprinted with permission from   Brandon Sun   Brandon, Manitoba

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