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Could ash be the secret ingredient needed for maple syrup?

Friends of Muskoka behind three-year study; They say ash may be the key to saving local forests and waterways
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BRACEBRIDGE - The ash from Muskoka’s fireplaces and woodstoves could 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.

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.