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An environmentalist is inclined to distrust any project or business that alters the land and degrades an ecosystem for profit – even in the face of claims about responsible management.

So color me skeptical this week when the Canadian peat moss industry lured 360 garden writers to the 370-acre Saint-Henri bog in Quebec to show us a massive peat-harvesting and bog-restoration project, and then wined and dined us.

Was I convinced that an industry can vacuum up 1.2 million tons of peat annually (in Canada), from 10,000-year-old bogs, and do no harm?

And does any industry really limit its profits, for the long-term good of the planet?

The peat bog story

The peat we buy in a bag in a U.S. garden center or box store is almost certainly from Canada. Peat is partially decomposed and dried sphagnum moss, taken from the top inches of ancient bogs. It takes about 100 years in nature to grow peat moss 5 to 10 centimeters thick. Canada has nearly 300 million acres of peatland, 81 percent in a natural state. So, yes, there is a lot of peat out there.

Still, our hunger for this product is apparently limitless – nearly all used for gardening and landscaping – and no matter how big the bogs, it’s apparent that in a few generations the harvesting could put a large dent in the availability of the most accessible stuff, not to mention the damage to habitats. Think coal mines, gas or oil.

Another reason to resist wanton stripping of peat bogs: Sphagnum moss is one of the most effective plants for carbon sequestration – even better than mature trees, usually considered to be rather good at absorbing and holding carbon gases and putting out oxygen.

Why are the little mosses effective? A young woman researcher explained, as we grouped around her on the boardwalk one inch above the bog: “Because the tree will eventually die – or maybe be burned – and will release its carbon to the air. But when the moss dies the carbon stays under the water, deep in the bog, and new plants grow on top. It is a closed system!”

So life on our planet needs North America’s peat bogs. And what are those Canadian pillagers doing about it? Lots, actually.

Research and restoration

Canadian universities, government and the Canadian peat moss industry formed the Peatland Ecology Research Group, to study and monitor standards for integrated sustainable management of Canadian peat lands. What I saw: sites representing the before, during, and after stages of peat harvesting, and a restoration approach called “the moss-layer transfer technique.”

The first view was depressing, perhaps what the skeptics expected – acres of open, flat, brown and spongy land, with nothing green in sight, and huge tractors and spaceship-like monster vehicles hauling material about.

But then came the explanation: In this tract they have been harvesting peat for 30 years, loosening, drying and vacuuming only inches per year off the top of the bog. (Ditches have been dug to drain the area to help dry the material and to let vehicles move on it.) But on adjacent, retired acres, a sort of reseeding is in progress. They are spraying plant material (bits of harvested sphagnum and other plants) and then covering it with protective straw. When the water is returned to the proper level, the plants will begin to regrow.

A hike to an untouched bog and the donor bog (from which small percentages of plant matter are used to regenerate the farmed areas) showed us an ecosystem closer to my image of a bog. We walked along elevated paths of piled mulch – bouncy under foot – surrounded by black spruce, birches, larch, blueberries and cranberries. Orchids were out there somewhere, unseen, but hurrah! There were tiny pitcher plants poking up among the green and gold mosses.

Some writers had apparently focused on the dinner party portion of the invitation and wore attractive sandals. Their toes were soon soggy, sandals no longer dinner party stylish. It was a bog, after all – a recovering, healthy bog.

Scientists young and old

A true cynic might have scoffed at the picture-perfect pose of an elderly scientist in suit and tie, accompanied by two young granddaughters in Sunday dresses, as he pointed out tiny plant life to them. But there he was – the revered head of the research team of the Plant Science Department of the Université Laval. For real. Teaching the granddaughters about stewardship.

Even more stirring were the intelligent faces of the young scientists and engineers who are dedicated to the restoration project. Their passion was palpable; their sincerity and the scientific detail in answer to our questions – impressive. In her muck boots and overalls, our guide picked up a handful of sphagnum moss from the reclamation site and said it best: “You see, we are not stealing from the land here. We are just borrowing it for a while.”

If you see peat moss with the certification Veriflora – responsibly managed peatlands – you are seeing a product that is evaluated through an independent agency (SCS Global) that is the gold standard for horticulture and floriculture industry. Peat production can be done sustainably. At least this nature-loving, eco-friendly garden writer got that message.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.