Community Science – The Ash Muskoka Project

Article by John Challis

For decades, Muskoka’s forests have been suffering from calcium deficiency — an arboreal equivalent of osteoporosis, slowing growth and increasing susceptibility to wind damage and disease.

ASH Muskoka, an experiment fostered by the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed (FOTMW), set about to reverse the trend by adding calcium-rich wood ash to the forest floor. Essentially, it’s an inexpensive nutritional supplement for the forest.

This year, the first official results are in. ASH Muskoka’s research lead, Dr. Norman Yan, describes the findings of the first two years’ work as “dramatic.” In that short time, the foliage has shown an increase in calcium of up to 20 per cent. Dr. Yan says the trees have also taken up more potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. It means denser foliage, improved growth rates and potentially stronger roots and seed production.

Calcium has always been in short supply in Muskoka’s soil and bedrock but, in the years when acid rain was uncontrolled, precipitation depleted what limited supply there was. Calcium is what builds the exoskeletons of zooplankton, crayfish and molluscs. In the forest, it’s crucial for cell development but also for snails and birds.

Since 2019, the ASH Muskoka experiment has been taking place at selected test sites in three local sugar bushes and at Camp Big Canoe’s forest — collectively, about 10 hectares. At the test sites, carefully calibrated quantities of ash are deposited around candidate trees. Trent University students have been measuring the health of the trees since before the ash deposits began.

The community’s support is part of the success story. Appeals for ash donations from local fireplaces have generated a supply that is replenished every couple of months. Spencer MacPherson, project lead for FOTMW, says about 10 volunteers help coordinate the ash drives.

Last year, a community science component sprang into being. MacPherson calls it the Citizen Science Ash Program. Participants were invited to select two similarly sized trees of the same species on their own property. They deposit ash around one tree and leave the other intact, allowing for comparisons in health.

Glen Norton and his wife Jacqueline jumped at the opportunity when they saw a display at a community fair. It was, he says, “something we can do that will make a difference. We signed up and left with our bucket of ash and tool kit that day.” 

The Nortons are among 55 community scientists who have signed up. Each participant gets a training package and wood ash from ASH Muskoka’s donated supply. They monitor tree dimensions and the canopy cover and create photo records of the trees.

Being involved has deep significance for Norton. A fourth-generation Huntsville resident, his great-grandfather was drawn to Muskoka by the Free Land Grants. The original farm is no longer in the family but the property he’s on has been in family hands since the 1920s.

“I purchased my property from my father in 1984,” he explains, “and built our home on the footprint of the original squared timber cabin that was built in the ’30s as a rental property — at $0.50 per week.” He and his wife chose two sugar maples at the back of their lot; “the maple to us is the iconic tree of Muskoka.”

Given the results emerging from ASH Muskoka’s test sites, Norton says it’s exciting “to feel that we are actually accomplishing something that we will see the results of in our lifetime and the benefits will continue when my children and then their children eventually own the property.” 

Spencer MacPherson is enthused, too. “All in all, our team of citizen scientists have been amazing to work with,” he says. “I am already so excited for our next season of citizen science programs; we’ve got some great ideas and feedback on how to further improve.”   

With the media attention it has drawn, they began wondering whether local residents were taking inspiration from the project. They sent out a public request for people to inform them if they were spreading ash on their own land.

MacPherson says these “self-spreaders” will help them develop “a better understanding of how common this practice is in Muskoka, as a function of public will and action.” It all adds to the overall information on the community science aspects of ASH Muskoka.

More ASH Muskoka expansion is anticipated, Dr. Yan says. If they’re able to scale up “to whole catchment treatments,” there could be multiple benefits, including “forest-scale carbon capture rates and (reduced) risk of severe spring floods because healthy trees pump more water. Finally, it does seem reasonable to suggest that healthy trees will be wetter and have fewer dead branches, reducing the risk of severe fire.”

Those positive consequences are what drives Glen Norton. “There are so many really large challenges with the devastating effects of climate change, all over the world and in the news every day,” Norton says. “It often feels like we as individuals can do nothing to help. This program helps, and it is really very simple and basic ‘technology’.”