The Future of the “Nature Restoration” at Kushiro Marsh

The Nature Restoration Consulting Committee for Kushiro Marsh was established two years ago, and since then various projects have been initiated under the name of nature restoration. Approaches at Kushiro Marsh have drawn a lot of attentions as the first large-scale nature restoration project. What are those projects in reality? Let’s review the ongoing Nature Restoration projects at Kushiro Marsh from the viewpoint of a local conservation NGO - the Kushiro Sarun Trust.

1. The Project to restore the meandering river course is just another old-fashioned public work

The earliest project among various nature restoration projects at Kushiro Marsh is the project to restore original meandering river course at Kayanuma area of Shibecha Town planned by the River Affair Division of the Kushiro Development and Construction Department. The Division belongs to the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT). The project had been planned before the Nature Restoration Consulting Committee was established. Therefore, the project was put as ‘approved’ by the Committee as one of nature restoration projects.

This project is ‘re-considering’ project by the Kushiro Development and Construction Department itself for the river course straightened by the Department in order to improve drainage capability for surrounding agricultural land areas in 1981. The Department is now re-considering the new project to restore the original meandering river course of the same area.

The main purpose of the project is to prevent silt influx into the marshland. Since the higher water level is also expected, it took time to negotiate with farmers in surrounding areas. In the end, it is decided that only 1.3 km river course will be changed into its original meandering state with as much as one billion yen budget of tax-payers’money.

The Kushiro Sarun Trust, a local conservation NGO, has questioned this project from the beginning. The following are rationales: First of all, the main reasons for the silt influx into the marshland are over-exploitation for agriculture, loss of forests, and straightening river courses upstream. Changing mere 1.3 km course to meandering state would not solve the overall silting problem. Counter measures at silt-producing points and restoring meandering river courses in upstream should be initiated first.

A part of original meandering river course of the project site still exists and is itself an ecosystem as an ox-bow lake. There has been no discussion whatsoever on pros and cons over destroying the oxbow lake for the project.

In addition, the river course within the wide straightened river course has already started meandering though at a small scale. It is possible that the river course may meander at a larger scale if we just remove high river banks at both sides. The Legislation for Nature Restoration states that (we shall) “encourage natural restoration processes with minimum human interventions.” If so, should we consider removal of river banks first?

The River Affair Division, the project promoter, would however like to continue its original project, stating that “the natural process may take 500 years for the river course to start meandering.” The Division established the ‘sub-committee to restore original river courses’ within the Consulting Committee. It is prerequisite for nature restoration to overview the whole river basin. Therefore, we should first consider which river courses are of first priority among many straightened river courses within Kushiro Marsh catchment area. There is, however, no evidence that such discussions have been put on the table. Only the project at Kayanuma area has been put forward.

In summary, the name of ‘nature restoration’ has been put onto the already existing public work project that had been discussed before nature restoration projects are initiated. Many have criticized Japan’s nature restoration projects, worrying that they simply mean changing titles of old public works. Unfortunately, their concerns may have come true.

2. The Consulting Committee is only for formality?

The above-mentioned restoration project has proved that the major role of the Consulting Committee is nothing more than ‘officially approving projects as parts of nature restoration projects.’ The Consulting Committee can be consulted but it has no official role to say yes or no to a project tabled. Consulting opinions from the Committee is just a part of procedures to get a greenlight for a project.

Japan’s “Legislation for Nature Restoration” has a principle that (we shall) not only evaluate results and influences of a project after its implementation but also confirm appropriate methodology to proceed an ongoing project. Ideally, the Consulting Committee should play such a role. But in reality, the Committee comprises of organizations and people concerned and no funds and mechanisms are available to carry out researches. Who shall, then, confirm appropriate methods and evaluate the project afterwards? Unfortunately, there is no third party organization which is responsible on evaluating projects.

Citizens may think that “the Consulting Committee proposes projects necessary to restore Kushiro Marsh.” That is totally misunderstanding. The Framework Concept (of Nature Restoration at Kushiro Marsh) states “each project promoter starts carrying out whatever they can.” This means that project promoters such as governments propose any project they can carry out and get approval.

So far no one can dispute that the Consulting Committee is only for formality.

3. Die-hard vertically divided bureaucracy still exists

Almost next to the project to restore meandering river course at Kayanuma, totally opposite kind of projects have been carried out upstream by the Agricultural Office. They are the Disaster Prevention projects at agricultural land areas, and they are to raise the ground level and to construct open water courses. Some doubt inconsistency of governmental projects. Both the River Affair Division and the Agriculture Office belong to the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau. It seems unlikely that officers have sufficient information exchange and discussions between two offices.

On the other hand, the Kushiro Sarun Trust has carried out some researches at Takkobu area in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment, and has found several problems. Problems include deteriorating forests, river management issues, issues in conjunction with farmlands, issues related to outdoor activities and tourism, and timbering methods without much impact on environment. With those results, the Ministry of the Environment has submitted its proposal for nature restoration at Takkobu area.

However, many of those problems are beyond the scope of projects carried out so far by the Ministry of the Environment. Therefore, the only feasible project by the Ministry of the Environment is now the project to replace Japanese larch trees with broadleaf trees in the Ministry-owned area. Unfortunately, a series of projects for the whole Takkobu area are not going to be materialized.

Since the Consulting Committee includes relevant government agencies, new and effective projects could be introduced if those agencies had exchanged information and opinions. It is clear today that so-called vertically divided government structure is still hard to overcome. This will lead to that the Consulting Committee cannot function well and that government offices watch others not to invade their territories.

4. Projects over the whole basin became difficult

In addition to River Affair Division, the above-mentioned Agriculture Office, the Ministry of the Environment, and Hokkaido Public Works Management Office have submitted project proposals to the Consulting Committee. These offices have project plans to be carried out in areas either owned or supervised by them. It is, however, said that over 90% of the whole catchment area of Kushiro Marsh are privately owned. Therefore, in order to prevent silt influx into the marshland or to restore forests at the catchment level, it certainly requires projects at private lands. But so far it has been agreed that ‘land owners shall carry out nature restoration activities at their respective areas.’ This will not lead to any restoration initiatives at the catchment level.

Appropriate supports and policies are required to promote nature restoration in private lands as well. For example, it is possible to show effective methods to prevent silt influx into the marshland or to subsidize effective projects, to promote restoring forests along river banks, or to change governmental subsidies. We urge government bodies should make efforts not only projects in their own land areas but also pay more attentions to such subjects.

5. Future

We have reviewed the status quo of the nature restoration projects and the limitation of the Consulting Committee. If we are to promote meaningful nature restoration projects at Kushiro Marsh, the existing projects and the Consulting Committee mainly run by the central governments are not sufficient.

Kushiro Sarun Trust, as conservation NGO, will promote its own approaches towards wetland conservation regardless the above-mentioned situations. We will also not hesitate to express our opinions to restoration projects and the Consulting Committee. We expect the real nature restoration project based on ‘principles of nature restoration’ can be introduced.

(Nobumichi Kurosawa)
The Sarun Newsletter, No.71 (January 2006)