Photos of the homestead at Wildwood are courtesy of the EcoForestry Institute Society
Wildwood: A community model for creating jobs and revenue within ecological parameters
In February of 2017, the former Comox Town Council voted to petition the BC Supreme Court to modify the Hamilton Mack Laing Trust established 39 years ago. The town’s intention was to demolish Laing’s heritage home, called Shakesides, and use the money he had bequeathed the Town of Comox for other purposes.
Although the town had done nothing to live up to the Trust Agreement for over four decades, the town now seemed anxious to get to court and proceed with its plan to replace Shakesides with a “viewing platform.”
But the Supreme Court disrupted those plans when it granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in the case, which would allow the society to present evidence opposed to the town’s petition.
Now, after spending more than $200,000 with a Vancouver law firm, the town appears to have abandoned its petition for unexplained reasons and has not announced any new approach to fulfilling its Trust Agreement.
But among the evidence the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) would have presented in court was a complete business plan for the restoration of Shakesides as a community project. The plan identified dozens of local businesses, tradespeople and volunteer citizens committed to providing labour, materials and donations.
The plan was “totally plausible” according to its chief architect Gord Olson, a member of the society, in part because other communities have successfully used similar plans to restore landmarks and heritage sites.
In fact, the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper featured such a project in a three-page spread in its Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021 edition. Although larger in scale, the Wildwood forest and homestead located between Nanaimo and Ladysmith shows how a community project can create a self-sustaining job-creation destination.
RESTORATION OF WILDWOOD
Merv Wilkinson originally intended to farm the property he bought on Quennell Lake in 1938 and enrolled in farming classes at the University of British Columbia. But one of his professors urged Wilkinson to instead create a sustainable forest like the ones in the teacher’s Scandinavia homeland.
Over the next seven decades, Wilkinson managed a sustainable forest that today still includes old-growth trees. He selectively logged the property every five years for density, light and marketable species.
He also built a log house with stock from his property that burned down from a chimney fire. He rebuilt it again in 1965.
Wilkinson, who died in 2011 at age 97, eventually moved off the property. The Land Conservancy of BC took its management, but when the TLC proposed selling the property to a private interest, a registered charitable society went to court to keep Wilkinson’s legacy in the public domain.
The Ecoforestry Institute Society (EIS), founded in 1994 by several University of Victoria academics, eventually won a 2016 court battle to acquire the property and hold it in trust for the people of B.C.
Kathleen Code, the EIS vice-chair and communication director, told Decafnation that the society was aided by an Eco forestry Management Plan and a trust deed written by Dr. Donavon Waters, a well-known Canadian trust lawyer. The property now can never be sold to a private interest and must always be owned by a like-minded society.
But, she said, by then the homestead had fallen into serious disrepair. Wildlife and vegetation started to reclaim it back to nature, including a resident bat colony that was relocated to bat boxes.
So Code said the society created a plan to restore the homestead with the help of volunteers, community donations and financial support from the local government.
The result has been a total success, she says.
SELF-SUSTAINING AND POPULAR
“Wildwood is a job and revenue creator, all the while operating with its ecological parameters of the forest,” Code told Decafnation in a telephone conversation.
People come from all over the world to visit Wildwood. Some come for tours, some to see the fully-functioning forest and ecosystem, including old growth. There have been groups of Korean foresters, government ministers from Germany, delegations from Europe and more.
But some people come simply for a respite in nature. A top Holland travel agency for the well-heeled has added Wildwood to its list of recommended destinations.
“Some people come to see the famous pear tree in the orchard planted by Dr. Jane Goodall, one of Merv’s many famous friends from around the world,” she said.
Visitors can stay overnight in the log cabin homestead, which has a two-night minimum. Some guests have stayed for a week. The house sleeps 6 with 2.5 baths.
But Wildwood also rents the house for corporate retreats, weddings — one event involved more than 100 people — workshops and other functions.
Code told Decafnation that the facility is already fully-booked through mid-September of 2021.
“What a great job creator; it’s one of the new ways to develop revenue streams while keeping nature intact,” she said. “People today want an experience in their vacation, not just a destination. Vancouver Island can offer experiences in spades. We have nature at its best.”
Kathleen Code’s own economic development background has helped make Wildwood a self-sustaining enterprise.
In its second full year, the property generated about $30,000 in revenue that along with continuing public donations and grants pays the society’s $450,000 mortgage, compensates the paid part-time education programmers and tour guides.
It also creates other jobs for cleaners, caterers, maintenance people, naturalists who design courses for school children and workshop facilitators for programs on bats, mushrooms, edible plant identification and health and wellness.
Code says that future building plans will require architects, engineers, construction workers and tradespeople. They also hope to add value-added products, employing artisans and woodworkers. She anticipates that these events will also help support musicians, photographers and artists.
“What a great job creator,” she said. “It’s one of the new ways to develop revenue streams while keeping nature intact.”
HOW THEY FINANCED IT
The Land Conservancy originally raised $1.1 million to own and steward Wildwood. Part of the funds came from Grace Wilkinson, the second wife of Merv Wilkinson, who owned three-quarters of the property at the time.
After the court victory in 2016, the Ecoforestry Institute Society paid $800,000 to acquire the property from the TLC. They relied on community donations, but the majority of the money was raised through a $450,000 mortgage provided by Vancity.
The Regional District of Nanaimo donated $150,000 and the society received a $65,000 grant from the BC Capital Gaming agency specifically for the homestead renovation.
The 14-month renovation to the building cost about $250,000. The society did its own general contracting and hired local tradespeople and purchased goods and services from local suppliers.
And volunteers donated extensive labour and materials.
The project managers scoured the island for vintage appropriate furnishings and helped repurpose and refit donations. Volunteers and EIS Board members did the interior design, dug trenches, stained woodwork, painted the bathtub and milled lumber for the bed platforms and decks.
The Homestead restoration required gutting the structure, then installing new electrical, water, heat, solar and septic systems, as well as new floors, plastered walls and new fixtures throughout.
WHO IS THE EIS?
Code says the EIS is a tiny society with a cohesive board that has diverse skills, including two registered foresters, economic development analyst, commercial and graphic designer, ethnobotanist, former city planner and an Indigenous liaison.
The EIS headquarters is at Wildwood although volunteer board members come from all over Vancouver Island, including current co-chair Peter Jungwirth, forester, who resides in the Comox Valley.
Jungwirth emigrated from Austria in 1998 with his wife, Heidi, who was originally from the Comox Valley. They met in Austria while she was teaching at an international school.
Jungwirth met Wilkinson in 1997 when he and Heidi visited the area prior to moving here permanently and was “hooked” on Wilkinson’s ideas.
“Foresters are always looking for a better way to manage forests,” he told Decafnation. “And the concept of ecoforestry hooked me in.”
Jungwirth said, “Merv’s legacy is a beautiful forest which he managed for more than 60 years that still has plenty of old-growth trees and thus is a prime teaching and demonstration forest.”
He called Wildwood the biggest hope for change in forestry in BC and the world.
“There is so much more to a forest than timber. There is food, medicine, wildlife, all kinds of vegetation, clean water & air, climate moderation, carbon storage, recreation potential and more, but above all it is an intricate ecosystem that we ought to steward and not destroy, ” he said. “For Ecoforestry, a healthy forest with a functioning ecology is the bottom line, everything else you manage for needs to submit to that goal. That is quite a contrast to industrial clearcut logging.”
Jungwirth said that the forests in Austria are 80 percent privately owned, but forest legislation does not permit anything bigger than patch cuts. With so much publicly-owned forests in BC, you would think public interests like biodiversity conservation or carbon storage against climate warming would be reflected more in the management,” he said.
He visited the Carmannah Valley after it was mostly logged and wondered “why did they have to fight so hard to keep at least some of the magnificent Old Growth forest with the tallest Sitka spruce in the world?”
“Europe made these mistakes, they took it (old-growth) all, and now there’s so little left in the world,” he said. “BC is well on its way there, too.”
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A SIMILAR PLAN FOR MACK LAING’S HERITAGE HOME, SHAKESIDES
The Mack Laing Heritage Society has proposed a plan to restore the home famous Comox ornithologist Hamilton Mack Laing. You can read the plan here.
HOW THE ECOFORESTRY INSTITUTE SOCIETY FORMED
EIS grew out of a movement in the mid-1990s as a number of academics from the University of Victoria and local environmentalists sought a better way to manage our rapidly depleting ecosystems. Founders include well-known luminaries:
Dr. Alan Drengson (contributor to the deep ecology movement and UVic Emeritus Professor of Philosophy);
Dr. Duncan Taylor (contributor to the deep ecology movement and UVic Professor of Environmental Studies);
Dr. Nancy Turner (ethnobotanist and UVic Emeritus Professor); and
Sharon Chow (Sierra Club Director for 20 years).
Merv Wilkinson himself was to become a member and was later awarded for his pioneering work in ecoforestry with the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. Learn more about Merv here.
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Your comment that Mack is a “well-recognized historical figure in Canada’s community of ornithologists and bird lovers” makes your suggestion very far-sighted in that it is where the value of the site really lies.
This might show you what many years of work and effort (mainly by volunteers – I myself being one in the past) can accomplish.
Beaverhill Lake (Cree: amisk-wa-chi-sakhahigan) is a large lake in central Alberta, Canada. It is a site of regional importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. It is managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service division of Environment Canada.
It is located 70 km southeast of Edmonton, near the town of Tofield, and lies in the hydrographic basin of the North Saskatchewan River.
When I lived there, we had visitors from as far as Australia travel specifically for our festival.
The lake is an important bird habitat and has been designated as a “National Nature Viewpoint” by Nature Canada (formerly known as the Canadian Nature Federation) in 1981. The Beaverhill Natural Area was established in 1987 to protect the lake and its surrounding area. Beaverhill Lake Heritage Rangeland Natural Area is also established on what were the shores of the lake.
Back to the island, I feel that many people are focused on Shakesides, saving the building. We should focus on saving the rich heritage of the area and accumulated knowledge Mack possessed.
If building restoration is a must then look at PERRENOUD Ranch House near Cochrane, Alberta. I also volunteered with this project for a year. Hours and costs were many. And this house was lived in until it was turned over to the Heritage Association. And its historical value, as stated by them is, “the heritage value of the Perrenoud Homestead lies in its association with early ranching operations in southern Alberta and in its juxtaposition of an original log farmhouse with the more comfortable family home that replaced it.”
George’s article on Wildwood is an excellent case study of how to create a sustainable community asset that provides multiple benefits. Wildwood is sustainable because it generates ongoing revenue to cover expenses. It preserves local heritage. It creates jobs. It generates economic activity with local suppliers and merchants including restaurants and pubs.
The marketing focus of the Wildwood case is sustainable forestry. The property attracts visitors who are able to witness first-hand a property where sustainable forestry has been practiced for multiple generations.
As George points out, Mack Laing’s Shakesides home has similar potential. However, with Shakesides the marketing focus shifts from forestry to ornithology. Our area is home to dozens of bird species. It was also home to two of Canada’s prominent pioneer ornithologists, Allan Brooks and Hamilton Mack Laing.
Although the name “Mack Laing” may not be familiar to everyone, he is a well-recognized historical figure in Canada’s community of ornithologists and bird lovers. What many people don’t realize is that bird watchers or “birders” are a major source of tourism dollars. According to a 2011 report entitled, Market Analysis of Bird-Based Tourism, 41 billion dollars is spent annually on birding, 20 million US citizens took birding trips from 2005 to 2009, and 3 million international trips were taken for the purpose of bird watching.
The Comox Valley is one of the most significant areas for wintering and migratory waterfowl and waterbirds in British Columbia and is very fortunate in having the globally significant K’omoks Important Bird Area (IBA) on its doorstep. Unfortunately, it is a well-kept secret. A lot of time, effort, and money are invested in our annual Seafood Festival, but virtually nothing is done to promote the Comox Valley as a birder destination. The Birding in BC website lists Victoria and Nanaimo but makes no mention of the Comox Valley.
Imagine the possibility of leveraging the Mack Laing Nature Centre to promote Comox as a major birder destination. Why not host a national or even international ornithology conference here in the Comox Valley? To transform this dream into reality we need a focal point (Mack Laing Nature Centre) a brand “Mack Laing” and a well-written and executed destination marketing plan targeting birders.
Last October, the Town of Comox, was given the opportunity to apply for provincial funding that would support tourism in the Comox Valley. The best that they could come up with was a proposal to replace the washrooms at the Comox Marina.