Kus-kus-sum site in the foreground | Rick Wards photo courtesy of Project Watershed
BREAKING: Kus-kus-sum purchase funds complete, thanks to province
Thanks to additional $650,000 grant from the BC Government announced today, the Kus-kus-sum project now has the funds to complete its purchase of the old Fields Sawmill property and begin restoration work.
“In fact, our final payment to Interfor … is now in the mail,” Tim Ennis, Project Watershed’s senior project manager told Decafnation today.
Today’s new funding complements the province’s 2019 commitment of $1 million to the Project Watershed Society’s plan to return the abandoned site into its original saltmarsh with side-channels and riparian habitats.
Ennis praised the BC government for its support of what he said is one of the most important salmon habitat restoration projects on the BC coast.
“This recent investment unlocks our ability to move forward with the transformation of an industrial site in the heart of one of B.C.’s most important estuaries back to natural saltmarsh and other habitats,” Ennis said in a news release today. “The benefits of this project will be felt for generations to come.”
But he also emphasized that today’s good news just completes the acquisition phase of the project.
Photo by Bonner Photography
“While we have now succeeded in raising the funds to secure title to the land … we need to keep our foot on the pedal with our fundraising efforts,” he said. “The costs of restoration of the land is another large component of the overall project cost.”
With the title of the land secured, Project Watershed can now refocus on raising funds for restoration. “Without the title, we didn’t really have a project,” he said.
PROJECT COMING TOGETHER
Last week, the K’omoks First Nations, Project Watershed and the City of Courtenay jointly approved a revised memorandum of understanding for co-managing the property. An official agreement will follow next year.
There are a number of details yet to be completed regarding the actual transfer of title from Interfor to KFN and the City. Ennis said each of the parties involved is working hard on those now.
“The MOU is an important part of that. I am hopeful that these will be concluded before the winter holiday season and that title transfer will happen in 2020,” he told Decafnation today. “But these details are very important and it is equally important to get them right.”
Ennis praised community support for the project and the “professionalism and vision” of the project team.
He also said Kus-kus-sum captured the attention of the province because “this project is in the right place at the right time and is being done for the right reasons.”
The project site is named Kus-kus-sum in recognition of the historic First Nation ancestral burial site once located in the area.
“Restoring the cultural and historically significant site of Kus-kus-sum is a vision K’omoks First Nation shares with Project Watershed and the City of Courtenay, and we appreciate the B.C. government for providing the additional bridge funding to aid in this restoration,” K’omoks First Nation Chief Nicole Rempel said.
Katrine Conroy, the BC Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said the province is “committed to reconciliation” with KFN.
“Purchasing this site will support the restoration of an environmentally and culturally significant estuary to benefit the entire Courtenay-Comox community,” she said.
Ennis said Project Watershed will now look to the federal government for support.
“We are hopeful that the government of Canada will look at this success, and in consideration of their jurisdictional responsibilities to wild salmon, migratory birds, First Nations reconciliation, and international biodiversity conventions, be inspired to come to the table as partners with the local community, the K’omoks Nation, the City of Courtenay, Project Watershed and others,” he said. “Strong local community support for this project has been, and will continue to be a key ingredient in our recipe for success.”
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The City of Courtenay may recommend a third bridge as part of its 2018 transportation master plan, but Project Watershed will oppose any crossing of the Courtenay River south of 17th Street
A battle is brewing over how to improve the flow of traffic through Courtenay and across the Courtenay River without destroying established businesses and key portions of the K’omoks estuary.
The fight could pit the city against Project Watershed, K’omoks First Nations, business owners at the Courtenay Airpark and others over a proposed third crossing at 21st St., which would close the airpark, destroy portions of the estuary and have devastating effects on the Kus-kus-sum restoration.
The city is developing a much-needed transportation master plan that will guide City Councils over the next 20 years on where to invest in new infrastructure and how to meet the transportation needs of a growing population.
The plan is long overdue, and the failure of the city to develop such a plan in the past has limited the city’s options today to meet future transportation requirements.
Mayor Larry Jangula and some council members have downplayed a consultant’s report that recommends the 21st St. crossing as simply “a concept.” But Project Watershed and airpark business owners worry that a ho-hum attitude could result in the “concept” being enshrined in the master plan.
In a strong letter to the mayor and council, Project Watershed has said it will oppose any third crossing of the Courtenay River south of 17th St.
“This route, which would go through wetlands, across agricultural lands and creeks in order to hook up with Comox Road and then eventually Macdonald Road, is ill advised in the extreme,” wrote Project Watershed Chair Paul Horgen.
“The permanent damage that would be done to sensitive ecological areas, including Hollyhock Marsh, Glen Urquhart and Mallard Creeks, as well as Dike Slough by such a project, is unacceptable. This additional crossing would also affect those that enjoy the recreational opportunities afforded by the Courtenay Airpark Lagoon trails, Horgen said in his letter.
Horgen said the city should appreciate the sensitive habitat values of the area and the importance of conserving key eco-assets.
The city is a full partner with the nonprofit and K’omoks First Nation in the restoration of the old Fields Sawmill site, known as Kus-kus-sum.
In response, Mayor Jangula seemed to indicate there was no cause for alarm.
“I understand your concerns. This was simply a report on transportation plans with suggestions on where to place a third crossing,” Jangula wrote. “The City has no plans at this time to build another bridge. The idea is conceptual.”
That provided little comfort for Project Watershed.
“Thanks for your early response Mayor Jangula. Our deep concern is that this non-viable and ill-informed Option B crossing, being a conceptual report or not, will continue to persist in future planning documents, as these things have been shown to do in the past,” Horgen responded. “Our preference would be to see it removed entirely from this process.”
How was the recommendations developed?
According to a fact sheet published by city staff, the City has explored several alternative crossings of the Courtenay River beyond the 5th Street and 17th Street bridges since 2005.
Public feedback has indicated that growth pressures on the crossings, downtown and northeast areas, as well specifically Ryan Road and Highway 19A Bypass were areas of concern.
But most of the city’s options for a third crossing have been eliminated by a “combination of previous decisions and studies along with technical review in 2018 … due to impacts and/or changes to localized conditions (including 3rd Street, 6th Street, 8th Street, 11th Street, 13th Street, 19th Street, and 20th Street).”
That left crossing alternatives at 21st Street and 29th Street, but “preliminary investigations and stakeholder meetings resulted in eliminating 29th Street from further review largely based on the reduced traffic diversion that would be expected, as well as the significant costs and high environmental impacts.”
That last statement is ironic according to Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen.
“Project Watershed has worked hard to secure the old sawmill site to restore the shoreline of the Courtenay River. The option B flies in the face of all the city’s support of the Kus Kus Sum,” Bowen has said. “The wetland salt marsh ecosystem must be kept as a unit for connectivity of plant species and fish channels.”
Morris Perry, a spokesperson for the Courtenay Airpark, says the community benefits from the facility and supports it. He points to a May 2015 poll by the Comox Valley Record in which 93.7 percent of respondents said the Airpark should stay.
“Lots of votes here and, yes, lots of retired air force families that love the airpark and the green space it provides,” Perry wrote in a comment on Decafnation. “Oh yes, and no cost to the taxpayer as its 100 percent maintained by volunteers and of course all the jobs it provides working on aircraft from companies all over North America, not just Harbour Air.”
Courtenay city staff will present final recommendations for the transportation master plan in the fall. The current council will consider the plan, including any changes they want before final adoption.
However, future council members will decide to proceed with specific recommendations in the plan and fund them through the annual budgeting process.
FURTHER READING: City bridge proposal would harm airpark, Kus-kus-sum; Project Watershed, K’omoks First Nations to restore sawmill site
PHOTO: 21st Street is in the middle at the bottom, with the car lot on the right side. It crosses Cliffe Avenue and dead-ends at the Courtenay Airpark boundary. Dave Bazett photo
A proposed new bridge would kill the Courtenay Airpark, walkway, Hollyhock Marsh, undermine Kus-kus-sum and add another signal light on Comox Road. So why is the City of Courtenay promoting it? Even mayoralty candidates aren’t sure
The City of Courtenay has floated a proposal to build a third crossing of the Courtenay River at 21st Street to alleviate traffic congestion at the 17th Street and Fifth Street bridges.
The proposal, which is part of a study for the city’s required update of their 2014 Master Transportation Plan, would wipe out the Courtenay Airpark, part of the Airpark walkway, destroy the estuary’s last remaining intact ecosystem at Hollyhock Marsh, undermine the Kus-kus-sum rehabilitation project and create another major signaled intersection on Comox Road at a point that regularly floods during winter storms.
Not to mention that Hollyhock Marsh is protected crown land and is an area under claim by the K’omoks First Nation.
It’s an idea that has left many people shaking their heads.
“I thought it was an April Fools Day joke,” said Dave Bazett, a land surveyor whose office is in the proposal’s path and who owns two aircraft hangared at the airpark.
Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen said the study appears to have been done by someone who doesn’t know anything about the area.
“And, who employs someone to pursue an idea that’s not feasible?” he said.
Bazett pointed his finger at the city, which defined the scope of the transportation plan update for the consultant, including a bridge south of 17th Street and the idea that the airpark and the marsh were expendable.
Even the three announced candidates for Courtenay mayor tried to distance themselves from the proposal.
David Frisch emphasized that the proposal is not a plan, just some consultant’s idea. He said there are more environmentally friendly options.
Bob Wells said he didn’t know how a third crossing got in the plan. He thinks its an option the consultant picked up from previous studies, before Kus-kus-sum became a community project.
Erik Eriksson wondered how many millions of dollars per minute of wait time at the existing bridge intersections the public is willing to pay for. A new crossing would cost tens of millions of dollars.
“So we’re not going to see another bridge in my lifetime,” Eriksson said.
The city has undertaken a required four-year update to its 2014 Master Transportation Plan. It held an open house in March and another in mid-June, and is conducting an online survey.
The study and community feedback will be presented to the Courtenay City Council over the summer. Council members will decide what parts of the study get costed out and eventually make it into the 2018 Master Transportation Plan.
Take the survey here
FURTHER READING: See the study’s open house display boards; The city’s Master Transportation Plan webpage
The 2014 plan also examined options for a third crossing. It rejected crossings at 19th and 26th streets, and suggested Eighth or 11th streets for new bridges. The city eventually costed out an 11th Street bridge at around $35 million, and later dropped the idea.
But traffic congestion at the 17th Street east intersection and at the Fifth Street east intersection has worsened as the Comox Valley has grown. But is it unbearable?
Wait times at the bridges may pale now in comparison to the Langford Crawl in Victoria or to numerous choke points in Vancouver, but without an acceptable long-term solution, motorists’ frustration will magnify.
Why 21st Street won’t fly
Bowen, a former BC Ministry of Highways employee in the Comox Valley, said the third crossing proposal and other proposals in the study to build new roads across the Courtenay Flats farmland “fly in the face” of everything Project Watershed has been trying to achieve.
“We’ve been working on projects over the past 20 years to preserve and protect the remaining flora and fauna habitat along the river and K’omoks estuary,” he said. “This proposal has no regard for the estuary. It’s single-minded and not well-informed.”
Local citizens fought Crown Zellerbach from filling in the marsh back in the 1960s and battled them and the provincial government to save the pristine ecosystem, which is unique in the Comox Valley.
Hollyhock Marsh is the model for Kus-kus-sum, a project to restore of the old Fields sawmill site, and the marsh is it’s connection back to the estuary.
“It’s a non-starter for us (Project Watershed,” Bowen said. “And I would expect for K’omoks First Nation, too.”
Decafnation was unable to reach K’omoks Chief Nicole Rempel for this story.
Bazett, a pilot who uses aircrafts in his land surveying business, considers the 21st Street crossing a “purposeful attack” on the Courtenay Airpark.
Bazett says the city has tried to shut down the airport before and neither the mayor or council members have been supportive.
“This crossing was concocted as an excuse to eliminate the airpark,” he said. “The study didn’t even consider air transportation.”
He doesn’t think the city realizes the economic impact and importance of the airport. It brings pilots and passengers to town and the RCMP and MediVac helicopters use the facility regularly.
“It’s a precious jewel,” he said. “There are few private airparks in the province for both float and land aircraft, and within walking distance of town.”
Bowen said his experience working with the highways ministry taught him there are better options to improve traffic flow.
The primary problem is that there are two northbound lanes of traffic approaching the bridge from the south on Cliffe Avenue and two lanes on the bridge. But whether you turn north or south, you have to merge down to one lane.
It’s the same approaching the bridge from the north on the Island Highway bypass, which is two lanes at Superstore, but merges down to one lane at the bridge.
Bowen believes there should be four lanes of traffic approaching the 17th Street bridge, across the bridge and then all the way to the Shell gas station at the old Island Highway and also part way toward Comox.
The long-term solution, he said, is to twin the 17th Street bridge. The highways ministry purchased extra land on the north side of 17th Street east of Cliffe Avenue to anticipate a widened bridge. That land looks like a park with cherry trees.
The ministry also designed the bypass for four lanes, which is why the shoulders are extra wide through the S-turns.
Bowen agree with Erik Eriksson about also widening the Fifth Street bridge and making it four lanes from the Shell gas station at the bottom of Mission Hill all the way to Cliffe Avenue.
An election issue?
City Councillor Eriksson says the study is flawed in another important way: it only considers Courtenay boundaries.
“Any traffic study has to be regional,” he said. “And Comox people should help pay for any traffic improvements.”
Councillor Frisch wouldn’t rule out a third crossing forever, but he said “city taxpayers are not going to pay $20 million to $30 million for a new bridge.”
The question for him is where to spend the city’s limited funds.
“If we spend it on a bridge now, what’s the lost opportunity to support walkability, cycling, transit and other things,” he said.
City Council candidate Melanie McCollum said the cost of building a bridge across a estuary seems potentially prohibitively high.
“It’s very sensitive habitat. It would also mean building into sediment, which liquefies in an earthquake,” she said. “Of course this is not my area of specialty, but from what I know, building a bridge in an earthquake zone on sediment will incur some very expensive geoengineering.”
McCollum would also like to know if the plan for this bridge had taken into account sea level rise expected in the next 50 to 70 years.
Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula did not respond to our questions.
Photo: A view of the Campbell River estuary as it was in 1989, before restoration. Courtesy of Tim Ennis
The importance of the planned restoration of the Fields Sawmill site may well go beyond repairing a blight on the Comox Valley’s image. It’s likely to influence the prospects of a coast-wide approach to replacing multiple forest industry eyesores with ecological assets.
The remnants of early-20th century logging practices can be found all up and down Vancouver Island’s coastlines in the persona of abandoned sawmills, which were almost always located in estuaries.
These shuttered mills that once buzzed around the clock, cutting logs into usable lumber, have fallen victim to government policies that allow the export of raw logs, and to changing industry practices.
In the early 1900s, timber companies moved their logs by rail to larger rivers where they were dumped into the river, boomed, then towed by tugboats to sawmills located in estuaries. While booming adored our beaches with interesting collections of driftwood, it was inefficient and slow.
That practice still goes on in the Fraser River and in the Nanaimo and Ladysmith areas. But most Island logging has now moved toward truck-based transportation. It’s flexible, less expensive more reliable.
The change means sawmills no longer need to be located in intertidal environments. And that, in turn, means there’s an opportunity to restore those shorelines and estuaries to their natural habitat, and create functioning ecosystems for fish and other wildlife.
A view of the Campbell River estuary in 2016, after restoration
If Project Watershed — the nonprofit leading Field Sawmill project, called Kus-kus-sum to honor an ancient First Nations village across the river — succeeds in raising the $6.5 million it needs to purchase the property and restore it, other communities will be inspired to seize their own opportunities.
And there are plenty of them.
In Tahsis, there are concrete slabs where two former sawmills once operated on the estuary. They closed down in 2001 and 2003. The Gold River Bowater pulp mill, also located on a river, closed in 1999.
In Port Alberni, the Somass sawmill officially closed in August, but has been essentially shut down for a year. The APD mill there is down to just one shift of workers per day. Both are located on the Alberni inlet.
The Campbell River pulp mill sits empty on about a mile of prime shoreline.
While the loss of jobs devastated those small towns, they have reinvented themselves as destinations for tourism and sport fishing. Reclaiming the abandoned mill sites would help, not hinder, their economic prosperity.
Tim Ennis, senior project manager for the Kus-kus-sum project, believes there may be many opportunities on the B.C. coast to restore former sawmill sites located in estuaries, without negative impacts to the forest economy.
That’s because trucking has replaced marine-based transport as the preferred method of transporting logs and newer government regulations are more restrictive in estuarine environments. So the forest industry doesn’t rely on the use of estuaries as it did in the past.
Campbell River led the way
Project Watershed has viewed the restoration of three sawmill sites in the Campbell River estuary as a model for their Kus-kus-sum project.
Ennis managed the Campbell River project. At the time, he was the director of land stewardship for the B.C. region of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which purchased the former Raven Lumber sawmill property as well as two smaller operations in the estuary.
He is now the senior project manager for Kus-kus-sum, as well as the executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, and brings his experience from much larger restoration projects.
“Compared to the Campbell River situation,” Ennis said. “The Field Sawmill site does not appear to be nearly as complex to restore and offers a huge potential benefit for the community.”
The projects are similar, he said, in that both are being led by nonprofit organizations. One of the Campbell River mills, known locally as Ocean Blue, closely resembled the Field Sawmill site, including a solid wall fronting the river.
But there are also critical differences.
The Campbell River City Council was committed to de-industrializing the river estuary. The city created an estuary management commission, which developed an estuary management plan. That plan included a conscious effort to relocate industrial operations away from the estuary.
So there was considerable political support in Campbell River, which was matched by the city’s financial contribution of approximately 25 percent of the land acquisition costs.
The City of Courtenay, on the other hand, was not the source of inspiration for restoring the Fields Sawmill site. Kus-kus-sum has been primarily driven by NGO and First Nations leadership.
And the City Council has not yet committed itself to any degree of financial support toward acquisition costs.
They have waived property taxes for two years while Project Watershed raises acquisition funds. But the eventual title will name the city as part owners of the property.
Nor has the Town of Comox or the Comox Valley Regional District made commitments, both of which stand to benefit as much as Courtenay from eliminating this eyesore on a main transportation corridor.
Fortunately, the K’omoks First Nations are committed and strong partners on the Kus-kus-sum project.
Not only are the K’omoks chief, council, band administration and Guardian Watchman department onside, nearly every K’omoks band member has signed a petition supporting the cause.
The Campbell River Indian Band was not as active.
If Kus-kus-sum succeeds, it will build on the restoration momentum from Campbell River, and set the stage for a much grander opportunity: to inspire and support the restoration of other abandoned sawmill sites throughout the B.C. coast.
How you can help
Kus-kus-sum needs community financial support in order to leverage the millions of dollars needed from granting organizations and the federal and provincial governments. Their website makes it easy to donate.
The Ocean Blue site in Campbell River before restoration
The Ocean Blue site after restoration
There was a time when diners at The Old House restaurant used to gaze across the Courtenay River toward Field’s Sawmill, and consider the nonstop activity of moving and milling large logs an additional delight.
As they ate, more than 160 workers operated heavy equipment, tugboats pushed logs into booms tied to a wall of pilings and cranes pulled the logs from the river. It was fascinating entertainment.
And the view brought comfort. During the 1970s, the sawmill represented the economic strength of the logging industry that supported numerous Comox Valley businesses and jobs.
The Field’s Sawmill site today. A pile of rubble, acres of pavement and sprouting alder trees.
Of course, not many people at the time realized the artificial piling wall had formed a choke point that intensified flooding up-river and created a killing ground for harbor seals to feast on returning salmon.
Nor did the diners see sawmill workers landfilling the marsh area between the river and Comox Road with oil cans, wood chips, wire and other debris. That would have essentially destroyed the adjacent Hollyhocks Marsh had concerned citizens at the time not successfully pleaded with the Provincial NDP government to stop the dumping.
And no one paid much attention when the City of Courtenay approved a sawmill application to store PCBs on the site, which may have easily seeped into the river and its estuary and the surrounding agricultural land.
The diners did not know they were feasting on the site of an ancient First Nation’s village, called Kus-kus-sum, which became the final resting place of many K’omoks ancestors.
As overseas lumber markets turned to other suppliers, the sawmill faltered and the timber company Interfor closed down the sawmill’s operations in 2006. After a barge towed away the sawmill’s large structures and equipment, the site quickly morphed from a visible symbol of economic prosperity to the community’s most glaring eyesore.
And so it has remained for the past 11 years.
But now, Project Watershed (PW) and the K’omoks First Nation (KFN) have a plan to restore the sawmill site to its natural habitat. They have accepted an offer to purchase the property and eventually transfer ownership to KFN and the City of Courtenay.
The joint media release from PW and KFN does not mention any role in this deal for the Comox Valley Land Trust, and we hope that’s just an oversight. Without a binding covenant to be overseen by the Land Trust in perpetuity, a future City Council could unwind this landmark agreement.
To complete the $6 million purchase and restoration project, PW and KFN must raise at least $500,000 from the local community to facilitate acquiring the balance of funds from grants. And they only have 18 months to do it.
The Comox Valley community must open their pocketbooks and support this project, starting with a fundraising kickoff event Sept. 21 on the river-front lawn in front of Locals restaurant, which is part of the KFN traditional territory and a sacred site.
Not only will site restoration erase our most prominent eyesore, but it will ease up-river flooding pressure and increase the percentage of returning salmon that make it to their spawning grounds.
There’s potential to rejuvenate the abandoned Field’s Sawmill site with beautiful natural habitat, and some public access to trails and viewing areas. The piling wall will be removed and the site, whose soil has already been remediated, will be turned back to its natural salt marsh state.
An overhead view of Field’s Sawmill prior to 2005. Hollyhocks Marsh is the undeveloped area to the right of the sawmill.
So it’s lucky that one of North America’s most respected landscape architects, Will Marsh, now lives in the Comox Valley. He has volunteered to assist in the concepts and planning for the restored area.
Marsh, author of “Landscape Planning: Environmental Applications” and several other books on related topics, taught at the University of Michigan for 30 years, and then at the University of British Columbia, which eventually led him to the Comox Valley.
He is a leader in the movement to integrate environmental landscape design into urban planning. And that’s a perfect fit for the Comox Valley, which suffered from developers-gone-wild in the 1980s and ‘90s.
As late as 2007, developers had their eye on the old sawmill site. The owner of the Old House Village Hotels and Suites proposed a residential and commercial complex that would have joined the two sides of the river with an overhead walkway. They billed it as the Comox Valley’s interpretation of Granville Island in metro Vancouver.
That would have been a garish misuse of the Courtenay River and its shoreline.
Fortunately, many citizens opposed this plan at the time, and the City Council rejected it.The site’s location close to the river and in the flood zone made it unsuitable for any large scale development.
But those citizens also promoted the idea of returning the land to its original estuarine river marsh. The city should have pursued that idea, but sadly did not.
Thanks to Project Watershed and the K’omoks First Nation, and with community financial support, the Comox Valley now has an opportunity to right that wrong.
RELATED POST: 11 Interesting facts about the history of Field’s Sawmill