Conspicuous in its degraded and barren state, a leftover from industrial activity in our estuary, the Field Sawmill site adjacent to the 17th Street bridge and Comox Road constitutes a blight on our community.
There is something out of character about this industrial site. Many people are drawn to the Comox Valley because of its beauty and recreational opportunities – mountain trekking and biking, skiing, kayaking, sailing, bird watching, fishing, golf and the arts.
Daily, visitors and local residents pass by the Field Sawmill site and wonder when action will be taken to restore the land to something resembling its former beauty. The question is who will do this and when?
Not only is the site an eyesore but because the original salt marsh has been filled in and paved over, and the foreshore has been artificially armored with steel cladding; the area no longer functions (as it once did) as natural habitat for fish and other wildlife.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The site is currently for sale and represents an opportunity for restoration and conservation. For an example of how our estuary could be transformed we need look no farther than the Campbell River estuary where two former mills, the Campbell River Sawmill and the Ocean Blue Cedar mill on Baikie Slough, were purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the latter purchase aided by the Tula Foundation and the City, on behalf of, and for, the local citizens.
The leadership that led to these major changes was provided by the Mayor of Campbell River at the time, Jim Lornie, and Mike Gage, a member of the regional board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Gage, a former road builder for Weyerhauser, was able to persuade the Nature Conservancy to purchase the Campbell River mill site, including Baikie Island, from Raven Industries when it came on the market.
This was the first time the Nature Conservancy had purchased industrial land with a view to restoring the natural habitat.
The project was highly successful and the former industrial sawmill site has undergone a dramatic transformation (refer to before and after photos associated with this article).
Commitment to restoration
Project Watershed is committed to spearheading the restoration of the Field Sawmill site with a view to returning it as much as possible to its natural state and preserving it for future generations.
Fortunately, as Tim Ennis from the Nature Conservancy of Canada stated, “compared to the Campbell River situation, the Field Sawmill site does not appear to be nearly as complex to restore and offers a huge potential benefit for the community.”
The goal is to change it from an eyesore to an asset, that is to a coastal forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock forming a seamless whole with the adjacent Hollyhock Marsh, the wooded area just south of the sawmill site. A stream and pool linked to the Dyke Slough (on the west side of Comox Road) is proposed that would be incorporated in the restoration along with restored tidal marsh which would provide critical habitat for juvenile salmon.
This side channel would provide migrating adult salmon and juveniles safe passage around that stretch of the Courtenay River where salmon are currently preyed upon by seals.
A restored sawmill site would also provide critical habitat for a variety of other fish species, upland birds, waterfowl, mammals, insects and invertebrates. Tidal marshes would serve to protect the shoreline from storms and tidal surges as the vegetation would have a buffering effect on the energy of waves and currents, reducing their power and thus reducing the erosion and destruction that comes from fast-flowing water and pounding waves as we experienced in early December.
A properly structured living shoreline would provide as much or more protection than riprap against flooding that now occurs over Comox Road during heavy rainfall and winter storm surges. Aquatic marsh plants would also improve water quality and are important in sequestering (long-term storage) atmospheric carbon dioxide helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Finally, the area could be enhanced with trails, including the first leg of a Comox cycling route, as well as a walkway and viewing platform. These would make it more accessible for recreational users, providing access to the forest and wetland, and the ebb and flow of the tide and currents that create constant change in our estuary.
Vision needs support
What will it take to achieve this vision?
In the case of the Campbell River estuary, it took leadership from the mayor and council, a supportive team of dedicated organizations and individuals and willingness on the part of industry to work with the local group committed to restoring their estuary.
The most critical factor was the community that voiced its support for restoration and protection of the estuary.
“We have dedicated organizations here in the Valley that are committed to restoring our estuary, and the Field Sawmill site,” states Don Castleden, chair of the Estuary Working Group, a consortium of 11 community organizations and key government agencies, all of which are supportive of restoring the site.
Project Watershed is in the initial stages of developing a strategy for acquiring and restoring the sawmill site. Our efforts here are supported by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the K’ómoks First Nation, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“What we need now is the support of the community and our newly elected political leaders,” says Paul Horgen, Project Watershed board chair. “Together, we can achieve positive change by transforming the sawmill site into a feature of natural beauty in the heart of our community.”
For a video depicting the transformation of the Campbell River estuary see bit.ly/14E72Bu.
– Submitted by Comox Valley Project Watershed Society