The Morrison headwateres can be accessed on Lake Trail Road, just southwest of the Highway 19 underpass. Photo supplied

Comox Valley Land Trust working toward purchase of Morrison Creek headwaters

Headwaters are only known home in the world of the Morrison Creek lamprey

  • Nov. 16, 2022 5:00 p.m.

Janet Gemmell remembers the day almost two decades ago when she and husband Jim Palmer saw their young daughter Carly discover a rare and mysterious fish species while on a family outing to the wetlands of Morrison Creek, near Courtenay on Vancouver Island.

“We were exploring the creek just a few blocks from our house when my younger daughter spotted this skinny little fish swimming along the creek bottom,” says Gemmell, who is now president of the Morrison Creek Streamkeepers. “We all said, ‘what’s that?’ ”

“On investigation, we learned that it was a unique and endangered species of freshwater lamprey found only here in the entire Earth… I think this was the beginning of my daughter’s passion to protect our natural world!”

The magical Morrison Creek forest and wetlands ecosystem supports the Morrison Creek lamprey, an endemic fish species found nowhere else in the world. The headwaters contain the vast majority of critical habitat for this freshwater species.

Today, the Gemmell-Palmers are part of an exciting crowd-funding campaign – led by the local Comox Valley Land Trust (CVLT) and BC Parks Foundation (BCPF) – to make possible the purchase of this 289-hectare (713-acre) natural sanctuary in the Morrison Headwaters.

“We are very excited about this project, “said CVLT executive director Tim Ennis. “This is a fantastic, rare opportunity to protect forests, wetlands, salmon, and a unique species on eastern Vancouver Island.”

The lands are currently privately owned by a multi-national company with municipal zoning for heavy industry. The partners have negotiated a purchase and sale agreement, with a total project cost of approximately $4.75 million. If the crowdfunding campaign to raise the remaining $375,000 by Dec. 31 is successful, this purchase will ensure this rich and unique area is never logged or developed.

Part of what makes the Morrison Creek ecosystem so unique is that it is fed by a dozen or more cool water springs, which makes it resilient to climate change. Regardless of how long or pronounced summer droughts may be, the spring-fed creek always flows with abundant, cold water.

The natural springs make Morrison Creek a mecca for salmon as well as the rare species of lamprey. It is the most productive salmon stream of its size anywhere on southeast Vancouver Island (according to the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans) and one that is entirely without hatchery support. The headwaters area provides the majority of spawning and rearing habitat for coho in particular.

The Morrison Headwaters are in the traditional territory of K’omoks First Nation, who refer to the area as “qax mot” or “lots of medicine” for the abundance and diversity of medicinal plants the area supports.

“The expansion of “qax mot” throughout the Morrison Creek headwaters, will continue to support this critical area of natural habitat, abundance, and medicines and in doing so will maintain this area which is so important to salmon and in turn the Culture and Heritage of the K’ómoks First Nation,” says Hegus (Chief) Nicole Rempel of the K’omoks Nation.

The labyrinth of beaver-created wetlands, swamps, and riparian areas is home to wildlife of all kinds. The threatened red-legged frog, Pacific great blue heron, Oregon side-band snail, and coastal cutthroat trout are also all found in the Morrison Creek watershed. Beaver, otter, cougar, bear, and the occasional wolf and Roosevelt elk use the forested wetlands.

Local people have been trying to protect the Morrison Creek Headwaters for more than a decade. In 2019, the CVLT purchased and protected 54 acres of the headwaters. Now the dream of protecting the entire headwaters area is within sight.

The CVLT raised $200,000 locally and secured pledges for $200,000 each from the Sitka Foundation and Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation. Another $1,340,000 was raised from Environment and Climate Change Canada. Several other grant applications are in the works, but up until recently, the goal was still far out of reach.

Then the BC Parks Foundation stepped up with a commitment of $1,625,000, making the project one of the first in its 25×25 campaign to protect 25 beautiful places in BC by 2025.

“This is a fantastic, special place and all kinds of people, clubs, schools, and businesses want to make a difference and get involved in protecting it,” said Andy Day, CEO of the BC Parks Foundation. “The positive crowdfunding energy feels like salmon determined to get home to those freshwater springs, giving to the next generation. It’s very inspiring to be a part of it.”

Two Comox Valley families have kick-started the crowd-funding campaign. Local residents Rick Helmer and Gael Arthur have pledged to match up to $25,000 of donated funds.

“Protecting the headwaters is, quite simply, the right thing to do,” said Arthur. “Rather than feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of climate change, we can do something. Protecting Morrison Creek Headwaters is both possible and tangible.”

Courtenay resident Tom Grimmer and family have pledged to match up to $50,000 towards the goal, saying, “We see our pledge as an investment in the future of our children’s children, and beyond.”

If the momentum continues to grow around the crowdfunding campaign, children and future children will get a great Christmas present this year.

People interested in contributing can go to http://www.bcparksfoundation.ca/morrison-headwaters.

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