An aerial view of the Courtenay estuary, circa 2005, with the Field Sawmill in the bottom left-hand corner. The sawmill closed in 2005.

Project Watershed, K’ómoks First Nation announce deal to purchase, restore former Field Sawmill site

In honour of ancestral village, site will be named Kus-kus-sum

By Scott Stanfield

Record staff

Project Watershed and the K’ómoks First Nation have reached an agreement with Interfor Corporation to purchase and restore the former Field sawmill site on the Courtenay River near the 17th Street bridge.

When the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society began discussions with Interfor in 2014, it ascertained the site owners were open to a conservation solution to the land.

While Project Watershed is recognized internationally for its marine stewardship, restoration and science capabilities, it does not hold title to land. The City of Courtenay is reviewing opportunities to take on the role as landowners, with KFN, once the acquisition is complete.

In June, council unanimously supported a motion agreeing in-principle to share ownership of the property alongside the KFN.

“The City of Courtenay’s council and senior staff have been incredibly supportive of this project, and we are certainly grateful for this support,” PW director Bill Heidrick said.

The KFN’s interests in the site date back thousands of years.

Before settlement of the Comox Valley, it sat across the river from a village called Kus-kus-sum.

The property itself was used as the final resting place of K’ómoks ancestors. After consultation with both past and present Chief and Council, Kus-kus-sum – meaning tree burial – was chosen as the new name for the property. KFN Chief Councillor Nicole Rempel and band administrator Tina McLean have joined the Project Watershed negotiating committee, alongside Heidrick, and fellow directors Tim Ennis and Don Castleden.

“The K’omoks First Nation has long looked forward to regaining our traditional cultural sites throughout our unceded traditional territory,” explained Rempel. “Kus-kus-sum has been a site of cultural significance to our people since time immemorial as a place where we put our ancestors to rest. Restoring it to its natural state is a vision we share with Project Watershed.”

The City of is investigating the potential for flood mitigation through returning the site to a more natural condition. In June 2017, Council unanimously supported a motion agreeing in principle to share in ownership of the property alongside K’ómoks First Nation. The City stands to benefit from the project. For instance, the restored site’s ability to absorb floodwaters will help mitigate flood impacts.

“We also gain the rehabilitation of fish habitat, the addition of park land and the enhanced esthetic value upon removal of the current blighted landscape,” said Coun. Doug Hillian, who will act as project liaison along with Rebecca Lennox. “I look forward to the opportunity for the City to hear more about the specifics and to consider next steps.”

The next steps are to negotiate a contract of purchase and sale, and work towards removing conditions.

“This will involve negotiating specific details with the City, the Nation and other governments with jurisdiction in the estuary,” Ennis said. “From there we will need to roll up our sleeves and begin fundraising in earnest. We have a limited amount of time to raise the funds required to complete the purchase and restoration work. Failure to do so could see the property go back on the market. The total project cost is estimated at $6 million.”

Project Watershed is committed to restoring the decommissioned site with a view to returning it as much as possible to its natural state, preserving it for future generations.

“We have been successful at securing funds from federal, provincial, private and international funding agencies to support the conservation and sustainability of many vital areas in and around the Comox Valley,” said Dan Bowen, technical director for Project Watershed. “We are confident in our ability to protect and support this site’s ecological integrity.”

“Over the next several years, by submitting grant applications, and obtaining contributions from local businesses, residents and service groups, we will bring together the resources needed to achieve this vision. It will be a total community effort,” said Project Watershed treasurer Brian Storey.

PW director Kathy Haigh and chair Paul Horgan are heading up the fundraising committee.

“Ultimately, we seek to un-pave a parking lot and put up a paradise,” said Haigh. “We have established a local fundraising target of $500,000 towards that end, and hope to bring in the balance from provincial, federal, international, corporate and other private donors.”

Project Watershed and the KFN will continue to update the public as further information is available about the land purchase.

The society invites the public to help launch the initiative at its Keeping It Living kick-off event sponsored by The Old House Hotel & Spa at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept 21 on the lawn in front of Local’s Restaurant.

–With files from Project Watershed, 50th Parallel Public Relations