Environmental issues in small Vancouver Island communities

In this edition of the Folk U Radio’s Reporters Roundtable, our journalists talk about environmental issues in some small Vancouver Island communities. 

Ernest Hare, US star of Vaudeville, phonograph records, and radio, listens to the radio with headphones. Circa 1921-1925. Bain News Service photograph via Library of Congress website via Flickr ((Public Domain).

Our host, Manda Aufochs Gillespie of Folk U Radio, is joined by: 

environmental issues: development vs rural community
Adapted from Google Maps by Roy L Hales

Environmental issues in the West Shore community of Highlands (3:57 in podcast)

“Do small community members truly have a say in the clean water, forest management, land use decisions, and other “ecological” issues that create the very basis of their existence?” asks Manda.

Shalu Mehta explains that the WestShore community of Highlands, in Greater Victoria, was founded around the idea of conservation. It sits between three fast growing municipalities, Langford, Colwood and Sooke.

“This community really fights against urban incursion. Their goal is to protect natural spaces and their aquifer which most of the community relies on,” Shalu began.

Proposed gravel quarry

Five years ago a company purchased the land to build a gravel quarry in Highlands. When they applied for rezoning, the majority of the community said they did not want a gravel pit. They were concerned about: groundwater; ecological impacts; the wetland; native bird species and the forest. 

So last year the company applied for a mining permit, which the province granted them. 

Since then, the District of Highlands has done everything it can to fight against this mine. The matter went to the BC Supreme court, which informed them that municipal bylaws and the community plan do not apply because the quarry has a provincial permit. When the company started logging the property, in January, the community responded with a series protests. The Highland Community Association is currently trying to appeal the permit itself, on the basis of climate change. 

Shalu concluded, “I don’t know if there is an easy answer as to whether communities have a say in the way land is used. When something like this happens it is easy to say no because the province stepped in and said this is permitted by the mines Act, so it can go ahead. I think there is some hope because this community is being so resilient. Now they’re even looking into, ‘how can they reform the Mines Act?’ And what can be done to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other communities?”

environmental issues: old growth logging.
Fairy Creek blockade activists now face arrest if logging company Teal-Jones can’t access its old-growth cut blocks on south Vancouver Island. Photo by Will O’Connell

What’s at stake at Fairy Creek? ( 8:22 )

“Another question often on the minds of people in small communities is who gets a say in the fate of BC’s remaining ancient forests?” says Manda.

Rochelle Baker says the Fairy Creek Logging Blockade touches upon a number of important issues. Globally, there is the need to preserve the planet’s bio-diversity and the role old growth forests have in carbon sequestration. At a provincial level, many view Fairy Creek as a test case as to how serious the Horgan government is about implementing the Old Growth Strategic Review recommendations.  

“In the conservation sector there is a real frustration that there is a ‘talk and log’ going on … Even though the Review calls for a paradigm shift to protect biodiversity, the province is still talking about jobs and there is still some contention around whether logging old growth is the best way to protect jobs,” said Rochelle.

In the coming decades …

She suggests that in the coming decades, we are going to be seeing that First Nations are going to be having a huge role in leading the way on how we approach land use and resource extraction. Industry, local communities, the public and provincial government are all going to have to adapt to this. 

“Fairy Creek is representative of a lot of important emerging issues that are going to be at the forefront of every discussion of forestry or resource extraction. I think this is applicable to any resource or land use, whether it is at a micro level or federally,” said Rochelle.

She added, “A really big one, at this end of the world is fisheries. Who has access to commercial fishing licenses? Who has the right to fish? When? And how much? Then, of course, there is fish farms: Who gets to decide? Do they stay? Do they go?” 

environmental issues:
The DFO set a limit of three sea lice per salmon. There are more than ten times that number on this smolt, as well as four strings of eggs – Tavish Campbell photo

What’s your take on fish farms? (13:51)

“A great example, which we did a huge show about,” said Manda. “Fish farms continue to be a big debate …  Roy, I know you’ve done a lot about this recently. What’s your take on fish farms and who has autonomy over land use decisions and resource issues?“

“Autonomy is a difficult subject, but I think First Nations land claims trumps all. This is really something that has to be settled, especially in the Discovery Islands. It has been going on for over 150 years,” he began. 

The scientific community is divided

“Beyond that … We’ve been hearing that science is on the side of fish farms, which is not true. During the past year we’ve been seeing scientists from the University of Toronto, the Pacific Salmon Foundation and DFO’s own Biological Station in Nanaimo all raising key concerns …”

Three major studies have come out. The sea lice problem has become a major issue. The pathogens surrounding fish farms have been found to be 2.7 times greater than the rest of the ocean. There is not a scientific consensus behind the DFO’s statement that the Discovery Island fish farms are having a minimal impact on migrating salmon. 

“The topic is huge. The scientific debate is huge and there are a lot of complex issues,” said Roy.  

Citizen scientists approach SRD Board

Some evidence from citizen scientists was brought before the Strathcona Regional District at their last board meeting. Their 2020 sampling did not find any sea lice on smolt at Bowen Island, Texada Island, Bute Inlet or Toba Inlet, but reports an average of 9 sea lice per smolt after they reached the Discovery Island fish farms. 

“How much say do Regional Districts have in determining whether fish farms happen?” asked Manda.

“Very little, I think,” said Roy. “They can talk to the DFO, who might not even listen to them. First Nations have more input because of the land claims issue.”

Kelly Fretwell
Kelly Fretwell – photo by Koby Michaels of the Hakai Institute

Sea Star Wasting Diseases (16:06)

“My family and I are members of a citizen observational project looking at sea star wasting in and around Cortes Island. Can you tell us a little about what you’re finding out about sea stars and sea star health?” said Manda.

Roy explained that Sea Star Wasting Disease has wiped out about 90% of the global population. 

Wolves of the Ocean floor

As some Cortes Islander’s know, sea stars are an apex predator, similar to wolves, and they consume shellfish. So, local oyster grower Julia Rendall told me that when Star Wasting Disease spread through Gorge Harbour the value of her harvest suddenly jumped from $5,000 to $8,000 a raft. 

Some other oyster growers told the Hakai Institute that, as a result of sea star wasting disease, they didn’t need to hire people to dispose of the sea stars. 

Kelly Fretwell, from Hakai, said that Julia’s story is an interesting anecdote, but losing this predator would have an even bigger impact. For example, they keep the sea urchins who consume kelp in check. Now that Sunflower Sea Star numbers are down, entire kelp forests are disappearing and being turned into “urchin barrens.”Ochre Sea Stars keep mussel populations in check, so that other species can colonize local areas. 

Recruiting Citizen scientists

Hakai has been observing Sea Star Wasting Disease since it became a major problem in 2013.

They found a program called iNaturalist which allows them to recruit citizen scientists, like you Manda, to take a picture of a sea star with your iPhone and upload it to the web.

The first group Hakai partnered with, to monitor Sea Star populations is the Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI).

FOCI is still their principal partner and is looking for volunteers to go out and take pictures of sea stars, especially people who will do it on a monthly basis.

Kelly Fretwell said Hakai is also talking to the Quadra Island Outdoors ClubBC Marine Trails GroupMaple Leaf Adventures and the Comox Valley Yacht Club

environmental issues reported by citizen scientists
Click, click, click by Mike Beales via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Facebook Groups (18:46)

Shalu Mehta said during the past year, while people are spending so much time at home or going on walks, Facebook groups popped up in communities she reports on. People are posting photos of the things that concern them.

“It’s a barrage of information and anyone that’s going on to these groups is able to see what’s going on in their community. There are people who are specifically going for walks in the middle of their day to take photographs of these things happening and they really are being the eyes and ears for their community members,” she said. 

This has extended into the political arena, with people taking note of rezoning hearings that might be crucial to sensitive ecosystems, posting information about how others can get involved.

Changing the way things happen

“And it’s started to become a force its citizens are and it’s I think changing the way things are happening. There was a fight to make council meetings in Langford recorded for example, and so that people can watch them after and see what was going on. Or there’s been a lot of push to get more people involved in council meetings, and all of that has an impact on land use decisions and, in turn, decisions that affect the environment,” said Shalu.

Manda added, “I love the overlap that you’re making between the idea of citizen scientists and citizen journalists, and then just straight down to what it even means to be a member of a community which, brings about a responsibility towards being the eyes and ears towards advocacy, or at least speaking up for what one is seeing. It’s a really beautiful connection,” said Manda.

In the Blackberry bushes by Scott Leslie via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Clearing out an invasive species (21:18)

Greenways Land Trust periodically takes groups of school kids out on educational projects. A week or so ago, Marc Kitteringham accompanied a group of grade four and five students while they were clearing blackberries from a restoration site next to their elementary school.

 “It was kind of cool, because they got to actually learn what an invasive species was, and why it’s important to get rid of, or to keep them in check,” he said. 

Melody, the Greenways coordinator, said they know way more about these things than she did at that age. 

“And they know a lot more than I did at that age!” said Marc. 

In the pool by Vince Smith via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

$50,0000 & the meaning of Recreation (22:43)

“So, Mark, you recently wrote a story that I think is going to touch a chord for many, many rural listeners. It was about the Strathcona Regional District Board and their different takes about whether or not to spend $50,000 on a recreation use study,” said Manda. 

Her takeaway was whether or not rural communities had the same access to recreation. The word recreation, itself, seemed to have different meanings depending on where you live. 

“For the more urban Regional District members it meant using the recreation facilities, the community swim areas etc. And recreation for more rural people in the Regional District means going outside and jumping in the lake. But we’re still paying taxes for it and now maybe we’re paying $50,000 for a study of it,” she said.

“So I think with that one, there’s a little bit of confusion on both sides about what exactly they were talking about. And I may be wrong about this too. But when it came out, in more discussion, it seemed like the idea was to look at recreation as a whole, including things like trails, but the idea initially came up at the Strathcona Gardens Commission, among the directors who are specifically involved in running that facility,” said Marc. “When it came to the regional board, they talked about things like fields and trails, and I think they mentioned an ATV trail that goes through several electoral areas.”

(Editor’s note, the SRD Board approved the study, but all four rural directors voted against it.)

Decisions made by outsiders(24:37) 

“This kind of thing really reminded me of when I lived on Saltspring Island. There was so much talk about decisions being made by people who don’t live here. And I’m sure those of you who live in the rural areas, hear that as well,” said Marc. 

He wonders if the Regional District system needed a revamp, so that people had more say in what was going on. 

Oblivious to Regional Districts

To which Manda responded, “Mark, you’ve reported on the Gulf islands, and now you’re reporting in Campbell River. Do you notice a difference in the way that the community members talk about representation, or politics? Do people in Campbell River feel like the Regional District doesn’t represent them? Or that there’s too much influence from the rural areas? Or is that simply a rural thing? Because way out here on the islands, people feel like they’re not listened to or well represented within the Regional District system. just as you were saying, it’s a big issue.”

Marc was not sure how much people living in Campbell River know about the SRD. 

“I know, for example, that when I lived in the Victoria area, I always felt like the CRD (Capital Regional District) was not related to my life at all really. I honestly didn’t know what they did at the time. But, you know, I was working at a bike shop at the time so I wasn’t even paying attention. But I feel like that could be said for people in urban areas with multiple levels of government,” he said. 

Gulf islands like Saltspring work pretty similar to the northern islands, except that, in the southern Gulf islands they have the Islands Trust. This is yet another layer of government, which was created because these islands felt that the regional districts were doing such a bad job of managing their issues that they needed yet another layer of government to give them a voice.

The West Shore (26:12)

Shalu said, “When I first moved to BC, and I was trying to learn how local governments work, I also saw it as something that was super messy, and I had no idea how municipalities that were, so close to each other, coordinated. And what I’m learning is that oftentimes they don’t talk. That’s somewhat of an issue, right?”

Now she is a reporter covering six communities with very different priorities in Greater Victoria’s West Shore region.

Metchosin and the Highlands are small rural communities with unified visions of what they want their municipality to look like. They’re not interested in development.

“But you just drive over the border, into Langford and all of a sudden, it’s a completely different place with big box stores and a Speedway and rapid development. And in Langford, there are lots of community members that don’t feel like they’re being well represented by their municipality. People are fighting to be heard,” said Shalu. 

“There’s a lot of frustration here. And then you add other layers of government on top of that, from, you know, the CRD to the province, to the federal government, and it makes things even more messy, I think, for people.”

Canadian coins by KMR Photography via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Local Politicians have little power (28:40)

Manda said, “I was reading about urban climate change issues the other day, and one of the numbers that really stuck with me was that for every dollar in taxes we pay, eight cents goes to two cities. Now, if you live in a rural area, you’ve probably got way less than that coming back to your specific area.”

That’s usually the municipality, which receives the smallest amount of tax dollars but is trying to address needs like affordable housing, land use planning and Climate Change.

Prior to moving to Quadra, Rochelle covered Regional District politics in the Lower Mainland for seven years. 

She said people meet their local politicians in places like the grocery store. They often blame them for problems, but this level of government has the least capacity to deal with issues.

Regional districts and municipalities are constantly complaining about senior levels of government downloading responsibility to municipal politics, when the feds and province keep most of the tax dollars. 

Premier John Horgan in a conference call courtesy BC NDP via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Making Big Forestry share (31:28)

She applauds the way Horgan fired shots across the bow of Big forestry, saying that he has a mandate to make the big forestry companies share tenure license and or timber with small communities. 

“He expects it to happen, or the province will step in and make it happen. So that’s kind of a nice shift. Now, it’s also probably the only way to save forestry in BC at a local level,” said Rochelle, 

Right now most of the timber is being shipped out of the province . Small communities and First Nations communities do not have much of an opportunity to mill the timber or use it for  secondary manufacturing. 

“Horgan is looking at changing that. We’ll see whether or not that has any impacts. I mean, we’ve seen the mill closures right here in Campbell River … We’ve seen mill closures up and down the coast. We may see this emerge again, in terms of job development in the secondary processing.”

A broader vision

She pointed to the Cortes Community Forest as an example of how timber extraction can partner with finding real sustainable jobs within a community. 

This is also an idea that could be applied to fisheries, which is currently dominated by large companies.

(Editors note: Ironically, Government regulation during the late 1990s largely brought about the shift from small independent fishing boats to large fishing companies.)

(l to r) Bruce Ellingsen, Mark Lombard, Carrie Saxifrage of Cortes Community Forest – courtesy Carrie Saxifrage

Cortes Community Forest (34:42) 

There are over 100 community forests, some involving industry and First Nations. 

“What I admire about the Cortes model is: one, the Klahoose First Nation and Cortes Community have partnered and there is actually a recognition inherent in the structure that the First Nations make the operational decisions. It shows a unification at a very micro community level, because Cortez is quite small, a willingness to dialogue about it, rather than operating in a silo. I also like the recognition of the inherent rights of the Klahoose Nation on Cortes,” said Rochelle. 

“Of course, there are debates about what the logging should look like. But the very fact that there’s a dialogue happening, I think, is super positive, because, for example, at Fairy Creek we’re not necessarily seeing that.” 

Talk and Log (36:50)

“Rochelle, when you were talking about Fairy Creek earlier you used this term ‘talk and log’ …what you mean?” asked Manda.

“Talk and log is the catch phrase used by environmental groups concerned that the provinces continue to issue cutting permits in old growth forests, while saying they’re going to dialogue with all the parties,” explained Rochelle. 

There is very little old growth left on Vancouver Island, outside of parks, and conservationists are worried that it will just disappear. 

The core by Martin Cathrae via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Campbell River’s Food Waste (38:45)

North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney wants the government to raise Canadian awareness of food waste by creating a national food waste day.

This inspired Marc Kitteringham to look into the food waste in our area. 

“It turns out that over 20% of the garbage that ends up in the Campbell River landfill is food – either good food, or spoiled food, or apple cores, that kind of thing. Once that food gets into the landfill, it gets compressed. It decomposes in an anaerobic environment, which creates methane gas, which is about 20 to 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide – depending on when you take the measurement,” said Marc. “So something that everybody could do [for the environment] is reduce the amount of food that they throw out into the garbage. That would have … a comparable effect to some of the things major corporations are being asked to do.” 

If the average family only bought as much food as they need, that would both help the environment and save about $1,100 a year.

Curbside pick-up by Jonathon Cutrur via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Curbside compost pick-up

Manda asked if he was aware of communities that have curbside compost pickup? 

“This has been really big in the city of Vancouver and I think the city of Nanaimo has also rolled out a program,” she said.

“There is a facility going in at the Campbell River landfill. Right now. It’s just a big hole. They’re working on it, and that will cover everything from Cumberland to the northern areas around Woss. I might not have the exact communities, but it’s the Comox Strathcona waste management area,” said Marc.

“They’re going to start rolling it out for single family dwellings because it takes a little bit more to coordinate a compost bin in an apartment building.”

Marc added, “I’m an avid composter, it’s one of my favourite things: composting, mushrooms and riding my bike.”

“Parital Retention” of forest (clearcuts limited to 7% of observed landscape) on Stuart Island – courtesy Ralph Keller

Tourism sector pushes back (42:47)

“A number of years ago, people involved in wilderness and marine tourism decided that while the government doesn’t listen to environmental groups, they do listen to industry. And it turns out in our area, lodges, whale and wildlife watching tours, bear viewing companies, kayaking companies, boat charters and sport fishing actually create about the same amount of revenue as logging. They both generate about $50 million each. Sometimes the tourism was bigger than the logging and sometimes the other way around. 

So more than a decade ago, the marine tourism sector went to the government and complained that visible clear cuts were hurting their business in the outer Discovery Islands (Cortes, Read, Maurelle, Sonora, the Redonda Islands etc),” said Roy.

(He added that this has not really been a concern on Cortes since the advent of Community Forest.)  

So a visual standard objective was set up and companies logging in the Outer Discovery Islands can’t have more than a 7% clear cut visible from the water. 

The standard is currently being reviewed, and the marine tourism sector is pushing to have the Visual Standard Objective raised to no more than 1.5%. They’re especially concerned about part of Maurelle Island facing the Octopus Islands Marine Park. 

The deadline for comments was April 30th, but they have also been pushing to have this extended and I do not know the outcomes. 

Whale watching near Campbell River by Andrea_44 via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Asking SRD to support the DFO’s decision

Another group of wilderness tourism businesses approached the Strathcona Regional District Board. They do not want the SRD writing the DFO a letter supporting Fish Farms. If the SRD writes anything, it should be a letter supporting the DFO’s decision to phase out fish farms in the Discovery Islands.

Campbell River recognized tourism as one of the three economic first dollar pillars of its economy, the other two being logging and fish farms. 

Now the wilderness tourism sector is saying it is part of the wild salmon economy.   

“I appreciate you bringing that up. I always feel like it’s interesting when we talk about resource extraction as if it’s our only resource industry, when clearly in this area, the ecological sector is huge,” said Manda.

Traffic Creating Traffic – Courtesy Victoria Transport Policy Institute

Current Legislation 

Shalu is looking at how legislation is lining up with new environmental initiatives or the targets that were set at the Paris Climate accords. 

A few municipalities within the CRD have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. Some of the proposed solutions are reducing building emissions, more bike lanes and a commuter ferry. They are also discussing the possibility bringing rail back again.

“I’m starting to see a shift in the way municipalities are thinking about how transportation initiatives are going to contribute to climate change, or how they can reduce that impact. I’m also working on a story, specifically looking at the Mines Act. There’s a group called BC Mining Law Reform that’s working to reform mining laws, to protect communities from toxic mine waste. For example, protect water from mine waste to respect decisions by local communities, like the Highlands, and as well as local First Nations. And then also holding companies accountable to any damage that they do.\ … I think we’re going to see a lot of people calling for change to legislation that, you know, predates environmental legislation. And so it’s something that I look forward to digging into as climate becomes a larger and larger concern amongst residents.”

Listen to the podcast to find out what these reporters are working on next. 

Some previous Folk U episodes

Some of Shalu Mehta’s articles

Some of Rochelle Baker’s articles

Some of Roy Hales’ articles

Some of Marc Kitteringham’s articles

The Folk U Reporters Roundtable is made possible through a partnership between, Folk U Radio, Cortes Community Radio and Cortes Currents. Host; Manda Aufochs Gillespie; Podcast: Bryan McKinnon; This written article: Roy L Hales.

Top photo credit: Mountain biking in Metchosin by Richard Baer via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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