Maltby Lake's ecological wonders

By Maleea Acker, November 2015

Carmel and Woody Thomson show how love of place can keep it safe.

Back in the late 1990s I learned of a legendary property in West Saanich that a few lucky UVic students lived on each September through April. On tiny Maltby Lake, there was a large house for communal living and a smaller off-the-grid cottage for a couple. When I finally visited one fall, the students renting from caretakers and part-owners Woody and Carmel Thomson were playing banjo on the lake’s dock, stoking the woodstove and exploring the hand-cut trails that circle the lake and fan out through its forests. The paths wound through Douglas fir and cedar laden glades, into open meadows of Garry oak and moss and along headwater streams for the Tod Creek watershed. I thought I had stumbled on paradise. 

The Thomsons, it seems, felt the same. In the midst of growing pressures from developers and ecosystem fragmentation region-wide, their recent efforts have helped safeguard Maltby Lake as one of the last undisturbed ecosystems in the Capital Region, and certainly the most untouched example in Saanich. After their success, however, two questions remain: Will the whole lake remain protected? And what should protection look like given the region’s growing population?

In April of this year the BC Supreme Court ruled that the Thomsons could formalize a deal with The Land Conservancy of BC (TLC) to purchase 29 percent of the jointly-owned property (they previously owned 10 percent). An additional 6 percent still belongs to the TLC, which recently sold several of its properties to satisfy creditors and regain financial solvency. The landmark decision saw the TLC’s Court Monitor ultimately place a higher priority on ecological than economic value (other offers were refused because of the ecological covenants the Thomsons agreed to place on their portion). The $750,000 the Thomsons paid will ensure their share of their extended family’s property transfers before or upon their death to the municipality of Saanich or a land conservation organization; the covenants will help guard against development. 

Though most laud the decision as a success story, only time will tell the ultimate outcome for Maltby. “The best outcome would be to have the whole property and lake protected,” Carmel Thomson tells me in their kitchen. “We’re hopeful that others in the family will come on board.” The property is unusual in that its owners do not hold fee simple title, but rather share their interest, a fact that hinders the placement of environmental covenants or creation of a park, but has also helped protect the property from development (as all owners have to agree on any changes). The Holmes and Dumberton families bought Maltby Lake from J.D. Pemberton, a Hudson’s Bay surveyor who completed the last leg of his journey to Victoria by canoe in 1851. Pemberton, Woody Thomson’s great-great grandfather, later started Pemberton & Son, a real estate and engineering firm. The families joined through marriage in 1917. 

Maltby Lake lies about 30 minutes by car from downtown Victoria. Just north of the triangle intersection that connects Prospect Lake Road and Munn Road, the 172-acre property surrounds the 21 acre lake at its centre. The lake supports a population of rare freshwater jellyfish and sponges which, biologist Ian Bruce writes, have existed since the area rebounded from the compression of glaciation and the lake separated from Tod Inlet, thousands of years ago. The property also contains cutthroat trout, painted turtles, Pacific tree frogs, 18 listed species and the largest Douglas fir on record in Saanich (estimated to be 600 years old). 

Woody and Carmel live in a converted barn on the property, a small wood-sided building with firewood stacked in the kitchen and desks piled with files and books. When I visited, the forest was quiet, the fall migration of songbirds already underway. The lake was a glowing pool surrounded by dry Douglas fir, creaking in summer’s last heat. “I was born here,” says Woody, “and as soon as high school was done in Ontario, I scampered back.” They have lived on Maltby together for 31 years, since Woody, a retired forest service photographer and filmmaker, met Carmel, a writer and researcher. Last year the Thomsons received a Saanich Environmental Award for Long-Term Achievement in recognition of their work to protect Maltby Lake.

The vision the Thomsons have for the lake places ecological integrity higher than public use, a fine balance that’s easily destroyed. For proof one need only look to other regional lakes, like Elk and Beaver Lakes, which have yearly problems with fecal coliform levels and agricultural pollution, or Durrance Lake, which is a sea of floaty toys and swimmers on sunny summer days. The Thomson’s vision raises questions about how best to coexist in a region with both spectacular natural beauty and a burgeoning population.

The Capital Region population is expected to increase from its current 381,743 to 456,377 by 2035. Much of this growth will occur in the West Shore, where developments on Bear Mountain, Skirt Mountain, West Hills and Olympic View, in Langford and Colwood, will absorb many of the new single family dwellings. This increase, however, will also see increased pressure on recreational parks and natural areas. Fewer large, forested properties and more small acreages or housing developments also puts more pressure on places like Maltby as wildlife sanctuaries. 

In the end, who is a park for? The Capital Regional District has closed access to large parcels of the Sooke Watershed lands; its rationale isn’t simply protection of drinking water for the region, but ecological protection for every species. The Thomson’s purchase raises a key question for Maltby and places like it: In future should priority lie with human recreational use or with the ecosystems that make a property so distinctive?

The Thomsons’ bid to save Maltby isn’t the first grassroots attempt to protect large parcels of the central south island. In 2010 former Highlands Mayor Bob McMinn, then 86, began a campaign to protect Mary Lake, in the Highlands, from development. Using Twitter and an interactive website, supporters could purchase square metres of land, but insufficient money was ultimately raised. In comparison, the Thomsons have been lucky; they emphasize the community support that galvanized their efforts. “We’ve met some amazing people,” says Carmel, “and they’ve all been tremendously generous.” Support that the Thomsons received included letters from 17 conservation organizations. All funds raised went to the Friends of Maltby Lake Society, which may buy the TLC’s remaining six percent.

Several agencies in the Capital Region accept gifts of land, including TLC, The Land Trust Alliance of BC, The Nature Trust of BC, Habitat Acquisition Trust and the Province of BC. Ecologically significant land donations have significant tax benefits and conservation covenants can ensure land is protected in perpetuity. Most, however, do not accept shared interest gifts.

The Thomsons currently use Maltby as an untreated water source. When the lake freezes, small, cobalt blue open patches of water dot the surface. These, Woody explains to me, are where the multitude of natural springs are bubbling up from the lake’s bottom with warmer water. “It’s the only lake in the region that’s classified as Pristine,” he tells me. Carmel pulls out another file to show me proof, “We mortgaged everything we had to save Maltby, and we’re in debt up to our eyeballs.” She pauses, “But when you start to understand the natural, social, environmental and cultural values of this area, you really become passionate.”

Maleea Acker is the author of "Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast" (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.