How a war in the woods was avoided

By Leslie Campbell, October 2011

Five million dollars from the province wouldn’t compensate for 2.5 years of conflict around the Juan de Fuca lands—but it’s a start.

Congratulations are in order: To the men and women of all persuasions and ages who made it crystal clear that they didn’t want any development near the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. It involved a lot of work, conflict and anxiety since 2008, but the public got what they wanted.

It wasn’t easy, though. As Gordon O’Connor of the Dogwood Initiative writes: “When Ender Ilkay first presented his proposal for the Juan de Fuca trail we were staring down some blindingly complicated and self-contradictory legislation, a biased voting structure, well-resourced opponents and a political system that discourages public involvement.”

Zoe Blunt of the Forest Action Network credits the visibility of people’s unity and strength of commitment for winning the day: “I don’t think it was just sweet reason!” She feels the politicians realized they might have another Clayoquot on their hands if they dared approve Ilkay’s plans for a resort involving 257 cabins. 

Besides citizen involvement, Blunt says the tide turned when other environmental and community organizations got on board: the Dogwood Initiative, the Wilderness Committee, Protect Our Parks, Sierra Club, Sea to Sea Greenbelt Society, Jordan River Community Association, and Jordan River Steering Committee.

CRD officials could envision thousands of protesters in the woods if they didn’t bow to the expressed public interest. And there was also the threat of a legal challenge—Forest Action Network “made it clear we’d be challenging the bylaw [in court] if passed—and that we’d be successful,” says Blunt. On this score they had help from lawyers and West Coast Environmental Law.

Of the long battle, Blunt says: “It needn’t have gone on as long as it did—96-99 percent of the people were opposed to it. We tried to tell [members of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area Land Use Committee] that—we did tell them that. We had surveys and so on. It meant nothing until they had their noses rubbed in it at the public hearing. They had to have a three-day public hearing before they were convinced. I wish we hadn’t had to do it—it was a strain on all our resources.” As just one example of those resources: at least $30,000 was spent by the Land Use Committee on preparing the bylaw agreement. 

But, while the process may have been complicated, acrimonious and expensive—at least there was a process—one that did entitle citizens to public hearings and allowed them to address the CRD board regularly. 

Unfortunately, the provincial government has no similar allowances for public involvement. This is what’s getting them into difficulty now with smart meters and before that with the HST. Most relevant to the issue at hand is their release of 28,000 hectares of Western Forest Products land from Tree Farm License status in 2007. BC’s own Auditor General pointed out the government’s move amounted to a significant gift to the corporation without any regard for public interest.

As Zoe Blunt says, not only was there no consultation, but “Western Forest Products profited off of having those lands in the Tree Farm License area for 50 years, and that they could just take their chips and cash out leaving the whole province in the lurch wasn’t right. There should be something offered back to the community.” Blunt is blunt—and correct: “The province failed us.”

But rather than making amends, the Liberal government is making excuses. It’s not a lot of money—likely around $5 million to purchase the land from Ilkay. When you think of (a) what’s at stake, (b) their culpability for the whole mess, and (c) their overall budget ($40 billion), five large ones should be doable.

Yet local MLA and Sport and Cultural Development Minister Ida Chong is still refusing to champion her constituents’ desires. When interviewed by news media, she asked: “Why was this not told to me two years ago when I could have put the whole thing in the mix?” referring to $2 million the province contributed to purchasing land around Sandcut and Jordan River. 

Blunt describes her response as both ridiculous and disingenuous: “The instant those lands were released, people were demanding to know why there was no contribution, no compensation to the people of British Columbia. So she can’t throw up her hands and say ‘Oh, I had no idea that’s what people wanted.’”

CRD Board Chair Geoff Young noted in a letter to the province: “Release of the Tree Farm License lands in 2007 created an unprecedented situation for the CRD and for planning in the JDF Rural Resource area. The fallout from this decision could be partially mitigated by preserving the Marine Trail Holdings lands as parkland, which would prevent resource extraction in an area bordering the park. This is something that the CRD does not have the ability to achieve.”

Chong has said the request won’t be considered until March. But Ilkay is threatening to log—current zoning allows this and other resource extraction or very low density housing (seven homes on the entire 236-hectare property).

Blunt thinks that if the province refuses to buy Ilkay’s land and add it to the park, another “win-win-win solution” would be a swap whereby Ilkay would get a parcel with preferential zoning in a settlement area. 

Going forward, O’Connor, Blunt and many now-more-politically-aware citizens are determined to see the Regional Growth Strategy have more teeth and the CRD board operate in a more sensible manner. As a letter at the Sierra Club website states: “The protracted and exhausting process that resulted in the ultimate rejection of the development proposal…has also shown that the voting structure of the Capital Regional District is no longer adequate. It needs to be updated to give our elected representatives from all municipalities and electoral areas—the whole CRD Board—a voice in matters that affect the whole region.” 

The upcoming civic elections will likely see a shake-up at the CRD. Blunt reports, for instance, that “a very well known, well respected green” is about to launch a campaign to unseat Juan de Fuca electoral area director Mike Hicks.

Controversial development proposals are pretty much guaranteed to arise again given that a full two-thirds of the CRD lies in the Juan de Fuca district, much of it made available by the provincial government’s largesse to WFP. Let’s hope the CRD gets its act together and the Liberals show a little generosity towards the people who went all out to fight for the land they love. 

Leslie Campbell loves the fact that Victoria has wilderness so close to the city.