Nanaimo is a paradox. For those arriving by ferry or float-plane from Vancouver, its beautiful, sheltered harbour is the gateway to a dispiriting four-lane crawl of strip malls, used car showrooms, superstores and drive-throughs. The town prospers and grows despite its unpromising reputation as a resource-based town reliant initially on coal, then forestry and pulp. Its downtown has been refurbished and re-organised to highlight a sparkling new conference centre but, in the evenings, Nanimo’s residents steadfastly stay put in their suburban enclaves at the foot of Mount Benson.
Lively, unlovely, underwhelming Nanaimo’s biggest paradox is also it’s best-kept secret. Just over the hill from the newest sub-division of competitively priced homes, along a rural, paved road, is one of Vancouver Island’s hidden gems. To get get to Nanaimo Lakes, you leave the main Island Highway just south of town and follow the Nanaimo River Road inland for 20 kilometers to a robust yellow gate. Sometimes the gate’s open and sometimes its manned. Beyond the gate a private road connects four lakes in a beautiful river valley that stretches 27 kilometers to the Island’s mountainous spine.
This whole valley is in the hands of a single owner, TimberWest, and is devoted to growing trees. When you stand on the shore of the first lake (imaginatively named First Lake) you are struck by the solitary peace.
As you turn slowly through 360 degrees, taking in the scenery, the close proximity of the surrounding steep hills describe a giant, natural
‘room’. Between First Lake and the head of the valley lie two more substantial lakes, a series of side valleys punctuated by smaller lakes and a long-abandoned ski hill called Green Mountain. This quiet, private landscape with its fast-flowing river and numerous tributaries comprises at least 20,000 acres; or enough space to accommodate the city of Nanaimo and all its 80,000 inhabitants.
It’s no coincidence that TimberWest consistently features stunning photography of Nanaimo Lakes in its Annual Report and any other publication it can think of. The company recognizes that the growing city of Nanaimo creeps inexorably closer to the Valley every year, reinforcing the belief that Nanaimo Lakes could have other uses than simply a tree farm.
So the future looks bright; a fast-growing community in a beautiful and accessible part of the world, a magnificent piece of land and an owner with aspirations. It would seem that the ingredients are in place to create a special place of international standing and repute.
If only that were the case.
Instead, it is more likely that before long, the table will be set for a lengthy, expensive battle for the hearts and minds of the community and its elected local government. On the one side will be TimberWest, its consultants and any development partners it might have recruited facing, on the other, an array of conservation groups, concerned citizens and individuals with specific reasons to
maintain the land in its current form. In the case of large and significant land use changes, this combative process can be best described as a grueling and wasteful war of attrition.
But does it have to be this way? When the future use of a privately-held piece of land, so extensive and environmentally challenging as Nanaimo Lakes comes into question surely all those involved deserve to be engaged in a consistent, clear, open, timely and fair process. And why shouldn’t there be a role for the Provincial Government in the consideration of land that is of national significance? The answer to these questions is to be found in the way that the rural fastness of Vancouver Island is governed and planned.
Nanaimo Lakes is outside the city boundaries and falls under the planning jurisdiction of the local Regional District, an agglomeration of seven sparsely populated ‘electoral areas’ and four municipalities where the majority of the region’s 150,000 residents reside. Nanaimo Regional District is about to publish the first draft of its most important land use tool; the Regional Growth Strategy. With its stated ambition to depart from previous efforts, it’s too early to tell whether or not this Strategy will be yet another one-size-fits-all blueprint for the region’s land use. It’s unlikely, however, that it will acknowledge the fundamental issue that has led to the re-evaluation of Nanaimo Lakes; that the forestry industry on Vancouver Island is undergoing a seismic change that has a direct bearing on the future use of its land base.
Instead of preserving Nanaimo Lakes as a gated tree farm, accessible only to unwitting trespassers and those able to book a spot on its single primitive camp site, it should be possible to bring all the stake holders and governments (including First Nations) together to engage in and create a visionary plan for this land.
Imagine a valley, this close to the region’s largest and fastest growing population centre, planned so that it exceeded all of the sustainability targets set by the Regional Growth Strategy; whose forest was subject to the highest standards of stewardship while providing wood for local value-added manufacturing; whose lakefronts became public trails and open spaces, reserved for all; whose rivers and mountain tops generated energy for the entire region; that included a significant conservation component and whose settlement pattern provided a new model for sustainable rural living.
A blanket prohibition on development, based on the increasingly tenuous argument that growth in rural areas is unsustainable, helps no-one in the case of Nanaimo Lakes. Large-scale conservation opportunities disappear, the lakes remain private, the opportunity for all to enjoy a rural lifestyle continues to diminish and the land-owner retreats behind its yellow gate to grow, harvest and export another crop of second-growth timber.