Climbing the west Coast Trail
Last week a friend from Florida emailed me. Just back from Vancouver Island, she couldn’t wait to tell me she’d hiked the daunting, spectacular West Coast Trail – and loved every minute. Then my neighbor stopped by, excited by his next ‘big idea’, conceived as he watched the growing numbers of touring motorcyclists cruise past his modest business in the Cowichan Valley. Once again, Vancouver Island’s diverse attraction was underscored for me, this time by Harley riders and a hard-core trekker.
It’s an easy day’s drive on a four lane highway from Victoria in the south to Campbell River, about half way up the Island. This is the most populated segment of Vancouver Island. From time to time the road touches the coastline to your right but you’re always aware of the Island’s heavily forested, mountainous spine away to your left. Almost every mile of your journey offers another tempting stopping place or intriguing detour. If you have the time and turn west to cross the mountains to Tofino the reward is a spectacular journey that ends on the wild and barely inhabited Pacific west coast.
It’s this kind of experience that gets under your skin and turns many a casual visitor into prospective resident. But island living is a romantic notion often undermined by stark practicalities like finding a job, accessing healthcare, or just getting around.
Vancouver Island, though, is bigger than many people realize (you can fit Jamaica into it almost three times), has pretty good roads, over 750,000 residents, balmier weather than anywhere else in Canada, a bustling Provincial capital, a growing agricultural community, good hospitals and schools and a broad-based economy. Plus quite a lot more. Little wonder then that the last five years has seen the Island tip from being dependent on forestry and fishing to a diversifying second-home and retirement destination underpinned by a wide range of service and other industries.
Of course there has been some froth, especially in the real estate market. At one point it seemed like every low-cost flight from Calgary was full of prospective retirees, second-home purchasers and investors. Developers up and down the Island scrambled to cash-in and ride the coat tails of Victoria’s new, 2,000 home Bear Mountain Golf Resort, the first stop for many a potential purchaser. Home prices rose on a tide of market exuberance, alienating many locals and encouraging the major Vancouver Island landowners to review their land holdings.
View from the Highway, near Campbell River
And then the market turned. Calgarians stayed home and fretted about the fall in oil prices. The economic malaise south of the border undermined confidence, froze lending, spooked investors and precipitated the suspension – or worse – of several development projects. The major landowners re-evaluated, retrenched and refocused on their core business.
A year later, following a beautiful British Columbian summer and a modest recovery of the local housing market, it’s time to consider the future for the largest of Vancouver Island’s landowners.
Four forestry companies control almost all of the private land in the southeast quadrant of Vancouver Island. Island Timberlands and Western Forest Products (both Brookfield entities), Hancock Timber Resources (a subsidiary of Manulife) and TimberWest own over 1,500,000 acres of mainly contiguous real estate, including lakefronts, mountains and land in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Each has taken a different approach to the real estate boom of the last five years.
TimberWest and Island Timberlands have the most land, much of it in the path of development. TimberWest has created a real estate arm, called Couverdon, to execute a development strategy that was devised with the help of international planning firm EDAW. Brookfield, meanwhile, quietly introduced another of its companies, Carma Developers, to the Island Timberlands properties, especially those on the northwest slopes of the Malahat. Some of Hancock’s Comox Valley land was transferred to community and resort developers who have, so far, met with varying success in rezoning it from managed timberland. Western Forest Products were the most aggressive and controversial of all, offering for sale former Crown land, including a much-loved beach a short drive west of Victoria.
On paper, all four companies have intriguing property that lends itself to a wide range of uses. However, it has been tough to convince Vancouver Island communities to allow the forestry companies to rezone their private land to achieve higher, better and more profitable uses.
To begin with, many of the Island’s residents have grown up enjoying the private forests for recreation, often with the tacit, and sometimes open, agreement of the landowner. The forests have also provided jobs to generations of Islanders, creating complex and emotional relationships between working families and the forestry companies. And then there are those who see no reason to make it easy for the powerful forestry companies to become wealthy real estate developers. Finally, there are the First Nations, intent to claim aboriginal rights to land that the Dominion granted in the late 19th century for the construction of a railroad and which was subsequently sold to the forestry companies.
The stage would seem to be set, not for the unleashing of unprecedented real estate development as some fear but, for a battle of attrition between communities and forestry companies up and down the southeast quadrant of Vancouver Island. And, sadly, the passing up of a unique opportunity for Vancouver Island.
As unbending and remote as the forestry companies sometimes appear, their vast contiguous land holdings offer considerable potential to the communities that they encompass. With every proposed rezoning and development of former forest land comes the opportunity for communities to acquire, in exchange, land that contains the source of their drinking water, places for parks, trails and green belts, land for agriculture, industrial use, affordable housing, hospitals, schools and other social facilities. The list is limited only by one’s imagination because the land base on which the forestry companies can draw seems limitless in scale.
Campbell River below the peaks of Strathcona Park
Taken a step further, here is an opportunity to address some of Vancouver Island’s most important long-term land use issues including striking a realistic balance between town and country living. Visitors appreciate Vancouver Island for its diverse rural and urban places, as well as its spectacular mountain and coastal scenery. How will the Island conserve open space around its towns while sustaining demographic growth and job creation for its residents, their children and grandchildren? Should a home in the countryside be exclusive only to those able to afford a faux farm and a Range Rover?
And what about all of the mountains, lakes and lakefronts owned by the forestry companies? How can they be made more accessible to Island residents and visitors while maintaining their environmental integrity and essential beauty?
It is wishful thinking to expect the Provincial Government to pursue a comprehensive, long-term approach to the alternative use for forestry land in the path of development on Vancouver Island. The debate on the future of this land will continue, most likely, in a piecemeal fashion in rural Regional Districts and urban Municipalities up and down the Island. I hope that the land owners and the communities have the vision and courage to pursue this unique opportunity that they face together; to unlock the value of this land to strengthen Vancouver Island’s reputation as a place of boundless beauty and strong, healthy sustainable communities.
A crowded West Coast beach