There was a time when diners at The Old House restaurant used to gaze across the Courtenay River toward Field’s Sawmill, and consider the nonstop activity of moving and milling large logs an additional delight.
As they ate, more than 160 workers operated heavy equipment, tugboats pushed logs into booms tied to a wall of pilings and cranes pulled the logs from the river. It was fascinating entertainment.
And the view brought comfort. During the 1970s, the sawmill represented the economic strength of the logging industry that supported numerous Comox Valley businesses and jobs.
Of course, not many people at the time realized the artificial piling wall had formed a choke point that intensified flooding up-river and created a killing ground for harbor seals to feast on returning salmon.
Nor did the diners see sawmill workers landfilling the marsh area between the river and Comox Road with oil cans, wood chips, wire and other debris. That would have essentially destroyed the adjacent Hollyhocks Marsh had concerned citizens at the time not successfully pleaded with the Provincial NDP government to stop the dumping.
And no one paid much attention when the City of Courtenay approved a sawmill application to store PCBs on the site, which may have easily seeped into the river and its estuary and the surrounding agricultural land.
The diners did not know they were feasting on the site of an ancient First Nation’s village, called Kus-kus-sum, which became the final resting place of many K’omoks ancestors.
As overseas lumber markets turned to other suppliers, the sawmill faltered and the timber company Interfor closed down the sawmill’s operations in 2006. After a barge towed away the sawmill’s large structures and equipment, the site quickly morphed from a visible symbol of economic prosperity to the community’s most glaring eyesore.
And so it has remained for the past 11 years.
But now, Project Watershed (PW) and the K’omoks First Nation (KFN) have a plan to restore the sawmill site to its natural habitat. They have accepted an offer to purchase the property and eventually transfer ownership to KFN and the City of Courtenay.
The joint media release from PW and KFN does not mention any role in this deal for the Comox Valley Land Trust, and we hope that’s just an oversight. Without a binding covenant to be overseen by the Land Trust in perpetuity, a future City Council could unwind this landmark agreement.
To complete the $6 million purchase and restoration project, PW and KFN must raise at least $500,000 from the local community to facilitate acquiring the balance of funds from grants. And they only have 18 months to do it.
The Comox Valley community must open their pocketbooks and support this project, starting with a fundraising kickoff event Sept. 21 on the river-front lawn in front of Locals restaurant, which is part of the KFN traditional territory and a sacred site.
Not only will site restoration erase our most prominent eyesore, but it will ease up-river flooding pressure and increase the percentage of returning salmon that make it to their spawning grounds.
There’s potential to rejuvenate the abandoned Field’s Sawmill site with beautiful natural habitat, and some public access to trails and viewing areas. The piling wall will be removed and the site, whose soil has already been remediated, will be turned back to its natural salt marsh state.
So it’s lucky that one of North America’s most respected landscape architects, Will Marsh, now lives in the Comox Valley. He has volunteered to assist in the concepts and planning for the restored area.
Marsh, author of “Landscape Planning: Environmental Applications” and several other books on related topics, taught at the University of Michigan for 30 years, and then at the University of British Columbia, which eventually led him to the Comox Valley.
He is a leader in the movement to integrate environmental landscape design into urban planning. And that’s a perfect fit for the Comox Valley, which suffered from developers-gone-wild in the 1980s and ‘90s.
As late as 2007, developers had their eye on the old sawmill site. The owner of the Old House Village Hotels and Suites proposed a residential and commercial complex that would have joined the two sides of the river with an overhead walkway. They billed it as the Comox Valley’s interpretation of Granville Island in metro Vancouver.
That would have been a garish misuse of the Courtenay River and its shoreline.
Fortunately, many citizens opposed this plan at the time, and the City Council rejected it.The site’s location close to the river and in the flood zone made it unsuitable for any large scale development.
But those citizens also promoted the idea of returning the land to its original estuarine river marsh. The city should have pursued that idea, but sadly did not.
Thanks to Project Watershed and the K’omoks First Nation, and with community financial support, the Comox Valley now has an opportunity to right that wrong.