When Project Watershed and the K’omoks First Nation partnership finish restoring the former Field’s Sawmill site, an important piece of the K’omoks estuary will return to its natural state, a saltwater marsh.
The partners have decided to name the newly preserved property Kus-kus-sum in honor of the ancient K’omoks village that once thrived directly across the Courtenay River. It’s hoped that the K’omoks first Nation and the City of Courtenay will accept ownership.
The preservation of these 8.3 riverside acres represents a triumph by 21st Century environmentalists to protect the K’omoks Estuary.
But Kus-kus-sum isn’t the first K’omoks estuary marsh that needed saving.
And if it wasn’t for the efforts of the newly formed Comox Strathcona Natural History Society in the late 1960s and early 1970s to preserve another, larger marsh further down river, the Field’s Sawmill site might have been lost forever to commercial development.
Norma Morton, born in 1931 to a third generation Comox Valley family, remembers her father driving their Model T vehicle along the gravel road, known as Comox Road, or the Dyke Road, and counting the Trillium flowers flourishing along the riverside.
Ms. Morton remembers that before the Field family built a sawmill on the site, there was another enterprise located there called Riverside Laundry, a business that did all the cleaning for St. Joseph’s Hospital. And that after the laundry closed, she recalls that a cannery was built.
When Ms. Morton moved back to Courtenay in 1966 after working for several years in Vancouver and Victoria, she was devastated by the uncontrolled development of a Valley that she remembered as pristine.
So she and her husband, Keith, and a dozen local enthusiastic birders and botanists formed the Comox Strathcona Natural History Society. It was the beginning of the environment movement in the Comox Valley.
Their first project was to protect and preserve a saltwater marsh just south of Field’s Sawmill, which had not yet been named and was being used as a dumping ground. The sawmill was filling in the marsh with chips, oil cans and trash.
Ms. Morton remembers it being even worse: Workers threw wire and other debris directly into the river.
The society had begun an 8-year battle.
About that same time, a University of British Columbia masters student by the name of Kennedy spent a summer cataloging all the plants thriving in the estuary, and in the marsh in particular. One of those plants was “sidalcea hendersonii,” or commonly known as Henderson’s Checker Mallow, or the Marsh Hollyhock.
To promote the natural history society’s efforts to save the marsh, local botanist Sid Belsom wrote an essay extolling its beauty and virtues and he headlined it “Hollyhock Flats in the Courtenay Estuary.” The Comox District Free Press (The Green Sheet) published the article in 1966.
That unofficial name has stuck.
The fight to save the marsh gained momentum in 1969. The society wrote a letter to Crown Zellerbach asking that the property owners preserve the marsh area as a nature conservancy.
By the early 1970s a Comox Valley chapter of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservancy (SPEC) had been formed by members of the natural history society and others.
Ms. Morton wrote a 17-page brief for SPEC that contained 10 recommendations to save the K’omoks Estuary. It had the support of provincial biologists.
The brief was sent to local mayors and other elected officials. But only Comox Mayor Dick Merrick had the courage to put its recommendations before the town council.
Merrick moved to preserve all the land between Dyke road and the estuary, from Field’s Sawmill to K’omoks First Nation as a greenway. The motion failed because no council member would second it.
But the council did support preservation of a section of land where an old shake mill had been located, which today is a Rotary-sponsored viewing stand.
Despite that setback, Ms. Morton and friends kept up the fight.
Their efforts were finally rewarded in July 1974 when NDP MLA Karen Sanford secured funding to purchase the 24.3 acres of saltwater marsh from Crown Zellerbach, southeast and adjacent to Field’s Sawmill. The purchase also included 1.8 acres southwest of Dyke Road between the tidal slough floodgate and the old LaFarge cement silo.
And Hollyhock Flats was preserved.
The Comox Strathcona Natural History Society eventually became Comox Valley Nature, and is still active in birding, botany and land conservancy.