A lament for Strathcona Park

Time to hold mines and loggers accountable

By Susanne Lawson

Strathcona Park is a good example of what can go wrong when resources and money are the primary consideration.  

Almost a century ago, people saw the beauty of the area as an equivalent to Banff.  Elk Valley was bounded by Buttle Lake and Campbell Lake with Myra Falls at the end of it. The valley was full of giant forest, elk, wildlife and the lakes teemed with trout.

The trout fishing was the reason Strathcona Park Lodge (est. 1911) exists today. Jim Boulding and his wife Myrna established a beautiful lodge on the lake and lived a good life, just outside the park boundaries. They raised a big family and fought for the preservation of the beauty and intrinsic values of the park.

It is unfortunate that the B.C. government didn’t see that value.  

When I visited recently, Myrna explained to me that the original lodge used to be 140 feet below where we now stood. It is hard to comprehend the vast degradation the park underwent in those past years and the heart-breaking processes that the Bouldings watched take place.  

Aerial view of the John Hart Dam

In 1948, the B.C. Power Commission decided to dam the north end of Upper Campbell Lake to generate power for a growing Campbell River region. This caused the Elk Valley to flood. Upper Campbell Lake and the Elk Valley became one huge dammed Buttle Lake, where water levels rose 18 feet. That left a shoreline of dead trees and stumps, and 10 to 20 feet of gravel in the dead zone between high and low waters.

A pulp mill was built near Campbell River in 1952 to take advantage of the new, inexpensive source of power.

The power station at the John Hart dam is being upgraded for seismic purposes.

The flushing of the water to adjust the power flows also flushed out spawning salmon from the Campbell River. No fish ladders were Installed, so trout ceased going out and salmon ceased coming in.

The logging of the valley was part of the damming process, and so, then why not just take what old growth was valuable in the process? Along with that, fires from the ever present slash burning got out of control and the area burned.  

Well, as if that wasn’t enough, the government decided in 1965 to issue mining permits within the park, not just small ones but mile-deep monstrosities with huge factories to break up the ore with noisy rolling balls and chemicals like cyanide to break it down. The tailings were dumped into ponds that were always overflowing into the lakes until the trout became poisonous, at least their livers were officially announced dangerous to consume.

Hikers into the park could hear the giant fans deep within the earth going 24/7 to ensure those miners down there survived, despite the ore dust they inhaled. Then, more mines were given the go ahead and places like Cream Lake on top of the mountains there and other areas were being drilled for ore.  

That is when the protests started in the 1980s. Swans that inhabited the upper end of the now dammed Buttle Lake were found dead with oil on their feathers, something that perhaps helped, along with public outcry, to stop the incursion of more mines.  

Two status of parks ensued, Class A and Class B. Heaven help you if you want to enjoy a class B park. Watch out for mine shafts and ore trucks.  

Logging continues all around the park and you would be hard pressed to find any old growth forest left within eyesight, although there is lots of fresh logging.

Many years ago, the B.C. government awarded CP Rail the E&N Rail Grant for the northeast side of Strathcona Park, and at one time, the border between the park and the grant  ran through the northeast corner of Buttle Lake. This was a time when it looked as if the rail line would continue up island and possibly into Strathcona Park, which was envisioned as another Banff.

Eventually a select number of logging companies in the early 1950s we4re allowed to purchase parts of the grant and these companies logged around the borders of the park and on the shores of Buttle Lake with in the grat area. Today, this entire region is owned by Timberwest who purchased the land from the smaller companies.

The people of BC. gave up park land in order to have a perpetual railroad in operation on Vancouver Island only the logging companies conveniently forgot about that part of the bargain.

How come the people get nothing out of these deals?  

Westmin Mines, commonly known as the Myra Falls Mine, has changed hands numerous times wince Westmin first developed it in 1965. It was recently sold to Nyrstar, and then closed for several years. Nystar is now getting the mine up and running.

The giant pulp mill will never operate again due to the lack of demand for newsprint and other paper products. There was an attempt to turn the old mill into an LNG facility, but with a glut of liquid natural gas all over the world, that idea went the way of the dodo.  

Isn’t it about time to hold these corporations accountable? And time for a new paradigm … for the sake of our children and the future?

Susanne Lawson has lived in Clayoquot Sound for 50 years. She is a resident of Tofino, B.C. 

University of Victoria graduate student Catherine Gilbert contributed factual information for this commentary.