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.
The Field’s Sawmill site today. A pile of rubble, acres of pavement and sprouting alder trees.
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.
An overhead view of Field’s Sawmill prior to 2005. Hollyhocks Marsh is the undeveloped area to the right of the sawmill.
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.
RELATED POST: 11 Interesting facts about the history of Field’s Sawmill
#1 — The Field family — father Clarence and sons Ron and Roy — founded the original sawmill in 1947 on the site of Arden Elementary. The original property in the Arden area was owned by William Duncan. He built a barn and the building that became the original Fields Sawmill, which was moved to the Courtenay River location in 1949.
#2 — The Fields sold the sawmill to employees Errol Zinck and Bill Phillips in 1969. They resold the mill after just a few years to Peter Gregory of Gregory Manufacturing Ltd.
#3 — Primex Forest Products bought the mill in 1973, primarily to mill and export yellow cedar to the U.S. and Japanese markets. At its peak, Primex employed 160 workers at the Courtenay site.
#4 — Comox Valley citizens tried several times during the 1970s to persuade the City of Courtenay to move the sawmill and protect the Courtenay River estuary. In 1976, Ted Burns tried to move the mill to Vancouver — even Union Bay was suggested — but relocation proved too expensive.
#5 — Primex applied to the City of Courtenay in 1993 to use the site as a storage facility for PCBs. Citizens were shocked because these toxic chemicals could easily seep into the river and the estuary, and maybe even into Farquharson Farms agricultural land located across Comox Road. But the concerns fell on deaf ears at City Hall as the council approved the request.
#6 — A slowing timber market forced Primex to layoff employees in 2000. The workforce shrunk to 115.
#7 — Interfor bought the sawmill from Primex in 2001 in a deal that including the ACORN mill in the Lower Mainland. People suspected that Interfor didn’t want the Field’s Sawmill but got it as part of the ACORN package.
#8 — Interfor said it lost $8 million in the fiscal year 2003-2004, and the mill had several temporary closures.
#9 — In 2004, Interfor closed the mill. They blamed lower-priced competition for the Japanese market from Chinese and European suppliers. It paid severance to employees and demolished the mill in 2006.
#10 — The provincial Ministry of the Environment investigated site soil contamination. It reported no ground water contamination,only surface contamination, and therefore there was no contamination leaching into the river due to a clay layer on the surface. The province did eventually issue a Certificate that remediation was complete.
#11 — Interfor put the 7.8-acre property up for sale in July 2006 for $5.3 million. Project Watershed began negotiations with Interfor in 2014.
Sources provided by Project Watershed staff:
CV Echo April 18, 2008
Donaldson, Betty (2010, Apr 2). “A Brief History of Sawmill Location” /Comox//Valley//Record/: Print.
Editor (2013, Aug 22). “A Look Back into The History of The Comox Valley, Field’s Sawmill” Comox Valley Record: Web 25 Aug. 2017.
Macfarlane, Bill (2006, Feb 10). “An economic Force that sadly is no more” /Comox Valley Echo/: Print.
MacInnis, Bruce (2006, Feb 8). “Field Sawmill Site to be Sold” /Comox Valley Record/: Print.
Martin, Debra (2006, May 16). “Interfor wants to cash in on property, urges city not to pick 19^th St. Bridge” /Comox//Valley//Echo/: Print.
Masters, Ruth (2006, May 23). “Fields Mill and Interfor” /Standing Up For Parks, Wilderness, and Wildlife/: Print.
Ocol, Mary Anne (2007, Apr 13). “Little Contamination Found on Sawmill Site” /Comox//Valley//Echo/: Print.
Racansky, Beth (1993, Nov 10). “The Storage of PCBs at Field Sawmill” /Biology 102/: Print
Wiens, Christina (2007, Jun 5). “Old House Owner has Vision for Sawmill Site” /Comox Valley Echo/: Print.
Weins, Christina (2007, Jul 24). “Field site gets multiple offers” /Comox Valley Echo/: Print.
Wiens, Christina (2008). “Still no sale for sawmill site” /Comox valley Echo: /Print.
Decafnation is seeking a dozen people passionate about civic engagement and the importance of an informed electorate.
In just over 12 months, Comox Valley voters will elect people to manage the affairs of Courtenay, Cumberland, Comox and the three unincorporated areas of the regional district, School District 71 and other municipal positions.
The community is best served if voters choose based on an understanding of important community issues, and an equally thorough knowledge of how each candidate proposes to address these issues for the common good.
To do our part, Decafnation hopes to collaborate with a number of people willing to serve voluntarily as Civic Journalists.
Over the next 12 months, these public journalists will investigate the Comox Valley’s most critical issues and report on them in-depth. And we’ll shine the same bright lights on the candidates who seek municipal office, and ultimately endorse a preferred slate of candidates.
If you’re passionate about the Comox Valley community and want to contribute to public understanding leading up to the 2018 fall elections, then contact Decafnation.
The only requirement is a serious interest in civic politics or some specific issue vital to the future livability of the Comox Valley.
How to contact Decafnation:
Leave a message on our Facebook page or in the comments section at the bottom of this article.
What happens next:
After you express interest, we’ll meet to discuss this Civic Journalism project in general, and your individual interests in particular.
September 12, 2017
The Comox Valley Project Watershed Society
and K’ómoks First Nation announce deal to purchase
the Field’s Sawmill Site (Kus-kus-sum)
(Comox Valley, BC) The Comox Valley Project Watershed Society and the K’ómoks First Nation have reached an agreement with Interfor to purchase and restore the former Field sawmill site on the Courtenay River near the 17th street bridge.
“After several years of negotiations, we are pleased to announce that we have an accepted offer to purchase the property from Interfor,” stated Tim Ennis, Director for Project Watershed. “Project Watershed, the K’ómoks First Nation and Interfor are all extremely excited to see this project take a positive step forward, but now it is time for the heavy lifting to start.”
In 2014, the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society began discussions with Interfor Corporation who own the site and ascertained that they were open to and supportive of a conservation solution to the land. Early conversations with both the K’ómoks First Nation and the City of Courtenay confirmed that Project Watershed’s proposal to purchase and restore the land was possible. While Project Watershed is recognized internationally for its marine stewardship, restoration and science capabilities, it does not hold title to land. Both the K’ómoks First Nation and City of Courtenay have stepped forward by agreeing to take on the role as landowners, once the acquisition is complete.
The K’ómoks First Nation’s interests in the site span millennia. In ancient times, the site was just across the river from a village called Kus-kus-sum. The property itself was used as the final resting place of K’ómoks ancestors. After consultation with the Nation, the name Kus-kus-sum was chosen as the new name for the property. Chief Nicole Rempel and Band Administrator, Tina McLean have joined the Project Watershed negotiating committee along side Ennis and Project Watershed Directors Bill Heidrick and Don Castleden.
The City of Courtenay stands to gain significant benefit from the project including the mitigation of flood impacts that will come from the restored site’s ability to absorb floodwaters. Councillors Doug Hillian and Rebecca Lennox have been assigned by the City to liaison with Project Watershed on the project. In June 2017, Council unanimously supported a motion agreeing in-principle to share in ownership of the property alongside KFN. “The City of Courtenay’s Council and senior staff, have been incredibly supportive of this project, and we are certainly grateful for this support,” stated Bill Heidrick, Director for Project Watershed.
“Now that we have agreed on the basic parameters of a deal, we need to negotiate a contract of purchase and sale and work towards removing conditions,” explained Ennis. “This will involve negotiating specific details with the City, the Nation and other governments with jurisdiction in the estuary. From there we will need to roll up our sleeves and begin fundraising in earnest. We have a limited amount of time to raise the funds required to complete the purchase and restoration work. Failure to do so could see the property go back on the market. The total project cost is estimated at $6M.”
Project Watershed is committed to restoring the decommissioned site with a view to returning the site as much as possible to its natural state, preserving it for future generations. “We have been successful at securing funds from federal, provincial, private and international funding agencies to support the conservation and sustainability of many vital areas in and around the Comox Valley. We are confident in our ability to protect and support this site’s ecological integrity,” stated Dan Bowen, Technical Director for Project Watershed.
“Over the next several years, by submitting grant applications, and obtaining contributions from local businesses, residents and service groups we will bring together the resources needed to achieve this vision. It will be a total community effort”, states Project Watershed Treasurer Brian Storey. Project Watershed Director Kathy Haigh, and Chair Paul Horgan are heading up the fundraising committee. “Ultimately, we seek to un-pave a parking lot and put a paradise”, says Haigh. “We have established a local fundraising target of $500,000 towards that end, and hope to bring in the balance from Provincial, Federal, international, corporate and other private donors”.
The Comox Valley Project Watershed Society and the K’ómoks First Nation looks forward to updating the public, as more information is available about this land purchase. Project Watershed invites the people of the Comox Valley to help launch this initiative at our Keeping It Living kick-off event sponsored by The Old House Hotel and Spa, 5:30pm on Sept 21st on the lawn in front of Local’s restaurant on 1730 Riverside Lane.
About the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society
For more information, please visit the Project Watershed website at www.projectwatershed.ca
About K’ómoks First Nation
The K’ómoks First Nation is located in the heart of the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. Membership is currently 336 members within four clans: Sathloot, Sasitla, Leeksun and Puntledge. Two cultures are identified in their community: Coast Salish (Island Comox Speaking peoples) and Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwak̓wala speaking peoples). K’ómoks originally occupied sites in Kelsey Bay, Quinsum, Campbell River, Quadra Island, Kye Bay and along the Puntledge Estuary. For more information, please visit www.komoks.ca.
For more information, please contact:
Paul Horgen, Board Chair, Project Watershed P: 250-702-0864 E: email@example.com
Tina McLean, Band Administrator, K’ómoks First Nation, P: 250.339.4545 ext. 105, E: firstname.lastname@example.org
History of the Fields Sawmill Site
The original Fields Mill was started in 1947 on the current site of Arden Elementary school. The Comox Rd site was cleared of trees in the late 1940’s and the mill moved its operation to the Courtenay River location, below the 17th Street Bridge in 1949. The Fields family retired the mill in 1969 selling it to Errol Zinck and Bill Phillips, two employees at the time (“A Look Back into The History of The Comox Valley, Field’s Sawmill”, 2013).
In the 1970’s, the mill owners were filling the marsh area between Courtenay River and Comox Rd, with an assortment of chips, oil cans and wire etc. Concerned residents stopped this and the landfilling was halted. In 1974, the Provincial NDP government paid $95,850 for 25.5 acres to prevent the owners at the time from destroying what is now called Hollyhock Marsh, reports Betty Donaldson (2010).
The owners of the mill sold it to Peter Gregory of Gregory Manufacturing Ltd. in 1973. Gregory then sold the mill to Primex Forest Products. The mill at that time was cutting and selling lumber (yellow) cedar to both the American and the Japanese markets. In the 1970s, the operation employed over 100 people and, at its peak 160. (photo 2 Mill at peak operation). In 2000, Primex started facing economic problems and began employee lay-offs. In 2001 Interfor bought out Primex and acquired the Fields Sawmill.
The Mill experienced hard times again in 2003 – 2004. The mill closed often and in 2003 it operated at a loss of $8 million. The mill was decommissioned and closed officially in 2006.
In 2006, Interfor demolished the mill, auctioned off the equipment, and paid out severance to its employees. At this time, reclamation of the site was also undertaken to safely remove and dispose of industrial toxins. A number of test wells were drilled to determine the quantity and nature of toxic materials in the soils. Concrete was broken up, and toxic soils were excavated and removed from the site. The holes were backfilled with clean soils and the wells tested again to verify the site was reclaimed. The Province issued a Certificate of Compliance, verifying that the site now meets the highest standards.
The property was offered for sale in 2008, but despite several offers to purchase, Interfor has chosen to work with Project Watershed and the larger community to achieve a conservation vision for the property.
Ashley MacIssac, the Juno award-winning fiddler from Cape Breton Island, performed for a sold-out audience at Live! At Filberg Park Aug. 24. Known for some outlandish behavior in the past, there was nothing controversial about his Filberg performance, except that he did seem distracted with his phone at first by trying to stream the event live on Facebook. Interesting fact: he plays a right-handed fiddle left-handed.