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.
Project Watershed archive photo of Field’s Sawmill and Hollyhock Flats
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.
Norma Morton, early Comox Valley environmentalist
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.
It was this essay, written in 1966 by Sid Belsom, a member of the original Comox Strathcona Natural History Society, that gave Hollyhock Flats it’s name. We urge readers to follow the article to the end. The first three and the last seven paragraphs are particularly relevant to today’s fundraising drive to restore the old Field’s Sawmill site.
By Sid Belsom
Over the years swamps and marshes have been portrayed in many characters, mysterious, ominous, frightening, etc., but seldom are they thought of as interesting and beautiful.
To the passengers of the hundreds of cars that travel between Courtenay and Comox, the marsh between the road and the Courtenay River is probably a very drab and uninteresting sight that doesn’t even warrant a casual glance.
However, for the interested, this “drab” swamp is full of life and beauty, and in spring and summer it is transformed into a botanical bonanza. Starting early with Trilliums, Easter Lilies, Bleeding Heart, Peacock (or Shooting Star), Skunk Cabbage, these being followed by Blue Camas, Yellow Monkey Flower, Blue Eyed Grass, Musk Flower, Wild Lily of the Valley, Wild Ginger and Chocolate Lily.
By May and June, the whole area is literally painted with Indian Paint Brush, the blush of which is liberally dotted with the white of thousands of Tall White Bog Orchid, with the edge trimmed with Chocolate Lily.
As spring warms into summer, and the spring flowers fade away, the colour continues as the scene is taken over by the Wild Hollyhock, St. John’s Wort, the Purple Loosestrife, Water Parsnip, Silverweed, Fireweed and Hardhack.
In the wet spots throughout the summer will be found Veronica, Brooklime, Canada Mint and Hedge Nettle. Under the shade of the trees will be found the Star Flower shoulder-to-shoulder with the Wild Lily of the Valley, on the edge of the gravel the Self Heal ekes out a living whilst in the tangle of logs at the edge of the road where nothing else grows. Longstem Greencaps grow in abundance.
With the smell of fall in the air, the Douglas Aster is still putting up a brave show with the Blue Sailors, Gumweed, Cats Ears and Agoseris, but now the swamp is preparing for its winter sleep leaving pleasant memories to the few that have savoured its months of glory, enjoying each flower as it buds, blooms and dies, its place being taken by the next species and the next, the colour changing week-by-week as species follows species in this parade of colour.
Also adding to this profusion of colour are the shrubs that thrive here, the western Dogwood, Ninebark, Red Berry Elder, Waxberry, Honeysuckle, Black Twinberry, Saskatoon Berry, Ocean Spray, Salmonberry, Thimbleberry, Blackberry, Wild Rose, Sweet Gale to name some that call the swamp home.
These shrubs also add the colour of their berries to the scene as anyone that has admired scape and black berry of the Black Twinberry will agree. They also help the other inhabitants of the swamp, the birds. The summer picture would not be complete without the sound and sight of the Red winged Blackbird, the flash of the yellow on the tail of the Cedar Waxwing, the furtive rustle in the thick brush indicating the presence of a Towhee or Song Sparrow, proud “Poppa” Robin with a beak full of worms, the thrill of finding a Killdeers nest in the gravel and the amazement of not being able to locate it the next day, the busy chatter of the Chickadees and Siskins in the tree tops.
With the fall comes an almost complete change of bird populations, the Gulls begin to appear on the gravel bar at the edge of the swamp, the migrating Bonaparte Gulls usually being the first to appear followed by the Glacous Winged Gull that stands by us all winter.
The Mergansers and Grebes begin to appear on the river, the Coots will be found dabbling in the mud in the shallow water. The scaups and Scoters begin to appear and are soon joined by an occasional Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Loon while the Kingfisher looks from a high vantage spot of his dinner.
During the dull grey days of winter, the contrasting white of the Trumpeter and whistling swans can sometimes be seen as they feed there, whilst around its perimeter the Heron patiently waits for his next meal to come swimming by.
By the end of February, however, one begins to sense a stirring amongst the inhabitants of the swamp, maybe it is just a glimpse of the breeding plumage that now adorns many of the male ducks, or the exuberant display of the bubbling Bufflehead who seems to be willing to show off his dashing ways to anyone with time to stand and watch.
Yes, there is vibrant life and beauty in the swamp, if you have eyes to see it.
One cannot ignore the human touch, however, as the piles of indiscriminately discarded garbage are all too evident, dumped by people who have no eye or feeling to appreciate nature’s prolific display.
There is little doubt that in this river marsh there are more varieties and a more prolific display of our native flowers than any area of comparable size in this area (with the possible exception of Puntledge Park), but you won’t see it rushing by at 40 miles an hour.
Nature does not die although it appears to when it rests until it is ready to burst out anew each spring.
However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that to some people this area is not looked upon as a storehouse of nature’s wonders, but as a prime piece of real estate that would make a first-class industrial site, and the green they see is not the marsh grass, but dollar bills. If this happens, it will surely die and nothing will revive it ever.
So, if you live in this area why not grant yourself an occasional few minutes this spring and summer to take a closer look while the chance is still there.
If you do take the time to look, please reap the harvest of pleasure with your eyes and heart, not by picking the flowers.
Published in the Comox District Free Press, Spring 1966
After the timber company Interfor closed Field’s Sawmill in 2004, they authorized Merville photographer Tim Penney to document what remained of the iconic Courtenay business. Penney visited the site in November 2005 and captured images with Nikon D100 and D200 cameras of the abandoned sawmill, which had been left undisturbed after the last working shift. The house builder and cabinet maker by trade has made photographs since 1955.
Penny has shared some of his images with Decafnation. You can enjoy them here.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tina McLean, Band Administrator, K’ómoks First Nation, P: 250.339.4545 ext. 105, E: email@example.com
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.