Flash Back Fridays

OUR ‘SECOND HAND’ WILDERNESS IS LIVING DOWN HISTORY LESSONS By Roger Prior, Island Review, June 1983

Every day a small fleet of deluxe air-conditioned buses zooms through Strathcona Park, twice daily up to the head of the lake, and twice back down again to Campbell River. The tour business is doing pretty well, you might think, considering it’s not even peak season yet. But look behind that tinted glass and you won’t find elderly ladies and gentlemen in cruise wear refreshed from a day trip through the scenic wonders of Vancouver Island’s biggest wilderness park. Instead you’ll meet a tough-looking bunch

A local clear cut by Elk River Timber (TimberWest)

A local clear cut by Elk River Timber (TimberWest) of engineers, mechanics and hard rock miners, all on their way to or from the Westmin precious metals mine, slap-dab in the middle of the park.

If you then check your map you’ll find Westmin isn’t the only industrial operation working in the park. There’s a chequerboard of officially approved mining claims around the southern border and several large swaths of timber-cutting leases in pockets at both ends of the park.

“Park? What park? There ain’t one!” In Campbell River, the nearest town, which also gets its drinking water from the Strathcona catchment area, there are some who won’t even dignify the park by the name. Dead fish in the lake, water contaminated by mine residue, and scenery denuded by generations of loggers have spoiled it for many people over the years. One group of hikers and nature-lovers who have unofficially adopted Strathcona Park, refer to it sadly as ‘Strathcona Industrial Park,’ and the proprietors of an outdoor education center that could be the park’s biggest user have few kind words to say about the government’s competence there.

Certainly Strathcona is the biggest of the six so-called Multi-Use parks in the province, in which industrial and recreational users are supposed to co-exist, but it remains the only major park in the country that has active logging and a working mine within its borders.

Strathcona is the oldest park in the province and its scars tell the story of the 70-plus year battle between conservation and industrial development in the province. Some call it a ‘second-hand’ park, others say development has improved it, but despite everything it remains the closes point of contact between many locals and visitors and the wile heartland of the Island.

It sits squarely in the middle of the Island, an un-natural, chopped-off triangle with two bumps off to the sides. At just over half a million acres, Strathcona is not the biggest park in the province, but contains some of the most spectacular scenery west of the Rockies. The terrain varies from the Island’s tallest mountain Golden Hinde, to the perpetual snows of glaciers, flower-covered alpine meadows, deep river valleys and ancient forests. It also spans half the width of the Island, from the saltwater at Herbert Inlet where the west-flowing Moyeha River tumbles into the sea, up to high-altitude, deep green lakes and some of the highest waterfalls in Canada.

It was Commander John Buttle who first explored the area in the 1860s and reported back to the first settlers of the splendours at the Island’s interior. Others followed, among them loggers and mining prospectors who all have their own reasons to admire the area. The deep valleys of the Elk, Wolf and Salmon Rivers supported stands of huge Douglas fir and cedar, and the slopes of the Nine Peaks and Mount Rousseau promised gold and silver.

The entrance to Strathcona Park

The entrance to Strathcona Park

Logging was well advanced in the Upper Quinsam area by the 1900s when a group of people in Campbell River became pioneer conservationists by pressing for the province’s first park in the area. The logging industry took them very seriously, and while mounting their own counter lobby, rushed through a list of applications for Crowngrants and other property claims in the Buttle watershed. In 1911 the Strathcona Park Act was proclaimed, setting aside 530,319 acres to the public domain, and named after Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, a pioneer with the CPR. The boundaries were arbitrarily set since much of the park was not accurately surveyed until many years later, the eastern side following the diagonal line down the center of the Island already marking the western limit of the E&N (Esquimalt/ Nanaimo) Land Grant. Those lines followed no natural contours of the park and were to become a thorn in the side of park defenders in later years.

The boundaries have changed a little since, with the addition of the Forbidden Plateau area and the Gold River basin, and the removal of a small bite around Crest Creek.

However the park founders weren’t given any time to rest on their laurels. Almost immediately a strong lobby started in on the government, agitating for mineral prospecting to be allowed back in the park, and this was fairly strongly favoured by many in government through the First World War period. In 1918 the first of a series of amendments was made to the Park Act and the miners were back in. Over the next 60 years there would be a patchwork of claims stakes over Strathcona, any never to be relinquished. It took an order in council in 1972 to finally prohibit further mining activity.

There was a revival of support for the park in 1920 when many timber leases were bought back by the government, but it was the Fabulous Fifties, and the great postwar development push, that changed Strathcona forever.

In 1953 BC Hydro won approval to build a series of three dams on the Campbell River between Upper Campbell Lake and the sea, and the uppermost, Strathcona Dam, raised the level of Campbell and Buttle Lakes by more than 700 feet. One of the elements in the plan was significant diversion of Crest Creek and parts of the Elk River.

The logging that resulted left general ugliness that remained for many years until the lake level rose, and old-timers say now that the park is only just beginning to look decent again. The Elk River valley was given another going-over in 1955 when the mountainsides below Big Den were logged their full length down to the river edge. Massive erosion resulted and the flow of the river has deteriorated to a damaging meander, despite a rescue attempt by Parks and Environment.

Logging and mining continued unabated in the park until the mid-Sixties when the final moves were made which shaped the park we have today.

During that decade the provincial government attempted to rationalize the industrial-versus-conservation situation in Strathcona by first buying back as many outstanding leases as possible, and then identifying those wilderness areas which should be retained at all costs. The result was a complicated system of trade-offs which has been hotly debated ever since. Critics say the government sacrificed more of Strathcona than they had to instead of standing up to the loggers; the government says the deals will have comparatively short term effect on the park but gained some invaluable properties which are now among the most popular public lands on the coast.

The facts are that in 1966 the government traded finite logging rights on Pamela Creek in the west of the park to the Tahsis Company in return for property for a new park at Rathtrevor Beach, south of Parksville. They gave the same deal to Mac- Millan Bloedel for cutting rights in the Bedwell and Ash River valleys in the south in exchange for property on the west coast which would later become the Pacific Rim Park, and did a similar swap with the Raven Lumber Company of Campbell River for rights to cut in Ranold Creek in return for what is now the Cape Scott Provincial Park.

Of all those trades, only Ash River and Ranold Creek are still operative, and they expire in 1984.

All of the cutting rights were in areas the government now marked down as Class B, or Multi-Use. The remainder, which was not compromised by any previous claims, was re-designated Nature Conservancy Areas where there would be no development of any kind. There were then three Nature Conservancy Areas totally more than 300,000 acres, in excess of two-thirds of the total park area.

However, while they were balancing the act with the forest companies, the government also had to honour one major mining claim, and  its location certainly had an effect on shaping the biggest Nature Conservancy Area. Also in 1966 the government approved development by Western Mines Limited of a copper, lead, zinc ore body on Myra Creek at the south end of Buttle Lake, and it was this decision which was to become the center of hottest controversy.

Looking down the lake to the entrance of the Park

Looking down the lake to the entrance of the Park

The first thing the mining company did was to build a 22-mile blacktop high- way the length of Buttle Lake to their mine site. The next was to proceed with what was then accepted practice of dumping tailings from the mine into the lake. Thos two moves, plus the fact that the mine was built at the base of Myra Falls, one of the most scenic attractions of the park, did not endear Western Mines to many apart from the shareholders.

The company went on to work its three mines on the site, Lynx, Myra and Price, for the next 17 years, despite running battles with fishermen who complained about the decline in stocks of trout, and the administration of Campbell River who sought to protect their water supply. All the time, however, there was the fact hanging over everyone’s head that the mine was a big employer and the payroll made all the difference in Campbell River.

In the end, after several probes by the Pollution Control Board, all of which found toxicity in the water but only half-heartedly blamed Western Mines, it was found that the pollution came not from the tailing but from toxic leachates from the slag dumps that had run off into Myra Creek. The ultimate reckoning came for the mine in the late 1970s when the ore body began to run out.

Many people though Western Mines was going to have to close, but right at the last minute two things happened – first, a huge new ore body was found, potentially more valuable than the Myra deposit, and second, Western Mines was taken over by Brascan Resources, a giant mineral resources empire.

The old Western Mines administration was shuffled off and a new directorship immediately observed that since government approval was going to be needed to start the new mine, a new approach was necessary to overcome the damaging public relations of the preceding 17 ears. In their dealing with the Province over the next two years they argued that the technology now existed to allow a mine to situation in the park and proceed with minimal side effects.

They pledged to cease dumping tailings in the lake, contain the old slag dumps, treat all wastes on site and only discharge water that was of acceptable quality. After long negotiations, approval was given in April this year, and work began soon after on building the new mine.

Westmin, as it is now named, says it has already spent more than $6 million on catch-up cleanups along, and the waste filtration system that is intended to keep the lake clean is now in place. By the time the mind opens in 1984 the company will have spent $150 million on construction, a small part of that being $100,000 in reparations to Parks.

Spokesmen at Westmin these days freely admit that they have a lot to live down before other park users accept them. They make no secret of the toxicity in the lake being caused by untreated runoff from the old mine, but remind all who will listen that it is a new administration at Westmin and that mining technology ahs come a long way since 1966. As then Environment Minister Stephen Rogers said in announcing the Westmin expansion, “This is one of those fortunate cases where an advance in the mining industry also creates an opportunity to solve a chronic environmental problem.”

People at the mine firmly believe that the special situation of being in a park was considered when the Stage One and Two applications were made to build the new mine. However not everybody is convinced.

Chief among the critics of industrial use of the park for many years have been two of Strathcona’s greatest boosters, Jim and Myrna Boulding. They run one of the biggest outdoor education centers in the country and have seen all the changes in Strathcona since the early 1950s.

Jim Boulding is a big man and doesn’t believe in rolling over for anyone. Over the years he has battled BC Hydro, Western Mines, MacMillan Bloedel and the Parks branch as well, all in defence of what he believes is a resource being ‘mangled by politicians.’ He cites clear-cutting and careless road building by loggers, arrogance and exploitation by miners, but his main target is the Parks branch whom he accuses of cowardice and lack of consideration in their stewardship of Strathcona.

“Parks have never really had a definite policy or philosophy and so has always ended up taking a supine position when faced by a stronger power,” he says. “They have not enforced the conditions of the (logging) permits and so the companies have done things like log right up to the edges of rivers and waterfalls. As a result forests have gone that we will never again, and while herds of elk have gone with them.”

Herd of elk in Elk Valley across lake from the Lodge—photo: Harry Hodges

Herd of elk in Elk Valley across lake from the Lodge—photo: Harry Hodges


He says the land swaps were largely wasted because “these forests you only have to cut up and take once. Okay Cape Scott and Pacific Rim have great value, but what is Rathtrevor? That is the thing about Parks, they think like parking lot attendants!”

“Individually there are some good men in the field for Parks and they care about conservancy, but the lack of ideas at the top leaves most them just being garbage collectors for people in Winnebagos.”

Boulding also castigates Parks for taking such a low profile with Strathcona. There are two organized campsites there and a small staff, but none of the ‘outreach’ that Boulding would like to see. To illustrate he points to the list of activities his Lodge organizes – canoe trips down the lake and hiking expeditions for school students, treks up to glaciers for tourists, wilderness guide training and alpine skills workshops.

Now he says that Parks are jealous of the profile his organization has in the Park and are trying to restrict his access by requiring a special permit.

“Hell, we’ve fought fires in there, brought tons of garbage out, and we’ve never got a stick of firewood or thanks for anything.” “The trouble is we don’t seem to have a philosophy for living in the country.

We always seem to end up tailoring our lives to suit the speculators. Now we have the perfect situation of Westmin coming in saying they are going to build a camp for all those men while the hotels in Campbell River are empty.

“When it comes down to it, everything is a matter of balance – man and nature, industry and nature – we all have to get along. There has to be mining and there has to be forestry because we all use their products, but if the government had got on the tails of these people way back when, the way they did with the pulp mills, we would have seen some technological advance when it started to affect their stockholders reports. Then maybe a lot of this would never have happened.”

In Nanaimo, regional director of Parks and the man in charge of Strathcona, Joe Gillings, says that a lot of Boulding’s accusations against the ministry are unfounded, but does agree that it is very difficult to make a park that is everything to everybody.

“Most of Strathcona is so inaccessible only a small percentage of people will ever get to see beyond the first mountain. Yes, they have their rights as taxpayers, but all the other taxpayers who aren’t into mountain climbing also got their rights, and maybe they would rather enjoy a nice campsite like Rathtrevor.”

“In fact more people use Rathtrevor in a year than would ever get to Strathcona. But that is kind of thing that we are obliged to do.”

In Campbell River, Parks superintendent Gordon Rathbone sympathises with those who wish Strathcona had been left alone, but philosophises “What do you think would have happened if they’d found the biggest oil well ever Yellowstone?”

It’s an interesting thought, but here on Vancouver Island the final debates are winding down about the rights and wrongs Strathcona Park. What is left, 72 years later, is a park with scars that may disappear – but not for a very long time.