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Bear Mountain Road Showdown

Protesters in trees set to clash with work crew.

Andrew MacLeod 17 Dec

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria.

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Resort location.

Construction is set to start any day on a highway interchange to serve the Bear Mountain Resort and Country Club west of Victoria, but first the authorities will have to deal with protesters who've camped for a year in the area and are determined to prevent the destruction of what they say is an environmentally and archaeologically rich place.

Eight RCMP officers visited the camp on Dec. 14, writes activist Zoe Blunt in an e-mail. "We expect they will try to evict the camp either this weekend, or in the next week or two." There are five people on platforms in the trees, she writes, plus supporters on the ground. Her e-mail encourages more people to come to the site to act as witnesses.

The interchange will be used by people living both north and south of the Trans-Canada Highway, but opponents of the project say it is mostly to serve former hockey player Len Barrie's Bear Mountain development. Companies connected to Bear Mountain gave the B.C. Liberal party $1,900 last year.

Several activists, including Betty Krawczyk, who has served almost three years in jail since 1994 for charges related to several environmental actions, have said they are prepared to be arrested to prevent the Bear Mountain interchange.

Part of the proposed route is on land owned by the Provincial Capital Commission, a crown corporation dedicated to connecting British Columbians with the capital. The rest uses land the City of Langford has bought at above market rates from several homeowners.

The area includes a Garry oak meadow, a fir forest, a seasonal pond that is home to endangered red legged frogs and a limestone cave. The consulting firm Golder Associates has produced environmental and archaeological reports for what the city calls the Spencer Road Interchange, but activist Ingmar Lee claims they have failed to make a thorough examination of the area and missed some key features, including some possible culturally modified trees and a series of limestone kettles that first nations may have used for ceremonies.

Endangered frogs

Golder's geoscientist Rob Buchanan defends the firm's reports. "To be honest with you, we're doing everything that's required," he says. "There's no rubber stamp approach being given."

The firm was aware of the cave, the Garry oaks and the pond, he says, and the route was planned accordingly. "Most of the issues are outside the alignment boundaries," says Buchanan. "They're in the general area, but they're outside the alignment and any of the areas affected by the actual construction."

Plans are being adjusted as issues arise, he says, but the goal is to mitigate the impact of a project that is going ahead. "Public support seems to be more in favour of the interchange," he says. "The majority of people want it so it's moving ahead with the logical steps you would for any project."

Tsartlip left out

One group that was left out of the consultation is the Tsartlip First Nation, who consider the interchange area as part of their traditional territory. Lands manager Wendy Edwards was surprised to hear Golder had completed the archaeological assessment without contacting them.

The report says Ron Sam from the neighbouring Songhees First Nation came on the assessment and a representative of the Esquimalt First Nation was invited but could not attend. Virgil Bob also attended. The report doesn't affiliate him with a First Nation, but Edwards says she knows him and he is Pauquachin from a reserve further from the site than Tsartlip.

"I think it's really amazing how they can exclude some First Nations when we have an interest in the same area," she says. "It's just like they are doing in the B.C. treaty process."

The Tsartlip were vocal opponents of the destruction of a nearby cave last year on Spaet Mountain by the Bear Mountain developers. Edwards says the chief and council are also against expanding the highway and are considering applying for an injunction to stop the construction. "I do know Tsartlip is opposing the construction of the interchange because it is taking away very important ecological systems," she says.

The meadow, wetland, pond and cave are all part of a water course that feeds into the salmon bearing Goldstream, she says. "All these places are important, that's the first thing on the mind of the chief and council," she says. "What's going to happen in the future to our Goldstream? Goldstream is so important . . . It's our food, our ceremonies, our right."

The Goldstream runs through a provincial park.

Bunch of constraints

Transportation minister Kevin Falcon declined an interview. A ministry spokesperson says it is Langford's project and questions should be directed there.

Langford directs questions to Tim Stevens, a transportation engineer the city has contracted to manage the project. Asked if the assessment and consultation process have been thorough enough, Stevens says, "We're getting all the reports done we need to get done. If we find any entity we have to deal with, we'll deal with them." The planners moved the alignment to go around the cave, for instance, he says. "It's not like we don't want to do the right thing."

The interchange is needed, he says. "The place is growing like crazy. There's more people and more people want to drive."

The engineers looked at other options, he says, but a trailer park and a gas station are in the way of the nearest alternatives. "Where we chose to put it was the best place we could find given the constraints we have," he says. "There's a bunch of constraints out there, all of which have issues. Some are environmental and some are social. Some are money . . . The alignment that's there is the most benign we could come up with, in my view. Not everyone would necessarily agree."

That disagreement is set to become even more obvious very soon. Stevens says the city hopes to start clearing trees in January. But as activist Lee writes in an e-mail, "They've got a lot of tricky work ahead of them to dislodge the protesters, should push come to shove."

He adds, "People at the tree sits are already risking much and are putting their lives on the line by the very nature of what they are doing. The RCMP should avoid making the situation even more dangerous."

With pending legal action, protesters in the trees and others willing to be arrested, it will take a whole lot of brute force to have construction ready to go in January.

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