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'Visionary' Deal Preserves Jordan River Gem

Capital Regional District protects surf beach and some forest, but thousands of hectares not included.

By Andrew MacLeod 8 Mar 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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Jordan River beach, west of Sooke.

The Capital Regional District (CRD) announced late last week that it has agreed to buy the most contentious pieces of property that Western Forest Products (WFP) has for sale west of Victoria on southern Vancouver Island.

For some, the purchase ends a bitter battle that began with a decision the provincial government made three years ago. For others, it's a welcome decision, but just a start on repairing that damage.

For $18.8 million the CRD, with the help of The Land Conservancy, will buy 2,350 hectares of WFP's lands that were previously managed under the province's tree farm license system. They include 3.5 kilometres of shoreline from Jordan River to Sandcut Beach, as well as lands adjacent to Sooke Potholes Regional Park and close to the regional water supply.

The areas, shown on a CRD map, include a surf beach, popular trails and forests. They also include areas like the Jordan River town site that the CRD will likely sell to help recoup some of the cost.

The Sooke News Mirror quoted Mike Hicks, the regional director most credited as the architect of the deal, sounding like the file is closed. "Mission accomplished," he said. "I'm looking forward to having a sauna in the surfer's sauna."

Campaigners looking for more

Conservationists who have pushed to protect the areas from development and to return them to public management gave full credit to the CRD board of directors who approved the purchase, but said they are not finished yet.

"I think the CRD showed absolutely visionary leadership and they made a great decision representing the interests of all the people on this island," said the Dogwood Initiative's Vancouver Island campaigner Gordon O'Connor.

However, the purchase covers just eight percent of the 28,000 hectares of WFP land the province allowed out of public management three years ago, he said.

WFP's private lands were managed under the TFL as part of a long-term arrangement that allowed the company access to publicly owned timber on Crown land. A 2007 decision made by Forest Minister Rich Coleman allowed the change to be made as a way to help the company financially, but failed to gain any benefit for the public in return.

The Tyee reported in 2008 that the province even failed to follow through on a promise to protect prime elk habitat on WFP's land.

"We're still looking to the province to pony up and do a little more to resolve this situation," O'Connor said.

"The CRD has really stepped into the breach here," said Vicky Husband, adding the purchase goes part way to repairing the damage the province caused.

She is a spokesperson for the Jordan River Steering Committee, an umbrella group whose members include local property owners, surfers and environmentalists. People are "ecstatic" with the decision, she said. "I see it as a bold leadership move by the CRD to look after the public interest."

Now the province has to act to protect the rest of the lands from development, she said. Had the province been looking out for the public interest three years ago, these properties could have been taken for free as part of the negotiation to remove them from the TFL, she said. "We should not be having to pay for this."

UBC, T'Souke First Nations interested in land

There are various proposals for the other properties that came out of the TFLs. The T'Souke First Nation has said some could be used to settle land claims and the University of British Columbia has been negotiating with WFP to buy land for a research forest.

Stephen Owen, who as vice president of external, legal and community relations for UBC has been leading the institution's bid, was unavailable by press time. An earlier bid by UBC to buy the lands failed because the school couldn't meet WFP's price.

Dogwood's O'Connor said he believes UBC is still interested in the land and that the CRD's purchase of the most expensive properties has made the school's involvement more possible. The institution needs a loan from the province to make it happen, he said.

"We still have a pretty serious threat to this community," O'Connor said. "We're going to push really hard in the next three weeks and try to get that loan given to UBC. It feels like it's within grasp. It feels like we can do it."

The amount of money UBC would need to borrow would require an approval from the provincial government.

The CRD is also still hopeful the provincial government will contribute to the purchase it announced. The amount is a stretch for the CRD, board chair Geoff Young said, adding that it uses all the money available for parks acquisition for the next five years.

Asked if there was any reluctance to step in and fix a mess the province has created, Young chose his words carefully. "There's always a temptation to reflect on how we got into this situation," he said. "The board recognizes that we have to work in the situation that we're in."

There was talk Friday that the province was close to announcing a donation to The Land Conservancy to help with their $5 million share of the bill, but the announcement didn't come.

"It's not a simple thing and it doesn't happen overnight," said Community and Rural Development Minister Bill Bennett on Friday. There are hundred, if not thousands, of demands on the province's limited resources, he said -- adding that he hopes there will be an announcement soon "but we're not there yet."

A cheque to help with the CRD's acquisition will be a good start, said O'Connor. But he, Husband and others will still be looking to the province to help find a solution for the remaining land.  [Tyee]

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