Save the Gateway to Paradise

By Calvin Sandborn and Derek Simon – May, 2005
(originally published in the Victoria Daily News on May 13, 2005)

A city becomes a remembered city, a beloved city, not by its ability to manufacture or to sell, but by its ability to create and hold bits of sheer beauty and loveliness.

— Harold Bartholomew

The first thing that tourists see when they drive from Swartz Bay to Victoria is Tsehum Inlet, on the left. It’s the beautiful lagoon that stretches along the highway – the one backed by forest and a large marina. At low tide the lagoon becomes an ecologically rich mudflat, stalked by herons.Next week North Saanich Council could damage the Gateway to Vancouver Island.

When you drive to the early ferry, sometimes a shaft of morning light will catch a heron gliding across the dark lagoon. As the great crane settles onto the branch of a nearby Doug fir, you smile and know that you live in Paradise.

You might want to go down and get some photos of that scene, because North Saanich Council could destroy it. A company is proposing to dredge out the lagoon, removing the equivalent of 2000 dump truck loads of sediment. They would then install floats and facilities for 75 additional boats.

The developer has asked North Saanich to alter its Official Community Plan, which bars such development. Unfortunately, Council has already given approval in principle for the scheme, despite the opposition of its own Environmental Advisory Commission.

However, new public hearings on May 16 could change Council’s position. A groundswell of public opposition to the proposal is rising. Fueling this opposition is the fact that the lagoon is inside the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

In 1931 Canada established Shoal Harbour Sanctuary as one of the first sanctuaries established on the Pacific Coast, to meet Canada’s obligations under the international Migratory Birds Convention. The area was chosen because it is home to bufflehead, greenwinged teal, peregrine falcons, eagles, herons and more than 30 other species of waterfowl, seabirds and shorebirds. In particular, the mudflat provides critical nocturnal habitat for the Green-winged Teal. And the lagoon is home to the rare intertidal Jaumea carnosa plant community.

Conservationists point to the incongruity of dredging and developing such a bird sanctuary. They point to a 1981 Ministry of Environment report which concluded that the Inlet was near its limit for environmentally sound foreshore development — and recommended that the existing marina operator should cooperate with governments to protect the mudflat and shallow water areas. They are calling on Council to reverse itself, and all indications are that the vote will be close.

Next Sunday, famed wildlife artist Robert Bateman and local bird experts will conduct an interpretive tour near the lagoon to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day – and to call attention to this issue. Activities begin at 11:00 AM at Lillian Hoffar Park. Contact 655-4465 for more information.

Ironically, the day after this Migratory Bird Day celebration, North Saanich Council will consider the proposal to dredge the Sanctuary’s lagoon, in order to provide 75 parking stalls for boats and yachts. Victorians who care will attend the May 16 public hearing, and tell Council that the integrity of the Shoal Harbour Bird Sanctuary should be maintained.

The point is that the natural world is not lost in one fell sweep, or by a single catastrophic decision. We lose it one little piece at a time, one lovely lagoon at a time. We lose it one Council decision at a time, as governments approve a subdivision here, a new mall there, a new marina somewhere else. And then, before you know it, the Island we love will be gone.

As William Whyte has warned us:

As far as natural spaces are concerned, the land that is saved must be saved within the next few years. Our options are expiring — we have no luxury of choice.We must look to this landscape as the last one. For us it will be.

Calvin Sandborn is Legal Director of the UVic Environmental Law Clinic (ELC). Derek Simon is an ELC student.

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