Comox Valley partnership hopes to turn old sawmill site into Chinook salmon habitat

A group on Vancouver Island is hoping to realize its dream of turning an old abandoned sawmill near downtown Courtenay, B.C., back into its original form — an estuary for the Courtenay River.

The project is a partnership between the environmental group, Project Watershed, and the K’omoks First Nation.

Tim Ennis, with Project Watershed, says the estuary lands, which contain the tidal mouth of a river, were originally used as a cemetery by First Nations before settlers installed a vegetable and fruit cannery in the early 1900s.

“Somewhere around 1949, that use changed and it became an industrial sawmill that was owned and operated by a local family and it was called Field Sawmill,” Ennis said. “It was the largest employer in the valley.”

The sawmill was eventually acquired by Interfor, a forestry company, which shut down operations in 2008. 

Ennis said the company has removed all of the sawmill infrastructure and cleaned the soils of the toxins that had accumulated over its industrial life, and put the piece of land back on the market.  

“So it’s been a vacant concrete covered plot for over a decade just right down in the middle of Courtenay, right in the estuary,” he said. 

Holbrook and Ennis stand on the site of the old sawmill, next to an estuary of the Courtenay River. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

The group has an agreement with Interfor to buy the land, although they still need to raise $1 million by June to finalize the purchase. 

“This is one of the most visible pieces of real estate in the Comox Valley and unfortunately at this stage, quite an eyesore,” Ennis said. 

“I think a lot of the people that support this project have been driving past this barren industrial site for a decade going, ‘When are they going to do something about that property?’ and they is us, and now is the time.”

And the group has big plans. 

Once they crush and remove the concrete pads and remnant buildings, the land will be re-contoured at the correct elevations with the tides. The land will be dressed with top soil, and then seeded with plant life from the same area.

“Estuaries are one of the most productive ecosystems on planet Earth,” Ennis said. 

Chinook salmon are a key species in the Salish Sea and the primary food source for the area’s iconic southern resident orcas. (Robin Loznak/The News-Review via Associated Press)

Of particular importance is how the estuary could become an important juvenile nursery site for Chinook salmon, a key species in the Salish Sea and a primary food source for the area’s iconic southern resident orcas.

“When [Chinook salmon] are born in the river, they come out to the estuary and they feed in the estuary much longer than other species do. They bulk up, get healthy and strong before going out the sea,” Ennis said. 

But it’s not just salmon. The rehabilitated site will be important for migratory water fowl, bats, owls, and a wide array of estuary plants, among other species.

Caila Holbrook, also with Project Watershed, said she hopes the project will be a great example of habitat restoration. 

“Nature can return. We can bring the habitat back and how much that improves not only the area, but other things, too, like flood mitigation [and] education opportunities,” she said.

“I think it’s a really great thing for our community.”

Listen to the segment on All Points West here:

There is a chunk of land along the Courtenay River on Vancouver Island, which used to be a sawmill. Now, it sits empty. A group called Project Watershed has big plans: to buy it, and return it to nature. All Points West host Kathryn Marlow met up with Project Watershed’s Caila Holbrook and Tim Ennis. 8:10

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