Savary Island Land Trust Society
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Savary Islanders Act to Protect Dune Ecology

Georgia Strait  November 2002
By Andrew Scott
Savary Island’s peaceful beaches are among the best in the province.
(Andrew Scott photo.)
Andrew Scott

On paper, Savary Island's vital statistics sound brutal. This narrow, overgrown sandbar is only 450 hectares in size yet is divided into 1,710 legal parcels of land. About 500 of these lots have buildings on them. Savary is not served by BC Hydro or BC Ferries. There are no parks and few community facilities. Roads are rough, building regulations are nonexistent, and everyone relies on wells and septic fields. Why, you might ask, would anybody be attracted to such a congested, anarchistic place?

There, I've tried to scare you off. Several homeowners have warned me not to wax too enthusiastic about their hideaway. So, yes, eight-kilometre-long Savary is ridiculously oversubdivided. With fragile dunes, eroding cliffs, and hordes of summer visitors, it could be an ecodisaster in the making. But Savary is also ringed by some of the province's best beaches. Its aquamarine waters are warm and clear. Its rustic, peaceful atmosphere, only 140 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, is hard to resist.

Plain folk reach B.C.'s most unusual island by water taxi from the small Malaspina Peninsula community of Lund. But on Friday evenings in summer, Savary also sports a "daddy" plane. The chartered Twin Otter lands about 6:30 p.m., saunters to shore, makes a graceful spin and backs up to the beach. A sizable, dog-loving crowd gathers to welcome 14 shorts-clad daddies as they emerge barefoot and form a human chain to unload the baggage.

Soon everyone disperses to their recreational abodes. There are tarpaper shacks and freeform structures of recycled and salvaged materials. There are tidy 90-year-old cottages built from island fir. Some landowners have constructed dream homes, including a fort with palisades and battlements, a fretwork-festooned Victorian folly, a $3-million mansion with jade-green roof tiles, and a gothic fantasy complete with turrets, leaded-glass windows, and a ghost imported by invitation from Scotland (where its former residence had been torn down). About 70 people—10 percent of the summer population—live here year-round.

Although private vehicles are on the increase, residents still get around on island taxis: flatbed trucks that roll all day from one end of Savary to the other. Most properties are on the east side of the island, within walking distance of the government dock. A well-established community also occupies Indian Point at the western tip. The best beachfronts, of course—including Dough Row, where some of Vancouver's oldest, wealthiest families have built Shaughnessy-style summer places—are lined with homes. In the more sparsely inhabited interior, sandy tracks wind through a dim forest of gigantic arbutus trees and second-growth Douglas fir.

Savary's sheer number of lots, which resulted from a 1910 get-rich-quick subdivision scheme that showed no regard for the island's natural topography or its limited water resources, worries people. The tiny parcels were originally sold at the Pacific National Exhibition and through newspaper ads, often sight unseen, for $10 down and $10 a month. They were passed along from generation to generation, and today many are still unseen by their owners. What would happen, many islanders wonder, if a few hundred more of those 1,200 empty lots were developed?

In 1995, the Bellingham, Washington-based Trillium Corporation, owner of the only remaining large intact piece of island property, applied to subdivide its land. This block, known as District Lot 1375, occupied the central third of Savary and harboured some extraordinary natural features, evidence of the island's origins as a glacial moraine. The ancient sand dunes, which preserve wind-carved patterns that are thousands of years old, are of great scientific interest, as are the groves of red cedar and shore pine, the twisted Pacific yews, and the rare plant communities of gumweed, red fescue, and northern wormwood.

Despite the overwhelming opposition of island residents, the Powell River Regional District enthusiastically endorsed the Trillium plan, which would have increased tax revenues for the district. The Savary Island Land Trust Society (www.silt.ca/) was founded in 1997 to try to save the Trillium lands, described by biologist Kathy Dunster as the best example of a coastal-dune ecosystem in Canada and home to many endangered plant and animal species. The same year, islanders began the difficult task of collaborating on an official community plan.

That plan still hasn't seen light yet, but after five years of hard work and lobbying, SILT's efforts have paid an enormous dividend. On April 3 of this year, the Nature Trust of British Columbia, the province, and Environment Canada announced the acquisition of a 50-percent interest in the Trillium lands and some other Savary properties. This $4.5-million deal, one of the greatest conservation coups in recent B.C. history, is designed to protect a total of 147 hectares of delicate dune land—one-third of the island—as an ecological reserve.

The unheralded purchase does not guarantee Savary's future. The island was reaching "critical development thresholds" back in 1998, according to a Planistics Consulting study, and there are still those 1,200 empty lots. But it gives local preservationists a substantial foundation to build on. To date, six smaller lots, including one four-hectare holding, have also been donated to SILT. With any luck, Savary's independent-minded residents will manage to save their island paradise for their descendants to enjoy.