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U.S. developers threaten B.C.'s 'tropical isle'

By Stephen Hume Oct. 7, 2000

Gormless politicians have given the go-ahead to create high-end homes on pristine Savary Island. Is Joan Sawicki listening?

SAVARY ISLAND - Surrounded by shimmering beaches of white sand, this northern Gulf Island is unique among the more than 200 fascinating outcrops of rock and arbutus scattered like tawny gems across the Strait of Georgia.

For one thing, it's on the move -- the whole emerald crescent erodes at one end and builds up with marine deposits on the other at a rate of 1.4 metres per year. At the current rate of northwest migration, Savary will collide with Hernando Island in 2,800 years or so.

For another, the shallow waters off Savary's swimming beaches are much warmer than elsewhere in the Strait and although it is only a 10-minute water taxi ride from the wet slopes of the Coast Range, it remains exceptionally dry.

So if it seems like an exotic geological accident -- the kind of place that would be more at home in the South Seas -- perhaps it's not surprising that local brochures bill Savary as "B.C.'s tropical island."

But there's trouble in paradise. An American company has purchased the last 133-hectare parcel of largely undeveloped land and has plans to subdivide it into more than 90 high-end residential lots.

Opponents say the proposed subdivision contradicts the official community plan produced by the Savary Island Committee -- the island's only democratically elected body. And they complain their interests are being undemocratically steamrollered by a pro-development Powell River regional district board on which they have no elected representatives.

"As a result its fate lies in the hands of a governing body that is more interested in generating an absentee tax base than in adhering to the wishes of the islanders," argues the Savary Island Land Trust Society.

At the heart of the issue is precisely what makes Savary unique, a remarkable area of ancient sand dunes that scientists say are fragile, rare and part of an ecosystem that demands maximum conservation protection as one of the best examples of dune ecology in Canada.

A government survey of the dunes concluded last April that "the uniqueness of the site automatically justifies classifying the area as rare and potentially threatened given potential future development." In fact, the parks report suggests, the site is probably too sensitive to support even the light recreational activity of a standard park.

Early European settlers whimsically referred to two of the dry, sandy expanses on Savary as the Kalahari and the Sahara deserts. Yet these sand dunes are partly covered by unusual old-growth forest. Some arbutus trees here are thought to date from the reign of King Ethelred the Unready, more than 1,000 years ago.

I decided to go have a look.

Liz Webster picked me up in the battered flatbed truck she salvaged from the island's recycling society and escorted me down the one-lane dirt road. We went past Lost Kitty Corner, Whalebone Point and Beach Glass Beach. Past the house pits of a long-abandoned Sliammon village and shell middens several metres deep.

Then we hiked down a well-worn trail to see what island kids have named the Magic Trees, a stand of strangely stunted Douglas firs, inestimably old and gnarled into vast, grotesque shapes by the tireless winds that fetch all the way from Seattle.

Along the path, Liz showed me some of the rare dune plant species clustered beside the trail. These dune ecosystems occur so infrequently in coastal B.C. that plant associations found on them are generally assumed to be red listed.

Further down the trail, we reached the shore and hiked along drift logs, just below a golden expanse of dune meadows that provide habitat for rare butterflies.

Liz teaches anthropology at Malaspina College when she's not on the island toiling as vice chair of the Savary Island Land Trust Society, a non-profit conservancy organization that's lobbying all and sundry for protection of the sand dunes.

Her fears seem well founded in science. An ecological study of the contentious Savary Island parcel conducted last spring by biologist Katherine Dunster offered a blunt warning:

"The fragility of the dune ecosystems is well documented," she said, "as are the environmental disasters that occur when dunes are altered by construction and development, vegetation removal, trampling and excessive recreational usage.

"Because of its ecological sensitivity to disturbance, the property should be preserved primarily because of the vital habitat it provides for a number of plant and animal species found only in sand dune environments."

The regional district, however, ignored these warnings and gave a green light to the developers. Not the first time municipal politicians have opted for "progress" over the protection of a rare ecosystem, of course.

But even the local newspaper thought it was a dumb call.

"The decision the board made was not in the public interest and does not contribute to preserving the dunes," the Powell River Peak said in an editorial. "What the decision does do is pave the way for development of a fragile and unique piece of Canadian heritage that will be lost to the winds if development takes place."

Now if only Environment Minister Joan Sawicki could muster as much spirit. Somebody please tell her to get on the phone to federal counterpart David Anderson. The irreplaceable sand dunes of Savary Island deserve to be an ecological reserve.

Let's get on with it.

shume@islandnet.com

Steven Hume's column appears weekly.