The 150-year legacy of the E&N Railway Land Grant still echoes across southeastern Vancouver Island. This transfer of over 2 million acres of unceded Indigenous land to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir is the origin of many land use conflicts on Vancouver Island. But it is also the back story for one community’s journey to restore the commons.
The Cumberland Community Forest Society (CCFS) has been purchasing and protecting privately owned forests scheduled for logging near the Village of Cumberland since 2000. Guided by the belief that this forest is now worth more to the community as an intact forested watershed than as timber, the CCFS is supported by individuals, families, and businesses from across the Comox Valley and beyond. Purchased lands are protected in perpetuity for the conservation of biological diversity and watershed protection by a Section 219 conservation covenant (Land Act).
It was a project that no one thought would succeed back in 2000. How could plant sales and trivia nights buy back forest from a massive multinational timber company? How could a village of 2600 people meet a price tag set by a Goliath company and return a forest to the people? But the project caught the imagination of the community. It offered a tangible, doable solution to a very difficult problem: community control of the land base around us. Innovative community fundraising and generous local donors who took a risk on a wild idea made the impossible possible. With successful purchases in 2005 and 2016 totalling over 110 hectares (270 acres) for over $2,000,000, the society is closing in on another major purchase in the next year of 91.3 hectares (226 acres) in the Perseverance Creek watershed.
The Perseverance Creek watershed flows into Comox Lake, which supplies drinking water to 45,000 people in Comox and Courtenay via the Comox Lake Drinking Water System. The upcoming purchase effort is part of a plan that will ultimately protect the entire riparian corridor of Perseverance Creek from Allen Lake to Comox Lake. The initiative is called Project Perseverance.
The CCFS and partners are stitching together a fragmented landscape into one of connected and protected lands
Because of the watershed-scale protection this project offers, Project Perseverance is drawing the attention of the wider Comox Valley. It has the potential to make a meaningful impact on the significant management challenges that exist in the Comox Lake Watershed. The CCFS, Village of Cumberland, and community partners are stitching together a fragmented landscape into one of connected and protected lands set aside for drinking water protection, habitat connectivity, climate resilience, and quality of life.
Drinking water protection IS climate resilience. Project Perseverance will help protect and restore local watershed systems to mitigate impacts to drinking water from increasing winter weather events, retain water and slow water release during drought conditions, and provide ecosystem services for the region through supporting the quality and sustainability of drinking water resources.
The project also benefits at-risk ecosystems. The Perseverance Watershed is an important link in an extensive habitat corridor that connects mountains and lakes to the Salish Sea. The area is part of an interconnected system of forests, salmon-bearing creeks, wetlands, and riparian areas and is home to at risk species including little brown myotis and Townsend’s big-eared bats, Roosevelt elk, Western screech-owl, and Red-legged frogs.
The adjacency of Project Perseverance to existing protected areas also makes it a valuable conservation priority. Concurrent regional efforts to protect lands around Comox Lake, Maple Lake, in the Morrison Headwaters, and down the Puntledge River to the Courtenay Estuary make this project a significant contribution to a landscape-scale conservation vision in the region.
The Cumberland Community Forest Society takes a creative approach to land protection. They weave their conservation efforts into local and regional art, heritage, science, and sport initiatives. They partner with major trail races, run citizen research projects and community science pubs, facilitate children’s theatre programs, and engage with regional conservation collaborations. They approach land conservation as a challenge and a celebration and attract supporters through making the seemingly impossible, possible. The idea of restoring the commons resonates. The theme of collective responsibility offers meaning and connection for residents and visitors alike.
Today the community is rapidly evolving and changing, like so many Salish Sea communities
Over the years, the forests around Cumberland have given a great deal to our community. The Village of Cumberland was built on logging and mining and the Cumberland Forest was a base for both. Today the community is rapidly evolving and changing, like so many Salish Sea communities. These growing pains are assuaged by an incredible spirit of community that revolves around the forest landscape. It holds long-time residents to this place and welcomes new folks to join a community that cares about the natural world around them.
The Project Perseverance fundraising campaign recently hit the 50% mark on a $2.6 million purchase. With full matching funds in place the CCFS is working hard to close on this deal and reaching out to donors and funders across BC and Canada. Their robust monthly donor program provides a foundation of other fundraising efforts, with donors from across BC. To find out how you can be part of this conservation community, visit www.cumberlandforest.com.
Project Perseverance is in the traditional territory of the K’ómoks Nation. The CCFS gives thanks and appreciation to be guests on this land. Gilakas’la / čɛčɛ haθɛč.
Meaghan Cursons is executive director of the Cumberland Community Forest Society