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Local Community Efforts Protect Endangered Estuary in Iconic British Columbia Landscape

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In the heart of Eastern Vancouver Island, community members united their efforts to defend and restore a jeopardized estuary, highlighting the tangible impact of local action.

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Jenica Ng-Cornish

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Tucked away within the Canadian landscape, Eastern Vancouver Island stands as a place of natural beauty and growing concern. It’s been identified as one of the nine most vulnerable regions in Canada, boasting more biodiversity than even its counterparts in British Columbia (BC). 

The scenery is breathtaking, with the slopes of the Vancouver Island Mountain Range on the east, lush coastal Douglas-fir and Western hemlock forests, and a web of ecologically crucial estuaries that stretch toward the Salish Sea.

In these unique ecosystems, a myriad of plant, bird, mammal, amphibian, and insect species find a home – a tapestry of life that numbers in the thousands. However, alongside this abundance thrives a growing list of species on the brink of endangerment. While climate change and shifts in the environment play their roles, it’s human activity and the encroachment of habitats that are the driving forces behind the decline of these vital wildlife havens across Vancouver Island.

A prime example of this delicate balance between challenges and opportunities is the French Creek Estuary Nature Preserve (FCENP), nestled between Parksville and Qualicum Beach. Though relatively small, this estuarine gem is bursting with biological diversity, providing a haven for native plants and wildlife to flourish naturally. It’s a crucial feeding site for 35,000 to 50,000 Bald eagles migrating from Alaska to southern BC each year, and it’s also home to a strong population of resident eagles that diligently build nests to raise their young.

Now the threat of human development looms large over these vital habitats. The available space for the species that depend on these ecosystems is steadily shrinking, putting their survival and the region’s biodiversity at risk. Even before its transformation into a Nature Preserve, 18 acres of the French Creek estuary were under threat. Developing this land would have devastating consequences for the wildlife that call it home.

In response to this pressing issue, local community members took action. The Friends of French Creek Conservation Society (FFCCS) was formed in 2004, dedicated to safeguarding the French Creek Estuary. Their unwavering efforts have been a driving force in protecting the estuary’s integrity. Later, in 2018, the Save Estuary Land Society (SELS) stepped up, launching community outreach campaigns to raise awareness about the estuary’s ecological significance and the looming threat of development.

In 2020, a fundraising core group emerged, dedicated to pooling donations for the acquisition of the land. The persistent commitment of SELS, FFCCS, and other community factions eventually converged with the BC Parks Foundation, launching a crowdfunding campaign aimed at purchasing the estuary land and establishing it as a Nature Preserve.

Noteworthy contributions fueled this endeavour: French Creek House Ltd. donated over $3 million worth of land value, Age of Union Founder Dax Dasilva contributed $1 million, and the Regional District of Nanaimo chipped in $400,000 while also taking on land management responsibilities.

Over the course of the next ten weeks, a community-led campaign to raise the remaining $300,000 featured a medley of fundraisers, from local brewery events to cycling and hiking club initiatives, a bottle drive, a photo contest, broadcast emails, flyers, posters, social media buzz, and media coverage. Accompanied by presentations to local clubs and organizations, guided walking tours, and video screenings, these endeavours triggered a groundswell of donations from community members of all ages and backgrounds, including special contributions in honour of departed loved ones. 

Participants take part in NatureKids BC Oceanside outing to French Creek parkland, September 2022.

This story is more than just an account of safeguarding a delicate ecosystem; it’s a testament to the power of communities uniting for the cause of nature. 

Over the years, advocates spanning generations rallied to preserve the ecological essence of what is now the French Creek Estuary Nature Preserve. This collective effort yielded over $5 million in funds and in-kind support, securing 18 acres of estuary land to expand the existing five acres of community parkland, culminating in the creation of a dedicated nature preserve.

However, while a significant milestone has been achieved, the journey is far from complete. BC Parks Foundation and the Regional District of Nanaimo now stand as co-owners of the FCENP, having solidified a 99-year renewable lease agreement. A 10-year Management Plan is currently underway, serving as a compass for restoration endeavours and long-term strategies to uphold the preserve’s environmental values, cultural significance, and natural essence. A collaborative working group comprising representatives from Arrowsmith Naturalists, Friends of French Creek Conservation Society, Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society, Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute, Save Estuary Land Society, and the Regional District of Nanaimo is diligently contributing to its formulation.

In the interim, dedicated citizen scientists are spearheading several initiatives at the Nature Preserve to gather data and lay the groundwork for forthcoming restoration efforts. One such initiative involves volunteer teams convening every Sunday and Wednesday afternoon from May to September 2023 to conduct butterfly surveys, adhering to protocols and training provided by Dr. Scott Gilmore. Thus far, 26 volunteer surveys have been carried out, leading to remarkable discoveries. Unexpectedly, the Margined White (Pieris marginalis) made an appearance, while the exciting highlight was the spotting of the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris), a species listed as Threatened by the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and Blue-listed in British Columbia.

Victoria Beresford, an enthusiastic project participant, fondly recalls a sunny Sunday afternoon on June 18 when the team assembled at the French Creek Estuary. She recounts the thrill of observing various butterfly species, both known and unknown, capturing the adventure with her iPhone. Through her lens, the mysteries of these small beings slowly unravelled, with knowledgeable Dr. Gilmore ultimately identifying the newfound treasures.

“It turned out that we had observed a small moth, a European Skipper, and a Dun Skipper. What we didn’t realize was that the latter was actually a rare find — and rather exciting!” Beresford said.

The sense of community that has been fostered and the alliances that have blossomed during this journey are destined to endure. This story is but the opening chapter as the community embarks on a mission of ecological restoration, research, monitoring, and management. The generous outpouring of donations has infused hope and the promise of thriving biodiversity at the French Creek Estuary Nature Preserve. 

As the seasons unfold, this united effort will write the next chapters in the tale of stewardship and preservation of this remarkable natural sanctuary.

Credits

Contributions from Denise Foster, Lynne Brookes, and Barb Riordan

Photos 3 & 4: Randy Findlay

Photo 5: Deborah Freeman

Topics

  • Article
  • News
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Article written by
Jenica Ng-Cornish

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