Hakai Magazine

aerial photo of sawmill in the Campbell River Estuary, 1989
The Campbell River estuary on Vancouver Island was an ideal location for a sawmill—but heavy industrial use took an obvious toll on the ecosystem. Photo courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River (catalog number 1245)

Old Coast, New Coast: Campbell River, British Columbia

At the Campbell River estuary, nature was evicted by the logging industry—years later, conservationists helped usher it back in.

Authored by

by Dustin Patar

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When brothers Wallace, Harper, and Jack Baikie first laid eyes on an undisturbed stretch of the Campbell River estuary, halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, they likely saw a tantalizing opportunity. It was the 1950s, the Vancouver Island logging industry was booming, and the brothers—who already owned a logging company—were in search of a site to set up their own lumber mill. As they scanned the property, they may have appreciated a stately great blue heron fishing from a rock, the puff of a seal’s exhalation, or the flick of a salmon’s tail. But nature wouldn’t make them money. Not unless it was in the form of trees—felled, planed, and shipped away to lumberyards.

The site had a critical component for the Baikie brothers’ mill: water. The most efficient way of transporting logs was to float them down rivers and across the salt water. Rivers all over the island had become timber highways, and bays and estuaries were the timber parking lots, where logs awaited processing. Despite the ideal location and the brothers’ early success once their mill was built, they sold the property in the early 1960s.

Other owners completed the site’s industrial transformation. They expanded the mill, dredged a pond, and cut a channel into the land that connected a peninsula (speciously named Baikie “Island”) to make it easier for large log booms to pass. The industry boomed, and the mill prospered—as did the city of Campbell River, which grew to the third largest on the island—but the heavy industrial use took a toll on the estuary.

At one point, the Campbell River was one of the most important chinook salmon-producing rivers in the Strait of Georgia. By 1993, the chinook run had fallen to as few as 219 fish, down from 8,000 in 1965. The salmon had been hit by a one-two whammy: hydroelectric projects farther up the river had reduced spawning areas by 80 percent and the estuary itself had become a muddy mess, littered with industrial gravel and wood debris. The damage to the estuary effectively eliminated a crucial stopover area for incoming adult salmon seeking rest before heading to spawning grounds and for outbound juvenile salmon in need of shelter before heading out to sea.

The logging industry eventually cooled, and 1998 marked the end of the era of sawmills at the property. Once again, ambitious people looked at the site and saw opportunity—this time to restore the estuary to its preindustrial grandeur. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) purchased the land, and after years of extensive planning, began the exhaustive work of reverse engineering an ecosystem. Workers carved out two new backchannels to aid water flow; constructed a marsh to expand crucial salmon habitat; hauled away and replaced contaminated soil; and planted native flora, from salmonberry bushes to western red cedar trees.

BEFORE: By 1989, this swath of the Campbell River estuary had been an industrial site for more than 35 years. Photo courtesy of the Museum at Campbell River (catalog number 1245)
AFTER: Years of extensive restoration work returned this site in the Campbell River estuary back to a more natural state. Today it is part of the Baikie Island Nature Reserve. Photo by Will McInnes

While work was underway, the NCC, the City of Campbell River, and the Tula Foundation* partnered to purchase an adjacent property and expand the restoration effort. The additional land came with its own unique challenges—the most significant was unearthing a small side creek that had been rerouted through a culvert and buried.

In 2011, workers completed the final touches, including enhancements to interior riparian areas of Baikie Island and the planting of even more bushes and trees throughout the property. Finally, on September 30, 2012—World Rivers Day—the 19-hectare Baikie Island Nature Reserve officially opened to the public.

As part of the original NCC plan, the land was gifted to the City of Campbell River, which celebrates the project as an overwhelming success story. The muddy, timber-strewn land has been transformed into a home for over 5,000 native plants. The air once pummeled by the sound of heavy machinery is now brimming with the songs of birds, and the formerly barren waterways of that part of the estuary are again host to a variety of marine species, including the beleaguered chinook salmon.

Versions of the Baikie Island Nature Reserve story are playing out in communities around North America, as locals come to recognize the potential in damaged sites. Estuaries are touted as some of the most productive and important coastal ecosystems—linked to biodiversity, food security, economy, water quality, storm protection, and recreation. In Courtenay, just 60 kilometers south of Campbell River, conservationists drew inspiration from the Baikie Island project and are now working on returning one of their own industrialized spaces back to its former glory.

Today, the Campbell River estuary likely looks very similar to what Wallace, Harper, and Jack Baikie first glimpsed roughly 70 years ago. Although the allure of the site for a mill has long since passed, the nature reserve named after the brothers honors the area’s industrial roots while also acknowledging that there is growth beyond them.

* The Hakai Institute and Hakai Magazine are both part of the Tula Foundation. The magazine is editorially independent of the institute and foundation.