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Stream of consciousness – stewards worry over fate of Little Campbell River

As development of South Campbell Heights moves ahead, it’s vital to know what’s at stake

This feature appeared in print in Peace Arch News’ spring 2022 Indulge


A shrill call rings out from the top of a tall Douglas fir or, possibly, cedar tree. David Anderson stops for a moment to listen before quickly identifying the sound as a belonging to a pileated woodpecker.

Whether the bird is looking for a mate or telling a pair of human interlopers to get lost, he can’t say.

“I don’t speak woodpecker,” he quips as he continues along the well-worn forest path just north of A Rocha’s Brooksdale Environmental Centre in South Surrey.

As he walks, he points out holes high up in several trees, hammered out by the (at least) two species of woodpeckers that inhabit the area in their search for insects drawn by the sap. These same holes, he says, will provide ideal nesting space for other small birds in springtime.

Fifty metres or so farther along the path, the biologist and former pastor stops again, this time to address a class of high school students who are visiting for the day, learning about all that goes on at the 27-acre property, where he works and lives with his wife and four children.

Groups, like these teenagers, come to the property almost every day, with the number of weekly visitors ramping up again following a two-year lull, he notes. Pre-COVID, the farm (centre) welcomed roughly 5,000 visitors a year through field trips and open houses. It’s getting there again, he says.

Anderson chats with the students for a few minutes and moves on.

This specific area of forested land, he explains as he walks, actually borders Brooksdale and belongs either to the city of Surrey or private land owners, depending on which side of a fluorescent pink ribbon you happen to be standing.

It’s the third largest stand of intact forest in Surrey, behind only Tynehead and Bear Creek Parks, he says.

Here, woodpeckers are joined by several species of raptors – including eagles, owls and hawks – as well as heron, possums, raccoons, muskrats and “lots of” deer.

“Everything you’d expect to find in a healthy Douglas fir forest,” he says. “Everything except major predators,” such as black bears or wolves.

In this second-growth forest, just a few blocks south of Campbell Heights industrial park, the apex predators are coyotes. Their presence is fine with Anderson, because they keep the rabbit population under control which, in turn, spares the farm’s organic vegetable gardens.

Stepping out of the woods, the path leads past one of two large patches that make up three acres of regenerative farmland on the A Rocha property.

On this sunny late morning in early March, two young men are pulling red wooden hand-carts full of rich, dark compost, spreading it over the ground ahead of spring planting season. They’re student volunteers, at Brooksdale to gain practical experience to add to their resumés alongside their academic achievements.

In all, 38 types of heirloom vegetables are grown on the farm, which operates as a co-op, Anderson explains. From June through November, members can stop by and pick up bins of fresh organic produce.

Through community grants and donations, A Rocha, which enjoys charitable status, is able to provide fresh vegetables to area food banks. It also offers programs for new Canadians, many of whom have come to Surrey from largely agrarian societies and now find themselves living in apartments in the city’s north end. Visits to the property offer them access to nature as well as a glimpse into farm life in the Lower Mainland – what crops thrive here and how best to go about growing them.

Some produce is sold at a farm-gate market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, along with freshly laid eggs provided by resident hens. It’s a nice way to connect with neighbours, Anderson notes.

Rich History

When they stop in to buy carrots or kale, visitors can also learn a bit about the history of A Rocha in Canada and, specifically, its B.C. campus in South Surrey. Visitors learn, for instance, that A Rocha’s name stems from the first centre in Portugal, and that now teams work in 21 countries internationally.

Brooksdale has been home to A Rocha since 2010, after the Christian environmental stewardship organization relocated from Kingfisher Farm on 4 Avenue, where it had operated since 2003.

Completed in 1932, the property was a gift from timber baron Sam Brooks to his wife Greta – a country home that served as an equestrian property and oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

At that time, it would have been the equivalent of having a cottage at Whistler today, says Anderson.

Including a main house, coach house with stables, secondary residences, a barn and even kennels that once housed fox-hounds, Brooksdale’s five original buildings make up one of the most significant intact heritage sites in Surrey.

There are still a few massive fir trees on the property that have been dated back to the late 1700s, left standing when the area was logged out in the 1880s.

All of this makes the property popular with filmmakers who need an authentic historical setting. But one doesn’t have to look far to see that the modern world is fast encroaching.

Immediately south of the farm, traffic rushes by on busy 16 Avenue. To the west, fewer vehicles – but many of them large trucks – rumble along 192 Street. Most of them are coming and going from Campbell Heights industrial park.

Forest for the Trees

The industrial development is top of mind at the moment, following the Feb. 25 decision by Metro Vancouver to allow the City of Surrey to expand Metro’s urban containment boundary and open the door to large scale industrial development on 450 of the 615 affected acres in South Campbell Heights – land that surrounds Brooksdale and the Little Campbell River, or, Tatalu.

With the regional body’s approval, Surrey may now open up two-thirds of the forest and farmland outside the former boundary to industrial development, similar to that which currently exists north of 20 Avenue.

While the city has made a business case for the development, noting that it will create thousands of jobs, conservation groups and a wide network of stakeholders continue to voice concerns about the potential environmental impact on the rural environment.

Among the arguments made is one against the removal of trees, including significant portions of the city-owned forest to the north and west of Brooksdale Centre, currently home to many species of wildlife, including birds, insects and mammals.

One bird species that is of special concern to biologist Christy Juteau are barn owls that have found refuge in the forest after being displaced from other habitat.

The owls, which depend on open fields for hunting “are going to continue to get pushed out,” she says.

Nearby wetlands, meanwhile, are home to a number of endangered or at-risk species that also depend on upland forest habitat, particularly during migration, she notes. These include northern red-legged frogs, western toads, western painted turtles and Oregon forest snails.

During a time when governments are meant to be fighting climate change, the removal of trees will have the opposite effect, scientists argue.

“We know living forests are the biggest carbon sinks we have.”

River at Risk

For his part, Anderson is especially worried about the future use of the large parcels of land immediately south of 16 Avenue and its potential impact on both the Little Campbell River and the underlying Brookswood aquifer.

Currently used as horse pasture, the property which straddles the river is marked for development. The issue is that the fields’ sloping topography means runoff from buildings’ roofs and surrounding pavement will drain straight into the river from both sides.

“If we look at this farm 30 years from now, it could be amazing forested wetland. Put into a park, it could be an incredible legacy,” says Anderson.

“Instead, it will be massive warehouses and parking lots with storm drains (running) into the Little Campbell.”

While the runoff will mean high flows – though not necessarily of clean water – during the rainy season, it will likely have the opposite effect in the summer, fears Juteau.

The Little Campbell is fed by groundwater and the river, like the aquifer, relies on open land where rainwater can percolate through the soil in order to replenish itself.

Coho salmon, which are among several species that spawn in the river, remain upstream for two to three years before returning to the sea, and are particularly vulnerable to low water flows, she says.

“They need cold water.”

Already last summer, with the help of the DFO, 5,000 coho fry were relocated from shallow pools where they were essentially cooking in the summer heat, downstream to deeper water.

Making the runoff situation more dire, Anderson adds, is the lack of meaningful consultation so far with Semiahmoo First Nation members who make their home at the mouth of the river, on Semiahmoo Bay.

“The thing that makes me most angry … is that anything detrimental that happens on this river lands on their doorstep. Shouldn’t the people who bear the most risk, whose home is the river, who have advocated strongly for river health, have significant influence?”

Education and Effort

The Little Campbell is “the healthiest river facing the most threats,” says Anderson, summing up in one sentence the main arguments that have been made against the urban containment boundary expansion and why the river’s protection is crucial.

Where the river – which winds for 30 kilometres from its headwaters in southeast Langley to Boundary Bay – passes through the property, it provides perfect conditions for spawning.

In fact, the Little Campbell is the most productive salmon spawning stream of its size in Metro Vancouver, Anderson explains. Here, runs are made up several hundred fish, not the tens of thousands you’d find in the Adams River, for example, but they are important nonetheless.

Each fall, coho are joined by chinook, chum, steelhead and cutthroat as they fight their way 13 kilometres upstream from the Pacific to lay their eggs in a four-kilometre stretch of pristine riverbed comprised of gravel and larger cobblestones, which is right in the heart of the proposed industrial complex.

From an educational perspective, it’s an ideal location as well, says Anderson.

A short stroll downhill, along wooden boardwalks and trails, brings visitors from the farm site to the river’s edge. A foot-bridge spans the stream, offering bird’s eye views of the spawning run each September, when school children come in droves to learn about the salmon cycle firsthand.

Year-round, signboards posted near the bridge and along the boardwalk feature information and colourful images depicting the spawning process as well as outlining ongoing habitat restoration projects and explaining why these efforts are critical to the health of the river.

Seniors, school groups, service clubs, corporate groups and members of the general public are welcome to make arrangements to stop by and learn about the programs that focus on environmental stewardship. Many return and roll up their sleeves for a few hours to help out with an ongoing list of habitat restoration projects and are rewarded for their efforts at the end of the day with a farm-to-table meal.

Recently, volunteers helped remove invasive blackberry bushes between the stream and 16 Avenue, and then planted new trees to create a forest corridor.

Following last November’s flooding, a section of river bank gave way and was stabilized using willow wands and fresh plantings.

These efforts are paying off.

The Little Campbell River was brought back from the brink in the 1960s by an incredible amount of volunteer stewardship efforts by local citizens, after it was almost destroyed by gravel mining, Anderson explains.

“It’s still under significant threat, but it is better than it was.”

Among species that remain at risk are Boundary Bay chinook, which are on the edge of being labeled a species of concern.

The Salish sucker, meanwhile, lives in only 11 rivers in the world, including the Little Campbell. Until 2011, it was thought to have been wiped out after not having been seen since 1976.

And each fall, eagles and other raptors come to feast on the spawning salmon.

Again, the numbers aren’t huge, like they are at Brackendale, for example.

That’s part of the problem, says Anderson. The Little Campbell isn’t large enough to draw the attention of large conservancies. This isn’t the Fraser River or Haida Gwaii, he notes.

Local stewardship

Since the river doesn’t get national attention, local stewardship groups exist to fill that vacuum.

Together, the Little Campbell Watershed Society, Semiahmoo Fish and Game Club, Semiamoo First Nation, A Rocha and a wide network of local citizens have formed Friends of Hazelmere Campbell Valley as an umbrella group to advocate for the river and its immediate surroundings in the face of the coming development.

“It’s not the business owners we have a challenge with, it’s decision makers at the city pushing this forward. The current plan is not based on science and adequate studies,” Anderson says.

While the city maintains those studies will take place now that it’s been given the green light, Anderson wonders aloud where the incentive will be to do that.

He says the group is hoping to slow down the process so that needed impact studies can be commissioned by Surrey staff.

A Rocha’s mandate is environmental stewardship and education. “Despite what some believe, we are not environmental crusaders nor anti-development in principle,” Anderson insists.

“But we do believe, along with increasing numbers in society, that the environmental crisis we’re in means that all development should have at its forefront environmental health and actual gains, instead of simply mitigating damage. So far on this proposal, there are so many concerns, and so much loss, it’s hard to know where to start.”

What is needed, he says, is time for sound scientific studies to be done.

This would include an inventory study and impact studies of species at risk, salmon populations, threats to the Brookswood aquifer and intact forests and an investigation of likely First Nations archeological sites.

At the end of the day, beyond the science and facts and figures, what it comes down to, Anderson says, is that healthy nature is healthy for all of us.

“During COVID, during the heat dome, what did people do to stay sane? Did they go to industrial parks?

“It was the natural spaces that kept us sane: rivers, lakes, beaches, forests.

“You have to guard these spaces… and that requires a fight.”

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Brenda Anderson

About the Author: Brenda Anderson

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.
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