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COVER STORY: Watershed Moment
Will Koop and Paul Hundal reunite under a canopy of majestic western red cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir trees blanketed by an early morning mist in Capilano River Regional Park last Monday.
They relish in quintessential North Shore natural splendor, knowing all too well the fragility of this second-growth forest.
To the occasional passerby, they are an odd pairing. Koop wears a multicoloured fleece jacket and casual pants, while Hundal is decked out in a dark pinstripe suit.
Many seasons have cycled through the rainforest since the tireless environmental crusaders actively spent time here, and their hair has turned grey.
In the early ’90s, the two thirty-somethings would routinely meet in a starkly contrasting environment — a sterile boardroom at the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s head office, where they would square off against bureaucrats in a deep-seated debate over logging the regional watersheds.
The GVRD, whose board of directors included all three North Shore mayors of the day, vacillated for a decade on the highly contentious issue. On the one hand, multi-million-dollar revenues generated from the logging program helped subsidize the region’s water costs.
But the GVRD also faced mounting pressure from environmental groups armed with damning evidence of destructive landslides and cloudy drinking water, and who pointed to clear-cutting as the culprit.
“Often it came down to one vote,” recalls Koop of the GVRD board of directors’ decisions around logging and watershed management. “You could cut the tension with a knife.”
The unspoiled forests of the Capilano and Seymour river valleys, teeming with 200-foot-tall conifers as far as the eye could see, were coveted by the timber industry throughout most of the last century.
In the 1920s, logging was the lifeblood of North Vancouver’s economy. The Capilano Timber Company had established a large-scale harvesting operation in the lower reaches of the Capilano River Valley and carved a railway line through the area.
At the same time, fresh drinking water was being funneled from Capilano Creek to homes and businesses downstream and across the Burrard Inlet into Vancouver.
Environmental concerns around logging activity in the Capilano watershed — including raging slash fires that routinely sent smoke billowing over the city and hydrological disturbances —prompted the provincial government to enact legislation to protect the water supply.
In 1924, provincial water rights comptroller Ernest A. Cleveland, in a lengthy report, recommended an end to logging in the 60,000-hectare watershed lands.
“I would not attempt to set a value on the watershed lands in the Coquitlam, Seymour and Capilano watersheds as they constitute an almost invaluable asset of the [Greater Vancouver Water District] permitting the complete and entire control of the purity of the water supply for all time, so that neither now nor in the future will filtration or sterilization of the water be required,” wrote Cleveland in his report.
Heeding Cleveland’s advice, in 1927, the water district obtained a 999-year lease from the provincial government for control of Crown land within the watershed areas to safeguard it from logging and mining interests — and keep it closed to the public.
By the time the Capilano Timber Company pulled out of the area in 1931, it had clear-cut 16 per cent of the 20,000-hectare Capilano watershed.
Cleveland went on to become the first chief commissioner of the water district and the namesake of North Vancouver’s iconic dam, which opened in 1954, two years after his death.
For three decades, the Capilano and Seymour watershed forests fell silent, save for the sounds of nature — a babbling creek or a spotted owl hooting from its perch in one of the remaining old-growth conifer stands.
In the spring of 1967, that tranquility was disturbed when the water district’s lease agreement with the Ministry of Forests and Lands was amended to allow logging in the watersheds once again.
Glenn Bohn, spokesperson for Metro Vancouver, formerly known as the GVRD, said the regional district undertook what was known as a sustained yield forestry program, for about three decades.
“During this period, a small percentage of timber in each watershed was harvested and sold each year, to help generate revenue for the water district,” explained Bohn. “The areas logged were replanted with tree seedlings."
To facilitate this new era of logging in the GVRD’s watersheds, close to 350 kilometres of roads were constructed through steep mountain slopes and previously undisturbed areas.
Hundal was an environmental champion, long before the water in his West Van taps ran brown after a heavy rainfall.
In the late ’80s, he was instrumental in saving a stand of old-growth trees, some as mature as 900 years, on Cypress Ridge from being torn down to make room for a golf course.
A family lawyer by profession, Hundal spent his downtime doing land title searches and discovered the property in question was protected by a covenant restricting it to recreational use.
Friends of Cypress Ridge challenged the District of West Vancouver in B.C. Supreme Court, where a judge ruled that a golf course is considered a commercial operation.
The district’s only remaining option was to hold a referendum, which was defeated by close to a 2,000-vote majority.
Then, in the spring of 1990, Hundal scored another environmental victory, this time with the Save Lynn Canyon Park Association. Prior to that point, some parcels of Lynn Canyon were not clearly defined as protected parkland.
North Vancouver district was proposing two 950-home subdivisions and accompanying road be built between Lynn Creek and the Seymour River, as part of a long-term densification strategy.
Again Hundal did some digging into the past and uncovered a provision set under Cleveland’s administration for those former water district lands: should they change hands the area will still remain a park.
“It blew me away when I found those documents,” says Hundal. “The [district] staff had simply forgotten. The corporate memory really isn’t that long.”
In November of the same year, an environmental storm was brewing in the Seymour River Valley. Close to 1,500 millimetres of rain fell in the Seymour watershed that month — 1,350 of which came down over two days.
On the second day, the heavy rains triggered a massive mudslide that originated in a clear-cut area. An avalanche of earth roared downslope towards Jamieson Creek and blew out a UBC research site before entering the Seymour River and the drinking water supply.
Rain continued to wreck havoc on the area until the spring, triggering 35 landslides, most of which were less than 2,000 cubic metres. The Jamieson Creek event, the largest landslide, had a volume of approximately 5,000 cubic metres.
UBC faculty of forestry research showed six of the landslides initiated in forest clear-cuts, while 29 occurred in old-growth or mature reforested areas.
Still, the Jamieson Creek slide was enough to spark an environmental awakening in Koop and a host of other conservationists including Hundal and North Shore-based Friends of the Watersheds.
By 1992, Koop, a B.C. Tel phone line installer, had spent countless hours sifting through old water district files at the Vancouver Archives and B.C. Archives in Victoria.
“It was pretty intense — looking at all kinds of photographs and maps and documents,” recalls Koop.
He wrote a detailed report entitled Wake Up Vancouver, which contains what Koop calls forgotten stories and controversies around logging in the watersheds from the early days of the water district. Koop distributed that report to elected politicians and gave a presentation on it to an audience of 300 people.
In 1995, he stepped up his sleuthing by trespassing in the Capilano watershed to see for himself the state of affairs inside.
“We always said it was like Vietnam — gated and barb wire,” chuckles Koop.
It was an intense “intelligence” operation: 21-hour days in the watershed, starting at 3:30 a.m., spent navigating the dark, cavernous forest replete with gangly roots and other obstacles.
On Feb. 26, 1995, Koop celebrated his birthday with another clandestine journey through the Capilano valley. After digesting what he considered to be a “poorly detailed” water district report on the effects of heavy winter rains in the watershed, Koop decided to go into the area again and document the landslides and road washouts with a camcorder.
That alarming footage was handed over to Hundal who presented it to GVRD water district representatives.
“What we were hoping they were going to say was, ‘Look at these problems,’ but instead they said, ‘Look at these people — they are lawbreakers,’” says Koop.
The tide turned eight months later, on Oct. 10 1995, when those served by the Capilano reservoir (about 1/3 of Greater Vancouver’s population) turned on their taps to see brown sediment pouring out.
It was the result of a massive landslide in the Capilano watershed that had released an estimated 40,000 cubic metres of clay, silt and forest debris into the reservoir — enough to fill 5,000 dump trucks.
According to Koop, in the days after the landslide, GVRD staff presented a map to the public that showed the slide had occurred away from any logging roads. Unsatisfied with the GVRD’s account of the event, Koop went back into the watershed once again and took pictures of the destruction.
Up until this point, Hundal hadn’t ventured into the watershed. But after observing the discrepancy between Koop’s photos and the GVRD’s map of slide, Hundal had to see for himself.
“His picture showed a completely different area, directly below a logging road. It turned out Will was right.”
The GVRD later presented a new map to the public and media that reflected Koop’s photographs.
At The Outlook’s request, Metro Vancouver researched their files dating back 20 years to shed some light on the event.
Bohn said the slide occurred in an area, adjacent to the reservoir, that was logged early on in the last century or when the dam was constructed in the 1950s.
When asked about the map mix-up, Bohn said an inadvertent error was made while transposing information from one map to the next.
“The error was quickly corrected and everyone was advised,” added Bohn. “The map error in no way had any impact on our efforts to protect drinking water supplies after the landslide occurred.”
At the time of the Capilano landslide, the water district had already started scaling back commercial logging, and a $6-million ecological inventory of the watersheds was underway.
A variety of experts were retained from various consulting firms, ranging from wildfire specialists to geotechnical experts to forest ecologists. They examined the watersheds by satellite, helicopter, vehicle and on foot.
Thousands of unstable creek and gully drainages were documented and mapped as part of that study.
“These studies confirmed that landslides in the watersheds are part of the natural dynamic of this steep and wet mountain terrain,” said Bohn.
Koop wasn’t convinced by the consultants’ findings. He expressed his views in a 1995 report this way:
“To simply state that massive amounts of rain arriving at one time disturbs the exposed reservoir banks and stream beds … is to deny the existence and dominating problems associated with roads and clear-cuts in the watersheds.”
The last logging in the watersheds took place in 1995. Four years later the GVRD board of directors passed a five-point resolution that fundamentally changed the way the watersheds were managed. Included in the new plan was a logging road deactivation program.
And after a seven-year logging moratorium it was made official in 2002 with the cancellation of the water district’s logging agreement with the Ministry of Forests and Lands.
Current City of North Vancouver Coun. Don Bell, a longtime politician, sat on the GVRD board during the height of the logging debate and was involved in many of the decisions.
“I remember the [logging] issue very well,” Bell told The Outlook last week. “When it was first raised, my recollection is that there was no immediate sense of urgency to stop it.”
Bell said the clear-cut areas weren’t visible from Vancouver. But, when he was given an aerial tour of the watersheds, the environmental implications were undeniable.
“It was shocking when you saw the patches that were clear-cut out,” recalled Bell. “I think we thought the clearing was going to be more selective. When photographs were presented, the board accepted the fact that it needed to stop.”
Scott Stuart’s Metro Vancouver work truck bounces along the dirt road traversing the west side of the Capilano watershed.
Today The Outlook has been afforded a rare opportunity to be immersed in the tranquility of the gated-off forest. A Columbia black-tailed deer with its forked antlers curiously stares at the truck as it passes the edge of the forest.
We carry on up the mountain valley until we reach the Hesketh Creek area and the base of a steep spur road that was deactivated in 2007.
Stuart, a watershed management engineering technologist, has written deactivation prescriptions for roughly half of the 350 kilometres of road in the three watersheds — a $1.3-million, 12-year project that is nearing the end of completion. There is one road left to decommission next year in the Coquitlam watershed.
Sporting a wintergreen-coloured fleece and gumboots, Stuart, on foot, heads up the old Hesketh road, now recontoured and disguised by boulders, a bed of vegetation and other organic debris.
“Given the opportunity these plants will come in and recolonize pretty quickly,” says Stuart of the resilience of nature.
He explains in great technical detail the road deactivation process.
“You come out here, and probably the first thing we do would be to walk the road,” says Stuart, pointing up the hill. “You are looking for tension cracks — lines along the road way where the fell slope has oversteepened or overloaded.”
Any watershed roads over a 75 per cent grade are cause for concern. Using excavators, a work crew rips up the road, then places excess fill slope material against the cut slope before the road is recontoured.
“We tried to prioritize the worst candidates first, and deactivation is something you do from the top of the road down,” explains Stuart.
One of last parts of the deactivation process is pulling up pipes and restoring the hydrology in the area. By throwing a rock into the cross ditch, it takes the energy out of the stream.
Reflecting on the work that’s been done, Stuart concludes deactivating the non-essential roads in the watershed is about mitigating the risk of landslide and potential impact to water quality.
“We learned it’s in our best interest to try to be proactive and deal with these risk associated with some of these roads,” says Stuart.
“Ultimately, it’s the watershed and it supplies water to half the population of the province of B.C.”
Last year Hundal and Koop met by chance in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, a 5,668-hectare area of alpine meadows and forested slopes once under siege by logging interests.
They smiled knowingly, remembering their efforts over the years to preserve this area now enjoyed by hikers, swimmers, rollerbladers and mountain bikers.
“It’s a tremendous recreation feature that people will be able to enjoy for generations,” says Hundal.