North Shore conservationists are seeing red over the loss of a stand old growth trees near Eagle Lake that were cut down in error by the District of West Vancouver to make way for an access road. They blame staff reductions for the mistake.
West Vancouver engineering cut down 69 trees in November last year to make it possible to bring in heavy equipment for the municipality’s Black Creek diversion rehabilitation project, an initiative to upgrade pipes that feed into the community’s water supply. Twelve of those trees were old growth — some upwards of 700 years old — and were thus protected under the municipality’s environmental guidelines.
Hikers on the Baden Powell Trail came across the downed giants last month and lodged a complaint. The district issued a press release about the project June 15 mentioning the error, and at a council meeting Monday, West Vancouver Coun. Trish Panz publicly apologized on behalf of the municipality.
“The district moved, regrettably, too quickly without covering off all our bases and in the process, inadvertently cut down some trees,” said Ray Fung, director of engineering and transportation. “I think what happened with this very unfortunate incident, is we failed to fully consult internally with other departments with respect to the situation that was out there.”
Staff were trying to get the work done before winter conditions set in, Fung said.
The destruction of the old growth was a “disastrous mistake,” according Marja de Jong Westman, a West Vancouver resident and biology instructor at Capilano University. There are very few trees of that age left in the world, she said, and those that remain need to be protected. Removing the trees will also threaten bank stability on Black Creek, she added.
The fact the district’s environmental management plan forbids the removal of old growth, makes the incident all the more troubling, said de Jong Westman.
“Somewhere, there’s a great gap,” she said. “This is an indication of a bigger problem within the district’s management.”
While de Jong Westman doesn’t hold councillors individually culpable, she said council as a whole is responsible for passing a budget that has enough money to pay staff with the expertise to prevent such mistakes.
“I don’t expect all my municipal members to be up on the Riparian Act . . . but they have to have somebody who is,” she said.
The district used to employ a community forester and an environmental coordinator. When the forester retired in 2010, the district shifted the job duties to senior members of the parks department, according to Jessica Delaney, director of communications. The environmental coordinator job has been vacant since September 2011 while the district does an internal review of the portfolio to determine what changes need to be made before it is refilled.
“If we had had those positions, as we had in the past, I don’t think this would have happened,” de Jong Westman said.
The incident may have strained the longstanding relationships the district has with the dozens of environmental stewardship volunteers and organizations, particularly the West Vancouver Streamkeepers and Old Growth Conservancy Society, she added. “The real concern for all of the individuals who work with environmental stewardship groups, is that with all the dialogue, this can still happen.”
In her comments at Monday’s council meeting, Panz pledged to find out how and why the trees were cut, and how it can be avoided in the future. Panz said she is still fact-finding herself.
“That’s why I called for a public accounting on Monday night. We do need to find out what went wrong. That’s my concern. From my point of view, there appears to be a complete failure of due process around working within a known old growth forest,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “The whole thing is very disturbing and distressing to me.”
There is no expected timeline for it, but Panz has asked staff to prepare a report for a future council meeting. Staff are working on that report “expeditiously,” Fung said.
Delaney also offered a statement on behalf of the district: “We recognize that there is high emotion and the community is upset. I think it’s fair that the district is upset as well. We are entirely committed to working collaboratively and interdepartmentally to make sure that the protocols are in place so that the sensitivity of an area is always fully incorporated in to the project plan,” she said.