A Living Forestry Community

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As you drive up the Malahat past the Petro-Canada gas station, just a kilometre away on your left as the crow flies, is a little-known scenic piece of property known as
the Elkington estate.

Little-known because it’s been one family’s country place for more than six decades. In 1945, Oak Bay doctor Eric Elkington bought 950 acres that had been “high-graded” 15 years earlier, mostly for old-growth Douglas fir, and built a summer place on the lake in the middle of it. He died in the 1990s but his descendants continue to visit. The family has left most of the trees to grow undisturbed.

You can’t say that for most of the surrounding private forest lands near the south end of Shawnigan Lake. “Log and flog” is one description for the denuding of the landscape that has taken place this decade on the original E&N land grant.

A recent aerial photo shows the Elkington property as mostly dark green, while on three sides, it’s the paler colour of logged-off slopes, with a tracery of gravel access roads.

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“We show them that slide and everyone is right on board,” says Doug Makaroff, a Victoria planning consultant hired by the family two years ago to help steer the development process.

Land around the family property has been “really devastated in just eight years,” he says. “The only place you see trees is our property.”

Some of the cut blocks are visible from the highway, and the south Shawnigan road now winds through scalped terrain. On a drive through the area, Makaroff points to some skinny trees that remain: “It’s hard to tell the difference between what they’re taking and what they’re leaving.”  

A post-doctoral research paper from Royal Roads University’s department of sustainable community development states: “In recent years, a substantial amount of land has been sold by major forestry companies, often to small logging companies or developers, depending on the location and development potential. In a number of cases, this has led to brutal clear cuts, serious ecological damage, and unpopular developments.”

There are two other dark green pieces in the air photo, both public: the Greater Victoria watershed and the Sooke Hills wilderness park reserve, which border the Elkington property to the south.

At the 550-metre highest point of the Elkington property, you’re seven kilometres from the end of Shawnigan Lake and about
10 kilometres from the entrance to Goldstream Park.

The E&N railway and the Trans-Canada Highway are close by, and the high-voltage power lines that bring electricity down the Island to Victoria cross a corner of the Elkington land. When the last 700 metres of right of way are secured, another key corridor will touch the property’s southeast corner: the Trans-Canada Trail, linking to the Galloping Goose in Langford.

Maybe it’s the perfect place for a satellite community for several thousand people, closer to the city than Mill Bay, Bamberton, Cobble Hill, or Shawnigan? Like Bear Mountain or Westhills? But hold the images of high rises and suburban-style homes on curving cul de sacs.

For comparison, the 950-acre Elkington property is almost as big as Stanley Park in Vancouver. Elk/Beaver Lake regional park is a bit bigger. You could drop almost five Beacon Hill Parks and Butchart Gardens in there.

The park comparisons are apt, since most of the acreage is to remain green space and not be subdivided. Elkington’s descendants have enjoyed their wild forest retreat for decades, and they want to keep coming. The development plan would ensure most of it is protected under a restrictive covenant held by the Cowichan Valley Regional District and The Land Conservancy.

It won’t be park, but something more like Wildwood, the 70 acres of forest at Yellow Point that Merve Wilkinson bought in 1938 and logged continuously and sustainably ever since. It’s now managed by TLC.

Another model for what’s planned at the Elkington forest is Everwoods on Cortes Island, a 152-acre treed reserve with houses that overlooks Desolation Sound. It was initiated by singer Ann Mortifee, her brother, and three friends who bought the site in 2002 when Weyerhauser decided to sell all its Cortes timber lands. There are 25 home sites and a restrictive covenant held by TLC and the Trust for Sustainable Forestry, both based in Victoria.

Yes, trees are cut and the land is still logged, but it’s a slower, sustainable harvest: very small cut patches, narrow access roads that follow the contours, rehabilitation of wetlands, and improved uses of the small wood left after the big trees are felled.

As an example of the last, Makaroff notes the craftsman who has a business at Everwoods using the limbs of arbutus to make salad servers. Sawing timber into higher-value flooring is another small enterprise there. A total of 11 families are making a living, including someone who makes high-end wooden doors and a builder.
“We don’t think the timber companies should get out of the lumber business,” says Makaroff.

This is a “living forestry community,” a phrase you’ll hear more often in coming years, especially since the B.C. government gave the green light to removing tens of thousands of private forestlands from tree farm licences. Timber West and Western Forest Products are trying to sell thousands of acres on Vancouver Island, some of it as near as Jordan River.

If approved by the CVRD, the Elkington forest community would be the biggest on the B.C. coast, but no more than 100 homes would be built on its 1 2/3 square miles grouped into three compact locales on the southern third of the forest. Owners would buy a bare-land strata lot, bringing with it certain controls on what could be done around the house, as well as certain benefits.

“Your front door opens onto a village green, your back door opens onto 800 acres of forest,” says Makaroff.

A trailhead “hamlet” of 18 homes in the southeast corner would focus on ecotourism and the Trans-Canada Trail. Another hamlet deeper into the property has an agro-forestry theme, perhaps salal and mushroom harvesting, compatible with the existing Christmas tree farm on the B.C. Hydro right of way. The third would be a higher-end residential settlement of 45 homes on the ridge, including a 12-unit guest lodge.

The Elkington project will have design guidelines, which will include a maximum house size of 2,400 to 3,000 square feet. Buying into this idyllic scene won’t be cheap: the ridge-view hamlet home sites will be on the far side of half a million dollars. The other hamlets will feature more affordable homes.

“It’s a compromise, but it’s a good compromise,” says Jack Basey, Victoria’s former city solicitor and director of planning and now executive director of the Trust for Sustainable Forestry.  

Makaroff says the ideal solution in a perfect world would be to make it all park joining the Sooke Hills reserve, but the living forestry community benefits the family owners and the public. At least 85 per cent of the land would be protected from the ugly kind of industrial logging that surrounds it on three sides.

Forester Barry Gates, who lives at the Elkington forest and has worked for the family and for Wilkinson at Wildwood, points out that timber worth $5 million to $6 million would go into the conservation area, and, in exchange, there needs to be a benefit to the family who owns it.

He describes the plan as “trying to recruit old growth,” putting the land back to a “pre-contact forest model.” It would mean a 250-year rotation, four or five times longer than current logging practices. At the end of it, there’s still a healthy forest.