Langford has been scraping away its native ecosystems at a furious pace in the last year—but change may be afoot.
ON A SMALL TRIANGLE OF LAND bordered by McCallum Road, Leigh Road and the Island Highway, piles of slash line a dirt entrance road. Stumps of Garry oak, cedar and Douglas-fir trees lie upended. Bulldozer tracks criss-cross the higher areas, but when I visit on May 9 there are still unbroken areas, where mossy bedrock gives way to clusters of shooting stars, fawn lilies, and flowering camas—the traditional carbohydrate food source of Coast Salish peoples—a lily that has been cultivated for thousands of years. A patch of licorice fern just clipped by a bulldozer’s cat tracks lies exposed and spattered with upturned soil.
The undisturbed patches look like they could be from Thetis Lake Park, and in actuality, the park is just down the road. But outside of the park border, it seems every inch of the municipality of Langford is up for grabs by developers. And native species are quickly disappearing.
It’s in this few-acre parcel, named as part of the 1100/1130 McCallum Road Development, that residents of the region are mobilizing to salvage native species. When I arrive, Adam Birch and his wife Katie, with their infant daughter, are already at the site. A post on Facebook, written by Jodie Densmore, advised members of the Saanich Native Plants Restoration Group that the site had been logged but that many native species remained unmolested. “It’s heartbreaking to see the excavators plow over the camas,” she writes, “Next step is for them to scrape the top soil off so no guarantee [the plants] will be there next week.” Over 60 comments resulted from the post; one musing whether this was the last intact Garry oak meadow in Langford.
Rescuing native plants in Langford. Photograph by Kylie Buday
The McCallum site was offered for sale as part of a 50-acre land assembly by Colliers in 2019. The land was rezoned for mixed-use Employment Zone 3 in 2020 for KeyCorp Consulting Ltd, on behalf of owner Leanne Kramer. Rezoning and approval occurred even though a First Nations midden was identified on part of the property in 2000. The midden was likely near Florence Lake’s shores, which means that the upland site, where I and others harvested, was likely a camas production meadow, cultivated and maintained by First Nations for millennia.
While Katie holds their child, Adam and I teeter over the freshly plowed soil, searching for patches of intact native plants. I focus on the rocky fringes, where, using a pitchfork or a hari-hari knife, I can fulcrum entire chunks of soil off the rock, including native grasses, camas bulbs, liquorice fern, and mosses. The feeling is sickening. I am used to treading lightly in these ecosystems, not forcing 10,000 years of post-glacial accumulations of biomass off the bedrock. “I feel a bit horrible doing this,” Adam concurs. Even though we are rescuing plants that would otherwise be scraped away or buried, there’s something sacriligious about the act of stabbing down to find an intact camas bulb, then pushing its neighbouring species out of the way while the flowering top of the bulb waves tenderly above.
It’s difficult to see how this development site could become an inviting place to live or work, given its proximity to the highway. It’s even more difficult to see how identification of archaeological remains could warrant this sentence in the February 10, 2020 staff report to Langford’s Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee: “Council may wish to have a covenant registered to require a qualified archaeologist to assess the site, prior to site disturbance, and have the applicant complete the recommendations of the archeologist’s report as a condition of development.” Nowhere in the report is development not recommended. Basically, staff urge the committee to check the boxes, then continue on with the destruction.
Langford has been destroying and scraping away its native ecosystems at a furious pace in the last year, and now these remnant sites are some of the last left to develop. One need only look at the face of Skirt Mountain, where a grey rocky moonscape now looms over Costco and Millstream road. But the pace of development, which won Langford “Best City” award from Maclean’s Magazine and an economic development award, isn’t appreciated by everyone.
A new Facebook group, “Langford Voters for Change,” has gained over 1100 members in the last four months. On it, residents of the municipality complain about the breakneck pace of development, the clearcutting of forests they used to walk through, the viewscapes obliterated, the noise from blasting, the fake green astroturf Langford uses instead of living grass on boulevards, and the loss of biodiversity. The group’s aim is to “coordinate, motivate, and facilitate positive change in Langford’s policies and decision making” and to address “the deep-seated systematic problems underlying our rapid growth.”
READERS MAY BE FAMILIAR with my endless battle to naturescape my own front yard. Recently, I’ve moved on to the boulevard (Saanich issues boulevard gardening permits if you provide a drawing and a plan; in Victoria no permit is needed). Road work left the patch in front of my house bare and I’ve started a project to restore it into a native plant meadow, adding to the camas seeds I’ve been scattering for the last few years around the boulevard Garry oak tree. It’s been a long process. In February, Saanich’s contractors mistakenly reseeded the boulevard with invasive grasses, covering up over $200 in native plants and seed I had just added.
But Saanich isn’t Langford. Kristen and James Miskelly of Saanich Native Plants donated a new spring wildflower seed mix and Saanich refunded me the cost of my first flat of seedlings. I purchased another couple of flats and planted and seeded the meadow again in April.
After my visits to McCallum road, the camas, fawn lilies, shooting stars, Pacific sanicle and nodding onion I rescue also make their way into the meadow. Spring is the worst time to transplant native bulbs, but many seem to weather the trip. I also gave camas to friends, and donate more to PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ (The Blossoming Place, a native plant nursery in W̱SÁNEĆ territory).
Maleea Acker's boulevard, replanted with native plants, some from Langford.
Many know the statistics of Garry oak meadows: less than 4 percent remain in BC; many of the species within their ecosystems are red- and yellow-listed by the BC Conservation Status Rank and COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).
The Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem is also highly endangered, with less than one percent still existing in its natural state.
Langford used to contain vast swaths of both of these. Now, not so much. Many in the Langford Voters for Change group ask why there aren’t protections for these species and habitats. It’s because there is no tree protection bylaw in Langford, and because zoning is a municipal issue, not a provincial one.
Could Langford residents fight for a tree bylaw? Yes, if there was enough support. The CRD’s urban containment boundary also encompasses the entirety of Langford, meaning there is no curb to urban development within the municipality’s boundaries.
I MEET A FRIEND, Kylie Buday, at the Langford site a few days later, when I come back for more plants. She takes a picture of her daughter carefully removing an Oregon grape shrub from the rubble. Around her, the heaved meadow soil glints dry in the late afternoon light. One might ask how a species like the Garry oak (Quercus garryanus), which is red-listed, or the pink fawn lily (Erythronium revolutum), which is yellow-listed, could end up being destroyed by the thousands if they are part of an endangered ecosystem.
That’s a good question. Maybe it’s time for us to stand up for what’s left, rather than dragging the remnants all over the region and hoping they’ll survive.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which is in its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.