Julian Anderson and Cuthbert Holmes Park
AN IMPORTANT FACET OF ANY SUSTAINABLE CITY is its green spaces—providing opportunity for residents to step off a city bus and walk into wild areas to enjoy the ecosystems that make a region what it is. On Southern Vancouver Island, that includes salmon-bearing streams, Douglas-fir forests, wetlands, and habitat for a variety of bird and mammal species. Saanich’s Cuthbert Holmes Park, though sandwiched between a suburban mall, a residential neighbourhood and the Island Highway, satisfies all of these needs. But throughout its lifespan it has been both helped by its stewards and troubled by development.
Julian Anderson, who directs the Friends of Cuthbert Holmes Park (FCHP), acts as main steward of the park. He made up the organization on the spot when asked to join the Gorge Waterway Initiative years ago. “Everyone else was part of a group already,” he explains, smiling, so he said he was part of the Friends of Cuthbert Holmes Park, which, at the time, didn’t yet exist.
Julian Anderson (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
Anderson’s invention of the organization, which shares its reports and findings with Saanich, was fortuitous. Anderson began a Restoration of Natural Systems diploma program in 2002 through the University of Victoria. Whenever he had a course project to complete, he used Cuthbert Holmes as the site location. Now, FCHP works in collaboration with Pulling Together, a Saanich invasive species removal program, and Anderson hosts work parties to plant native species, remove invasives, and generally care for the park’s ecosystems. Anderson and other volunteers have cleared large areas of the park, exposing native plants and stopping species like English ivy from smothering trees.
Cuthbert Holmes is also home to a portion of the Colquitz River, one of the region’s primary Coho salmon spawning waterways. The park’s paths wind through forests, over two bridges, and out to a point where the Gorge waterway meanders past residential backyards. A fish-counting fence on the Colquitz helps keep track of returning salmon each year (see Focus’ October 2015 edition for Dorothy Chambers’ salmon work). Nootka roses and fawn lilies bloom in hidden corners of the park in spring.
Anderson is no stranger to the area. He grew up beside the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club, in one of several houses along the Gorge that have since been demolished. “In those days, we’d get kicked out of the house [in the morning], and come back for dinner,” he tells me at a coffee shop in Tillicum. Roving around the neighbourhood as a boy, he learned the local animals and plants. After starting FCHP he found himself directing volunteers and often serving as nature interpreter for school and volunteer groups that visited the park.
Saanich was all too happy to see someone take a long-term interest in Cuthbert Holmes, and collaboration with the municipality is something for which he’s also thankful. Saanich’s invasive species management program and their openness to volunteers working in Saanich parks makes them “the envy of the entire south Island region,” Anderson says.
As an example, Saanich’s management of the ferociously invasive species Japanese knotweed has been relatively successful in comparison to the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s. On the Cowichan River, whole areas of streamside native habitat have been supplanted in the last five years by a monotonous sea of knotweed. Knotweed decimates biodiversity and grows through concrete, so Saanich has taken a proactive stance, working to eliminate every new infestation, whether on private or public property. Luckily, none has yet been found in Cuthbert Holmes.
Anderson’s primary focus these days concerns a new (but familiar) chapter for the park’s borders, as the Ministry of Highways completes an interchange on the Island Highway at McKenzie Avenue. In 2016, the Ministry of Highways vetoed Saanich’s decision to reject a cloverleaf design for the intersection. The ministry used 1.4 hectares of the park, including an area with mature Garry oak trees and a stand of rare Oregon ash and trembling aspen, for the cloverleaf. Some of the land was replaced with Ministry of Highways land alongside the TransCanada, but Anderson argued that infringement into the park was unjustified. Additionally, a constructed berm along the park’s edge will be planted with cultivated grasses and groupings of trees. Recommendations by an ecologist to leave the berm “rough and loose” to allow for gradual growth of native species was rejected. “We’re an impatient species,” rues Anderson.
It’s been proven that enlarging highways increases dependence on single-vehicle travel. More cars move in to fill the new space. The noise pollution from commuting vehicles is already extreme in Cuthbert Holmes. But “there’s no sound fencing planned next to the cloverleaf right now,” laments Anderson.
The park’s history can be more easily understood, Anderson explains, through aerial photos of the land. Perusing his series of air photos of Cuthbert Holmes park from 1928 to the present is a sobering experience. Anderson describes the changes he’s documented as we leaf through the decades. The earliest, at 1928, shows tracts of farmland stretching out from the park’s original, larger borders; there is no housing to be seen. The neighbourhoods of Burnside, Gorge and Tillicum mostly haven’t yet been built. Then the island highway bisects Saanich in 1956. Greenspace that makes up the park continually shrinks, as development chips away at its edges. A drive-in movie theatre replaces a field, then Tillicum Mall replaces the theatre. Pearkes Recreation Centre lops off a forested edge; its parking lot takes over a further swath. Then in the 1990s, the Silver City movie theatre replaces another edge. As the decades tick by, the wide swath of fields and wetlands surrounding the s-curve of the Colquitz River slowly shrinks.
Changes in the park’s boundaries have also affected its species. “I used to walk by the drive-in on my way to school,” Anderson tells me. “There were choruses of frogs” near where the Tillicum Mall parking lot now stands. “You don’t hear that anymore. That’s an incremental change.” Salmon, he points out, are resilient creatures, but “they handle change until they can’t anymore. They’ll reach a limit, too.”
One of Anderson’s primary hopes for the park is that people step forward who can eventually act as his successors. Anderson is nowhere near burnout, but he recognizes that, as an introvert, the education portion of environmental stewardship is a challenge. “If I disappear, I want this to carry on.” This desire for a succeeding generation of knowledge-keepers is a common refrain among environmental stewards in the region; most of those I have spoken with in the last three years voice concerns about what will happen to their carefully stewarded ecosystems in future decades.
Cuthbert Holmes is no exception. Two-thirds of the park belong to the Province, and is currently leased by Saanich. It’s hard to say what decisions future governments will make about an urban park beside a highway, even if it does nurture great-horned owls, nesting herons and other at-risk species. The park hosted the largest great blue heron rookery on the island until 2010. Anderson hopes they will return. “I want future generations to go into the park and see the same things I’m seeing. This is a salmon-bearing river in the middle of an urban area,” he pauses to let that amazing fact sink in.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.