Hundreds of Port Alberni residents gathered on top of the hump near Loon Lake Main on Sunday morning to protest the recent road closures to forest lands around the Alberni Valley.
It was, as Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser put it, a moment of “unity.”
Fraser organized the event with CHEK News.
Fraser wanted to get the message out to the provincial government that there isn’t enough legislation for the Valley’s forest lands, which allows private organizations like Island Timberlands to close roads to the public.
The protest spread largely through word of mouth, with most people learning about it through texts, emails or posts on Facebook. Even Fraser was surprised by the turnout.
“I was expecting maybe 25 people,” he laughed.
Cars were lined up and down Highway 4 for a kilometre on either side. People travelled from as far as Victoria to attend.
“I got wind that it had gone kind of viral,” said Fraser. “I had no idea. I was going to get news on this, but not like this,” he said. “This is way better.”
Fraser had contacted the Port Alberni RCMP ahead of time to inform them that there might be excess traffic on the hump, and the RCMP did a drive by at the start of the event.
Shortly before the rally was scheduled to begin, Fraser and the CHEK News team were delayed by a motor vehicle accident near Cameron Lake that closed Highway 4 in both directions for about an hour.
“A lot of people in the lineup were people coming here,” Fraser said.
Judy Carlson, a Port Alberni resident, said, “It’s meant to publicize the fact that there’s no legislation. There are a lot of people concerned. More and more gates have been appearing. The roads used to be open all week long, now they’re weekends only, restricted hours. There’s no certainty of anything.”
“This issue has been going on for a while,” said resident Sarah Thomas. “You have to go through private lands in order to access provincial lands. The legislation is not strong enough to protect access.”
“There’s very little provincial legislation,” agreed Carlson. “It doesn’t protect wildlife or our watershed. It certainly doesn’t even mention recreation.”
A Tree Farm License previously allowed open access to these lands, but in 2004, the provincial government privatized parts of crown land, and private companies have been allowed to steadily restrict access.
“This is about so much more than just gates being put up,” said Fraser. “It’s about a government that’s derelict in their duty.”
“This is our backyard,” said Cherry Creek resident Phyllis Francoeur. “Part of it is not, we know that, but part of it is.”
She said that she recognizes vandalism is a cause for Island Timberlands putting their gates up, and urges campground visitors to clean up after themselves.
“The majority of us want to enjoy our natural resources, and they’re making it tough for everybody else.”
Len Cherry, president of the Alberni Valley Hill Climber Club, was frustrated by the fact that provincial lands are no longer accessible. “We have the oldest provincial park in B.C. and the largest on the Island,” he said, referring to Strathcona Park. “And you can’t access it without getting through their property.
“Our hiking trails, our lakes and streams are no longer accessible,” he went on. “The roads are supposed to remain public access.”
He said he has no problem with Island Timberlands closing the gates while they are working. “But when they’re out of the area, let us back in. If you happen to be on the wrong side, your vehicle gets locked in.”
He gestured towards the crowd of hundreds. “This is a pretty good idea of how the people of Port Alberni feel.”
Port Alberni city councillor Chris Alemany emphasized from a city standpoint that the city can’t do anything about the blocked roads. “This is something the province has to fix,” he said.
He noted that he frequently goes up to Cameron Main with his family to go sledding, but recently found himself locked out. “I’ve never seen that gate closed ever in my entire life.
“We can’t diversify the economy if people are being locked out from their economy.”
Alemany also expressed concern regarding the community’s watershed, which is located behind one of these locked gates near Island Timberlands operations.
Fraser agreed that this is a provincial issue.
“I know you’re angry, but we don’t take it out on Island Timberlands employees,” he told the crowd. “The responsibility for this mess, the restricted access to the lands we’ve always used, rests with this government.”
“This is an issue created by the Liberal government,” he explained later. “They pulled the public tree farm license, Minister de Jong gave it to Weyerhauser for free. All to the detriment of the people of the Alberni Valley.”
Fraser noted that one of the stipulations of this “giveaway” was that the public is supposed to retain access to these roads and access points. Lately, this has not been allowed to happen.
A petition that started online campaigning for Island Timberlands and the provincial government to keep the gates open garnered more than 5,000 signatures. Fraser presented the petition to legislature on Monday.