January 5, 2023
Tacoutche Tesse, the Northwest’s great ghost river — Part 5: The bleeding Heart of the Fraser
Eric Scigliano

The low-lying chain of islands and seasonal sandbars that stretches for 50 miles in the Fraser River between Mission and Hope in British Columbia provides ideal habitat for salmon, sturgeon and nearly 30 other species of fish — the largest variety anywhere on the river. (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

January 5, 2023
Tacoutche Tesse, the Northwest’s great ghost river — Part 5: The bleeding Heart of the Fraser
Eric Scigliano

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This is the fifth and final in a series of stories exploring the Fraser River and the lands, waters and people connected to it.

There’s a certain brooding beauty to the stretch of river they call the “gravel reach” or “Heart of the Fraser.” The dark Coast Mountains frame it to the north; to the south, improbable Sumas Mountain rises and the flat checkerboard Fraser Valley sprawls.

Helicopter drone footage [1:30] of the Heart of the Fraser shows a wide variety of activities along the river. (Footage captured by NERV Productions and Christopher Jenkins)

But you can’t really appreciate it unless you know what wriggles, darts and spawns in its shallows. The grandly named Heart is a low-lying, fuzzy-edged chain of islands and seasonal sandbars that stretches for 50 miles between the evocatively named towns of Mission and Hope, British Columbia.

Some are jigsaw puzzles of (barely) separate islands, and many are not named. Any mapping is provisional; they expand in autumn and winter when the river runs low, and shrink in spring when the upland snows melt and the river rises. New channels open, and one island becomes many. 

This reach is an unpromising land — and waterscape — for most human uses. But according to biologists who’ve studied it for years or decades, it’s ideal habitat for salmon, sturgeon and nearly 30 other species of fish — the largest variety anywhere on the Fraser. Some 20 million pink salmon — the largest salmon run on world’s largest salmon river — spawn along the reach every two years. So does the province’s largest population of white sturgeon — “a living dinosaur” that, at up to 19 feet, is the largest freshwater fish in North America.

Salmon and surgeon alike take advantage of the reach’s side channels and eddies, avoiding stiffer currents in the main channel that would wash away their eggs and alevin and the finer sediments of the “sandy reach” downstream, which would suffocate them. They find hiding spots and “a big smorgasbord” — in the words of fishery biologist and B.C. Institute of Technology instructor Marvin Rosenau — atop the islands themselves when they flood.

“Ocean-type Chinook love to rear on these islands,” explains Rosenau, who’s probably studied them longer and more thoroughly than anyone else. “They’re attractive because they’re shallow, a little warmer, don’t have huge currents and have a lot of insects, decaying vegetation, and algae. Zooplankton eat that and the fish eat them.”

As Mark Angelo, another fishery scientist and BCIT instructor as well as rivers chair of the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C., put it a recent documentary film, “It really is one of the most productive stretches of river on the planet.”

Heart ‘disease’

That’s earned the gravel reach that now near-universal “Heart of the Fraser” appellation. But it’s a heart with advancing coronary disease, undergoing what Rosenau calls “the largest wetland destruction in modern B.C. history.” After decades of more-or-less benign neglect, the reach’s largest islands have come into the hands of farmers and developers seeking to transform them into the sort of landscape that covers the nearby Fraser Valley.

The many large logs that wash down the Fraser are retrieved, stacked and sorted on an island upstream from Agassiz. Valuable logs will be removed and milled. Many islands’ cottonwoods have been clearcut and similarly stacked, but left to rot. (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

This year the Outdoor Recreation Council named the Fraser, in particular the Heart, the province’s most endangered river. “It’s the most delicate ecosystem of the whole 900-mile river,” said Dean Werk, an indigenous fishing guide based upriver who’s studied the Fraser’s ways for decades and taken both federal and provincial fisheries ministers out to see it.

Those islands had been managed as tree plantations, first by Scott Paper, then by Montréal-based Kruger Products, planted with cottonwood, a fast-growing, flood-tolerant native riparian tree. Then, in 2012, the Groundwood Mill that turned cottonwoods into toilet paper closed, and Kruger set out to unload the islands. In 2013 it offered to sell them to the Nature Trust of British Columbia, for what Rosenau, who tracked the dealings but didn’t participate in them, said was about $10 million. (Kruger would not discuss details, and various potential buyers did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.)

Julian Zelazny, the Nature Trust’s director of conservation land securement, who wasn’t there when the property became available, said the trust’s records show that it looked at six islands, but they did not tend to score particularly high on the algorithm it uses to evaluate properties, “which doesn’t take fish specifically into account.”

Nevertheless, “we were particularly interested in a couple of them,” said Jasper Lament, the trust’s executive director, who did take part in the negotiations. “Unfortunately, at that time the funds available to purchase lands for conservation were limited, and we were unable to raise the money.” 

So in 2015 and 2016 Kruger sold five major islands to local agricultural and development interests, for “about $2 million each” according to Rosenau, who got an inside look at real estate data. He says he’s lately heard of the new owners asking up to $30 million for one island. “It’s a massive, massive lost opportunity.” 

But maybe not a last opportunity.

Blueberries and mud boggers

Members of the Guliker clan, a prominent Fraser Valley farming family, bought Carey Island, near Chilliwack. Jake Klaassen, a member of another leading local farming family, bought most of Herrling Island, a jigsaw assemblage of islands near Agassiz and the Seabird Island Band. His firm Jake’s Construction is one of the Fraser Valley’s largest gravel operations.

Until Kruger sold the islands, the reach’s biggest environmental and fisheries concerns were gravel mining and racing, roostertailing mud boggers (an organized sport, believe it or not) who have for years torn up the fish habitat on Gill Bar, near Carey Island, with their 4WD trucks. Last July, following complaints of inaction, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) blocked vehicles from the bar. 

The owner of Strawberry Island, near Mission, appears to be Renato (Ron) Martini, president of Starline Windows, a large manufacturer operating in the United States as well as Canada. According to the B.C. Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), he is the registered director of the nameless, numbered corporation that is Strawberry’s registered owner and is also “associated with Coast Cranberries,” which grows hundreds of acres of berries around Langley. The Surrey address listed for the numbered corporation is the same as that for Starline’s headquarters and factory. 

The gravel shoreline along Herrling Island provides a spawning ground used consistently by sturgeon, which also feed in the area later in the year. (Eric Scigliano photo © 2022)

Those three islands each comprise 1,000 to 2,000 acres in a valuable agricultural region; the river’s south bank is a patchwork of blueberries, corn and other crops. The new owners promptly set about clearcutting the cottonwoods, leaving the ground bare and the logs (cottonwood is worthless as lumber) heaped by the banks, in preparation for other crops. This did not require any permits. Aside from a few protected portions, the islands are zoned “agricultural land reserve”; berries and corn are simply crops, like trees. In some spots they left no riparian buffers. In others, especially on the river side of dikes and where the soil is too swampy for planting, they left trees standing.

Those crops may be equal under the law but, as Rosenau, Watershed Watch habitat programs director Lina Azeez and consulting field biologist Mike Pearson point out, they aren’t equal in their ecological impacts. The cottonwoods stabilize the fields and banks, reducing erosion that can smother spawning grounds. They provide shade against high heat, crannies where small fry can hide from their predators, and detritus and insects to feed their prey. Rows of blueberry bushes provide little of these benefits and require diking and draining to keep floodwaters away, plus agricultural chemicals that may drain into the system 

To bridge, or not

Commercial farms and tree plantations both require heavy machinery at various times of year. But tree harvesting can be timed when the river is low and the channels relatively dry and firm; for farmers, spring planting and early harvesting come when the rising river brings flooding. (I found a dry path out to Herrling Island in November, though a wall of blackberry vines prevented a closer view.) “The smart thing is just driving across the sand bar,” said Martin Collins, policy and planning director for the Agricultural Land Commission. “But do you really want to do that with a $500,000 machine and risk getting stuck?”

So Klaassen Farms (at Herrling) and the Gulikers’ Carey Island Farms sought ALC approval for bridges to their respective islands. In May 2019 deputy minister Craig Sutherland rejected Klaassen’s application because of the risk it presented to white sturgeon in the Herrling side channel, the only consistent spawning ground where sturgeon have been shown to also feed extensively later in the year.

Furthermore, he noted, the bridge might require further instream works to protect it from flooding and bank erosion. And it would “facilitate intensive development” of the island, which would have its own impacts and might lead to armoring the banks. It’s a slippery slope when you start trying to lock down shifting riparian slopes.

In 2017 Carey Island Farms applied to build a 100-foot bridge with two in-river piers and fill in a low-lying area to accommodate one abutment. The provincial website still shows the application as “under review,” but Azeez and others believe that after five years it’s kaput: “We stopped it.”

Last year Martini’s operation, represented by a former executive director of the Agricultural Lands Commission, received ALC approval to bring around 285,000 tons of dirt to Strawberry Island and fill low-lying areas. It also announced its intent to build a three-mile ring dike about 25 feet high to keep the river from flooding the dry land thus created; dikes on private property don’t require approval, though they must meet provincial standards.

But how to get all that dirt and the machinery to spread it onto the island? The failure to get bridges permitted at Herrling and Carey didn’t bode well for a Strawberry Island bridge. But the developers found another way. 

Blocked channels and toxins

Last June, when Pearson went to sample salmon on the island he found and photographed an alarming sight: an unpermitted roadway with two causeways blocking their channels. One was already badly eroded, and the other had a narrow, perched (elevated) culvert inaccessible “at all but the highest water level.” Pearson also reported several potential toxin sources: unsecured pressure-treated logs supporting flimsy plastic silt fencing, heaps of ground-up asphalt (in contrast to the “clean fill” stipulated to the ALC), and asphalt shards and a jerry can in the water.

A culvert inaccessible to fish “at all but the highest water level” was installed as part of a causeway to Strawberry Island. (Image courtesy Marvin Rosenau)

And he netted 52 juvenile salmon, including Chinook, chum and rare river-rearing sockeye (sockeye usually rear in lakes, then head to sea), in one small area. From that sample he estimated that 30,000 fish were darting around Strawberry Island’s floodland and channels at that time.

In August, DFO inspected the work done on Strawberry Island, determined that some of it constituted “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat,” and launched a formal investigation, still ongoing. The provincial Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, which retains jurisdiction over waters while the feds regulate fisheries, is also on the case. “There is an active investigation underway on Strawberry Island,” the ministry said in an emailed response. “At this time, no further details can be shared.” Martini did not respond to requests for comment.

The price of a gravel bar

The fate of the Fraser’s Heart depends not just on government action but on the real estate market, the generosity of donors and the river’s ways. About one year ago, an unusual property appeared on the market: A small, unnamed island and two kilometers of mainland shoreline near Herrling Island, 85 acres in total. Kruger once grew cottonwood there, but sold it years before the 2013 offering. The listing touted its “stunning mountain views” and “commercial recreation potential,” and noted that “40± acres are cleared and used in crop production,” but agent Chase Westersund says he expected a conservation trust or foundation to buy it.

“The owners took a hay crop off it for a couple years, but realistically, it’s too difficult” to make a go of farming on the river, he said. “When it’s time to put seed in the ground and everything is underwater, that cuts into your access and your profit margin.”

Sure enough, in late December the B.C. Parks Foundation announced that it had bought this little microcosm of the Heart of the Fraser. The price, says Westersund, was $900,000, down from a recently listed $1 million and $1.8 million when first listed it a year ago. 

Will more salmon islands enjoy a similar fate? The Parks Foundation has more firepower; in September it received $100 million — the largest private gift for conservation in British Columbia history — from Lululemon founder Chip Wilson’s Wilson 5 Foundation. It also has a huge province with many, many beautiful sites and rich habitats begging for protection,

Andy Day, the foundation’s executive director, said the seller, who doesn’t want to be identified, is not the Klaassens, and that his group hasn’t talked with them. “But some of our partners [who include the Nature Conservancy of Canada] have been talking with them for years. We’re working in coordination with other groups, making sure we’re not getting in each other’s way,” and that owners don’t get the idea they can play one off against the other.

‘30×30’ for conservation

Once in a while, another bit of the Fraser’s Heart gets locked up for conservation — a tiny step toward the international “30×30” goal of protecting 30% of land surface by 2030, which the new provincial government signed onto last month. Since missing out when Kruger sold, the Nature Trust has purchased parts of North Nicomen and Taylor Road sloughs, just upstream from Strawberry Island, channels Pearson has called “one of the highest value fish and wildlife habitats on the lower Fraser River.”

As for the other areas, “we’ll see,” said Day. “Things come up sometimes, but it’s been a slow process. There’s not a lot of movement.” 

One thing is all but certain: though they won’t speak publicly, the other islands’ owners are watching the market as well. The hurdle, as usual, is money.

The ALC’s Martin Collins hears their complaints about not being able to develop their properties. “I said to one guy, you can always sell it to an environmental group. He said, ‘They don’t want to pay what I think it’s worth. They want to pay $1.5 million. I want $15 million’.”

Rosenau said he’s heard of owners seeking $6 or $10 million for smaller or more problematic islands, and that “one of the groups wants in the $30 million range.” He suspects they’re waiting for a Conservative Party government that would give them the permits and leverage they want.

If there are two immutable rules besides death and lust in this world, they are: The market ultimately sets the price, and nature always bats last. The question is, how much collateral damage has to happen first?

— Reported by Eric Scigliano

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