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General · 31st July 2013
stephen hume
from the Vancouver Sun July 29

Let’s call this a close encounter between the little community that could and the big government that couldn’t.

The little community is Quadra Island, about 30 minutes by ferry east of Campbell River at the north end of Georgia Strait. The big government is our provincial behemoth in Victoria.

I wrote last fall about Quadra’s efforts — led by a couple of dynamos named Susan Westren and Geraldine Kenny — to save from logging or development a stunning piece of real estate that joins two popular provincial parks in the north Georgia Basin.

Small Inlet is on the west side of Quadra. Octopus Islands, in the entrance to Waiatt Bay — favoured as a sheltered anchorage for boaters in the Discovery Islands — is on the east.

A kayak route links the two parks via a gentle 1.5-kilometre portage. The maze of channels, sheltered coves, clear waters, sandy bottoms and an abundance of marine and bird life in great variety makes the experience extraordinary in a tourism sector that is a significant economic driver for the region.

So, here’s the update: Quadra Islanders reached into their own pockets for $205,000, their district came up with another $100,000 out of their property taxes, and they convinced a parks advocacy organization to chip in another $200,000. That’s half-a-million bucks from a community that wouldn’t fill Queen Elizabeth Theatre if every living person showed up.

And here’s the depressing caveat: The community fears its efforts are about to derail while the province dithers, delays and doesn’t appear able to consummate a deal it has long agreed is in the best interests of everyone.

This process began in 1996, when the province created provincial parks at Small Inlet and Waiatt Bay — which includes the Octopus Islands, a spectacular little archipelago of about 20 islets, drying reefs and small islands. The two parks are separated by a narrow isthmus that is part of a small parcel of working forest that owners Merrill & Ring wish to either log or sell.

For 17 years, the owners — “extremely co-operative,” says Strathcona Regional District director Jim Abrams, who has been at the table since Day One — have put plans for the 395-hectare parcel on hold.

The province, on the other hand, just can’t seem to close. It urged the Quadra Islanders on in their private fundraising with assurances in late September 2012 that it had secured more than half the purchase price of $6.1 million and had signed a sales agreement for the end of that month. Then the date for closing was changed to Dec. 31. Then it was changed again to March 31. Then it was changed again to Aug. 1. And now, time is just about up, although the regional district has written to the owners pleading for another 30-day extension.

I’m told the province needs to ante up just over $2 million to get the deal done. Instead, bewildered and mystified Quadra Islanders, who have dug extraordinarily deep for this, are treated to a provincial government that seems to be missing in action. There have been promises, assurances and talk, talk, talk, but no deal — just delay, obfuscation and blather.

Let’s put this in a bit of economic context.

Nature-based tourism in B.C. is not a frill. It now employs more people and has greater value to the provincial economy than the recreational and commercial fishing sectors combined. It generates about $1.5 billion a year for 1,600 small businesses, and directly employs about 13,000 people.

For every dollar the province spends on provincial parks, the system generates $8.42 in visitor spending on food, entertainment, transportation and other goods and services. That spending generates $28 million in tax revenue alone, which returns 60 per cent of capital and operating expenditures for B.C. parks.

Those are the province’s numbers, not mine.

Meanwhile, when it comes to making you pay for the privilege of using the parks you’ve already paid for, the province is all over it. By my rough calculation, Victoria has extracted more than $100 million from the pockets of park users since 2001. Boaters have coughed up more than $2 million for the privilege of using marine parks.

So what the heck is going on in Victoria? Everybody else seems to have their act together. On this one, I’d say, the buck stops with a great big thud on Environment Minister Mary Polak’s desk.