The application for a bridge-building permit to access Herrling Island in the Fraser River has been denied by the province.
At least one group advocating the protection of valuable fish habitat between Chilliwack and Hope is celebrating the decision.
“This is a major milestone on the road to protecting these important islands in the Heart of the Fraser,” said Lina Azeez, Connected Waters campaign manager for Watershed Watch Salmon Society.
Azeez offered “a huge thanks” to the thousands who signed a petition, wrote letters or shared posts to ensure the powers that be understand that “British Columbians want critical salmon habitat protected.”
In the rationale for turning down the Crown land application, the statutory decision-maker for the province invoked the need for the precautionary principle to protect prime sturgeon habitat in the area known as the gravel reach.
“In assessing the potential impacts, I believe it is in the public interest for me to take a precautionary approach,” wrote Craig Sutherland, assistant deputy minister, Coast Area Operations, in his reasons for decision.
Although the applicant, Klaassen Farms, tried to mitigate the potential impacts of building a bridge to the river island for agricultural purposes, “the information provided has not adequately satisfied the concerns raised,” Sutherland wrote.
“Given the available information, I remain unconvinced that the proposed disposition and use of Crown land would not cause adverse impacts to sturgeon spawning habitat, whether directly or as a result of cumulative impacts.”
Azeez said they collected more than 8,000 online signatures at heartofthefraser.ca, and 100s of letters urging provincial officials to deny the application. They were sent to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, which is responsible for the stewardship of provincial Crown land and natural resources, and for the protection of B.C.’s archaeological and heritage resources.
“We are really encouraged by the thought process and very clear reasons offered for the decision to deny,” said Azeez. “We hope a similar process will be used for the Carey Island application as well.”
According to the Sutherland decision, studies have shown that the Herrling side channel is “the only site that has shown consistent use for spawning,” he noted, which is also used for summer to late fall feeding habitat, “and is therefore an important limiting habitat.
“My assessment that it is important to protect the environmental values of this area is reinforced by the fact that the People of the River Referrals Office, on behalf of eleven Sto:lo communities, have given notice that they reject the bridge application based on substantial potential impacts to sensitive aquatic habitats which Sto:lo communities have traditionally depended on to exercise their asserted rights.”
If not permitted to build a bridge to the islands in the Fraser River, the owners may eventually want to sell, Azeez reasoned.
“That might open up the possibility of purchasing the land for protection,” Azeez said.
Klaassen Farms Ltd. (Klaassen) submitted a Crown land application for a permanent bridge which would connect the north end of Halvorson Road to Klaassen’s private lands on the north side of the Fraser River Herrling side channel. The bridge would facilitate year round access for to intensive agricultural crops of blueberries, corn, and forage, according to online documents.
The large islands were rezoned in 2016 and clearcut in preparation for agriculture crops like corn and blueberries.
“The events that have unfolded along the Heart of the Fraser the past two years have been tragic,” said Mark Angelo, ORC Rivers Chair and river advocate, at the time. The developers had applied to build bridges over the river to Herrling and Carey Islands which would “further compound” the damage done by clearcutting to the water’s edge, Angelo stated. ORC reps strongly recommended the bridges not be approved, as did B.C. Wildlife Federation and Watershed Watch Salmon Society.