‘It’s better than Disneyland’: Local environmentalists unite to protect Harewood Plains

One of B.C.’s rarest ecosystems is slated to become a subdivision. Local environmentalists say it’s ‘too precious to potentially lose.’
Wetland ecologist Scott Black at Harewood Plains
Wetland ecologist Scott Black says he would like to see vernal pools and seeps officially recognized and protected. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

When botanist and plant ecologist Scott Black moved to Nanaimo from Burnaby in 2019, one of the first things he asked people he met was, “Where can I find some cool plants?”

Again and again, he was directed south of town, east of Harewood Mines Road, to a little-known wild patch of land known as the Harewood Plains. Unfenced, bordered by two abandoned roads, dotted with informal trails and with virtually no signage, it’s easy to overlook or not be aware of the area’s significance.

For much of the year, Harewood Plains is a somewhat unassuming, intact Garry oak ecosystem with mossy bluffs, stands of Douglas fir and open shallow soil meadows spread out over bedrock. 

However when the spring rains come the area transforms, erupting in colourful fields of flowers and plants —  monkey flower, Columbia lily, fairy slipper orchid, elegant rein orchid, ghost flower, Howell’s violet, shooting star and pink sea blush, among others.

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When renowned ethnobotanist Nancy Turner walked the Plains in the spring of 2020 with Snuneymuxw Elder Xulsimalt (Gary Manson) and their friend Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa, she said the large fields of blue camas, Speenhw in Hul’q’umi’num’, suggested traditional cultivation of camas bulbs in the area, a valuable food source.

Many of the species that grow there are rare, and for some, the highly unique presence of vernal (or “spring”) pools and seeps means the Harewood Plains is only one of a handful of places in Canada where they are known to grow.

“It’s right next to the city, and there’s things here you can’t see anywhere else in the world. It’s better than Disneyland,” says Black. Most famously, it is home to the meadow bird’s-foot trefoil, or Hosackia pinnata — formerly known as Lotus pinnatus — whose delicate white and yellow blooms were adopted by Nanaimo as their official flower in 2010.

Macro shot of Hosackia pinnata at Harewood Plains
“This is where the most Hosackia pinnata in the world occurs. Right here. It’s kind of a big deal,” says Black with a laugh. “You’d think Nanaimo would just be like, ‘Hey that’s where our plant lives. You can’t build there.’” Photo by Rae-Anne Guenter/The Discourse

Red-listed (considered endangered and at risk of being lost) by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre, of the seven known populations of Hosackia pinnata in Canada, all are in the Nanaimo area — and the largest is in Harewood Plains.

While exploring, Black found samples of Hosackia pinnata, but after conferring with other experts and amateur enthusiasts and checking social networking sites like the non-profit iNaturalist, he was amazed to also find that at least nine other blue (considered vulnerable) and red-listed plant species grew in the area, such as foothill sedge, dense spike-primrose and slimleaf onion.

Macro shot of Allium amplectens (slimleaf onion) between Scott Black's fingers
“This one here is Allium amplectens,” says Black. Also known as slimleaf onion, this species is blue-listed (vulnerable, of special concern). “They only occur here and in Victoria, and some of the Gulf Islands.” Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

For example, the exceedingly elusive red-listed native Hermann’s dwarf rush or Juncus hemiendytus took him years to locate, in part because it doesn’t grow in many places and doesn’t emerge every year.

“It only grows here, and then it grows in one place in Washington, and like three places in California and that’s it,” says Black.

Though a goldmine for the curious botanist, Harewood Plains is also an area under threat — from damage caused by off-road dirt bikes, ATVs and tree poaching — in part because so little is still known about it. 

According to Nanaimo Area Land Trust (NALT), about three-quarters of what they describe as the broader Harewood Plains Priority Site sits on privately managed forest lands, with the rest privately owned — except for two city-designated parks, one section under covenant, and a BC Hydro right-of-way.

With most of the land private, the red- and blue-listed status of these rare plants is largely meaningless. 

Though some protections exist via the federal species-at-risk act (SARA) for endangered species and critical habitat under federal and provincial jurisdiction, B.C. is one of six provinces that relies on “a voluntary stewardship model” from private landowners and requires that citizens “implement effective mitigation at their discretion and cost (and, in many cases, against their own development objectives),” according to a Sierra Club B.C. audit completed in November 2022.

For decades, local environmentalists like Charles Thirkill, Friends of Harewood Plains and NALT had been looking at ways to protect the Plains, in partnership with groups like the B.C.-based society Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT), whose team of expert advisors come from all levels of government, academic institutions, First Nations and non-government organizations.

The federal government had also consulted with a number of experts and conducted research into recovery strategies for Garry Oak ecosystems and specifically vernal pools in 2004 and 2005, but there hasn’t been much movement from the government on the topic since then.

Macro of Garry Oak leaves with rain on them.
Groups like the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team fight an uphill battle when it comes to the preservation of what remains of Garry oak and associated ecosystems like the Harewood Plains. Photo by Raw-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

Black joined in on local efforts to protect the area, and in March the newly-formed Harewood Plains Working Group held their first meeting.

Comprised of folks from NALT, representatives from B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, and members of Nature Nanaimo, a volunteer-run organization that seeks to protect natural spaces, the team began to discuss how to best expend their efforts on conserving the area. One idea floated was to further educate the public on the area’s ecological sensitivity, to help with the issue of irresponsible recreational use. 

These concerns were quickly dwarfed the following month, however, when members of the group noticed a real estate listing for a roughly 37-hectare section of the Harewood Plains — about the size of Buttertubs Marsh — located at 103 Lotus Pinnatus Way. The working group quickly decided to hold a Harewood Plains panel discussion, hosted by Nature Nanaimo, on May 18 that featured a number of experts speaking about their concerns.

Read more Could p’hwulhp (Garry oak) ecosystems strengthen Vancouver Island’s climate resilience?

Though the $12.9 million listing has since been taken down, this area is now the proposed site of a 480-unit subdivision. Development permit applications have been submitted with the city and are currently under review. 

The current owner of this piece is a numbered company, 1247249 B.C. LTD, whose director is real estate developer Mohammed Doar, who purchased the land from Irene Wenngatz for $5.75 million last summer, after a fraught and complicated legal process that ended up in court. Doar also owns Hayat Contracting, the company slated to work on the subdivision.

103 Lotus Pinnatus Way was once part of a larger 58-hectare section bisected by the Nanaimo Parkway. 

During negotiations for a 2012 subdivision in the section north of the highway, two designated Lotus Pinnatus city park areas were created, as well as a 10.5 hectare protected covenant area. This marked the first and only time any protections were put in place there, though a representative of the owner says that additional parks created via the new subdivision will also add to the officially protected areas.

Vernal pools and seeps

Experts with knowledge of the area agree that the presence of vernal pools and seeps form an integral part of Harewood Plains’s rare biodiversity.

When the spring rains fall, they flood through the shallow soils and form pools in the small depressions that form on the top of the bedrock. The seeps are shallow flowing water found on sloping terrain and the lower slopes of hillsides. 

These wetlands are ephemeral — they appear and disappear, and “occur under Mediterranean-type climatic conditions” with winter and early spring inundation, and a drying-out in summer, according to a 2005 study of vernal pools by plant ecologist and botanist Michael Miller.

Vernal pools at Harewood Plains
Vernal pools such as this one in Harewood Plains are often beginning to dry out by June, and form crucial habitat for plant species often found nowhere else. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

Though more common in places like California — where they are threatened but also protected by federal and state law — Miller estimates that in B.C., the occurrence of vernal pools is restricted mostly to southeastern Vancouver Island, as well as some Gulf Islands, and parts of the dry southern Interior.

“In California, there’s a whole classification system for vernal pools. The U.S. Army Corps has a vernal pool guide and all that stuff. In B.C.? It’s not even in the B.C. Wetland classification guide,” says Black, also a wetland ecologist. He insists that due to the presence of wetland indicator species, vernal pools should be considered wetlands and protected accordingly under the Water Sustainability Act

“But it is yet to be enforced,” he says. “This area is so important because there’s a lot of very complex hydrology. So any development here would impact that. And if you change the hydrology, then you would change everything that makes this place unique. All these rare plants depend on that particular scenario. So it’s really difficult to build anything here and not impact the hydrology.”

Wetland Ecologist Scott Black Checks Out Specimen found at Harewood Plains
Botanist Scott Black says he was amazed at the biodiversity he found in the Harewood Plains area after he moved here with his family in 2019. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

The subdivision

At present, the plan is to build 480 single, family, duplex, townhouse and multifamily units over multiple buildings on the approximately 24 hectares of the property that are considered developable. 

Twelve hectares that have been identified as environmentally sensitive areas will be dedicated as protected park with limited public access, according to Bruce Anderson, a representative for the subdivision applicant and principal at JRTW Planning Services. Some steep slope areas both within and without the park will also be protected.

A map of the proposed subdivision plan for Harewood Plains
The proposed subdivision plan “is a concept and has not been reviewed or approved at this point,” according to Jeremy Holm, director of development approvals for the City of Nanaimo. Photo submitted

The next step is that the submitted plan is subject to a review and then what is called a “preliminary layout acceptance,” in which the city issues a long list of conditions that must be met. There are then several more steps to complete, such as the submission of detailed design drawings, before the final approval of the subdivision can be given.

There are regulatory tools that the city can utilize to protect endangered plants, such as the establishment of development permit areas (DPAs), according to Jeremy Holm, director of development approvals for the City of Nanaimo.

Some of the DPAs applied to the property at 103 Lotus Pinnatus Way were established for the “protection of the natural environment, its ecosystems and biological diversity,” states Holm via email, and address issues such as environmentally sensitive areas and steep slope development. These DPAs come with established guidelines, which the proposed development will be required to meet, he adds.

In 2012, an environmental assessment of the broader property was conducted by Madrone Environmental Services, says Anderson, and multiple more updates to that assessment have been completed since then.

In a 2020 updated environmental assessment of the property acquired by The Discourse, Madrone’s scientists confirmed that the provincially red-listed bog bird’s foot trefoil and red-listed dense spike-primrose, as well as the blue-listed slimleaf onion, are all on or near the subject property.

“We’ll be protecting all the environmentally sensitive areas, including the Lotus Pinnatus areas, as part of this subdivision process. The subdivision is how you dedicate the park areas to protect those sensitive areas. So it’s the tool. Otherwise, there’s really no protection in place for them,” says Anderson, who previously spent a decade at the City of Nanaimo in a variety of roles, including as the manager of cultural and community planning.

Tracks left by recreational vehicles in the shallow soil of Harewood Plains
Tracks left by recreational vehicles in the shallow soil are evidence of the variety of activities in the area that threaten the survival of the rare ecosystem that exists there. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

The vernal pools and seeps are also accounted for in the protected areas, Anderson adds.

NALT executive director Paul Chapman says he has his doubts.

When the original parks and covenants were put in place, the thinking was that these areas would protect the areas where wildflowers and exceedingly rare plants exist, “but the part that wasn’t taken into account is the conditions that contribute to the existence of those rare plants,” he says.

“Those pocket parks and the covenant might protect the location of where the plants exist, but they don’t necessarily protect the conditions that combine to allow those plants to exist. And that’s the problem. You can’t sort of just put a wall around a little area of plants and say, ‘There, it’s protected.’ You have to look at what are the conditions that contribute to that plant being there, and then protect that. And that’s the issue. If you haven’t protected the upslope of the area, then I’m not sure how well those unique values you are trying to protect will persist.”

Anderson counters that “that’s certainly an opinion,” but that he would prefer to rely on the expertise of the biologists that have been retained and who have reviewed all the work. “The subdivision, in my view, is a tool to protect these areas further. It’s a subdivision, so it’s a legal park dedication, rather than just — right now there’s a covenant in parts of this area. But there’s no other protection.”

Prominent plant ecologist Adolf Češka was hired by Madrone Environmental to conduct an environmental assessment of the Harewood Plains area for Island Timberlands (now Mosaic) in 2005.  

The scientists who Madrone hires are trustworthy, capable professionals who do good work, he says. Controlling access to the sensitive areas is a good idea, though he also expressed doubts about how possible it is to build a subdivision of this size and still preserve the area’s complex hydrology.

“It depends on the seepage, and if you disrupt the seepage you destroy the whole community. If you build around the spot then it wouldn’t have the water coming in, and it means it will disappear,” says Češka. “I am skeptical. The best would be no development, but you know how it goes nowadays.”

Macro photo of the plant life in Harewood Plains, Nanaimo
Some experts are skeptical that the environmentally sensitive areas in Harewood Plains can be protected in cordoned-off sections, and would rather see the entire area preserved. Photo by Rae-Anne Guenther/The Discourse

For those advocates who want to see the entire area preserved intact, beyond what the developer plans to dedicate as city park, there are some options.

Vernal pools are an overlooked ecological feature that are underappreciated by most, except for botanists and biologists, and in B.C. they tend to be not only rare but also small and inconspicuous, says Miller. This might be the reason why they are poorly protected.

Getting vernal pools classified as a wetland under the Water Sustainability Act, as Black mentioned, might offer more protection, he says.

“There’s no ecological reason why they shouldn’t be recognized along with other types of wetlands, and we should be pursuing that,” he says.

Raising funds to purchase the property from the current owner is also a possibility. 

NALT and other conservationists are interested, says Chapman, but are working to get an appraisal completed before attempting to negotiate a price. 

The property was assessed for $3.68 million in 2022 by B.C. Assessment, and sold for $5.75 million in July of 2022. With the last listed price as high as $12.9 million, Chapman wants to ensure that what they’re paying is fair. Though he acknowledges the price could be steep, he believes the cost of losing it is way more than the cost of saving it.

“I think that we’re sort of playing with an equation that we don’t understand. How much of ‘What plus what, equals this really unique place?’” says Chapman. “I think that there are just some places that we have to red circle as ‘these places are too dear to go under the plow.’ And this is one of them.”

Editor’s Note July 24, 2023: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Harewood Plains is located in south Nanaimo past the airport. It is in fact north of the airport. We have removed this geographic reference.

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