Pushing Pedal Power

Comox Valley Cycling Coalition looks to change the future of local transportation…

On a March day earlier this year, neuropathist Jack Minard walked into Courtenay City Hall with four dead trout in a plastic baggie. He made his way to the engineering department and plunked the baggie down on the counter.

“What can you do about this?” he asked.

Minard’s eyes sparkle as he tells me this story, months later, around a big table in the 5th Street office of the Comox Valley Land Trust (CVLT). Minard is the CVLT Executive Director, and it was in this capacity that he was so dramatically alerting city officials to the problem of dying fish in Finlay Creek.

He hastens to explain that this wasn’t an act of hostility. “I have a really good relationship with the engineering department and I didn’t have to do anything as dramatic as that… but, well, I just had to,” he says with a laugh.
The story is, of course, a fun one, but it also says something about how a land trust works.

A land trust is a non-profit organization committed to the long-term protection of natural and/or cultural heritage. A land trust may own land itself, or it may enter into conservation covenants (see sidebar) with property owners to protect or restore natural or heritage features on the owner’s land.

Land trusts also engage in stewardship, restoration and management of lands, as well as public education, political advocacy, and community organizing to promote their environmental values.

A land trust covers almost all the bases of what we imagine when we say, “environmental activism”—from scientific study to get-your-hands-dirty work on the land to meetings with politicians; from counting fish to changing policies.
Pretty much all of those activities were represented by Minard’s bag of dead fish.

The fish came from Finlay Creek in Sandwick Forest. CVLT has been working with the Sandwick Waterworks Improvement District to ensure that this 31-acre forest, which includes cedar trees more than 150 years old, will become park protected by a conservation covenant. Finlay Creek runs through Sandwick Forest and is a critical element for healthy fish production in the Tsolum River.

CVLT has a group of volunteers that monitor Sandwick Forest, as well as a group for every other property they are involved with. They pick up garbage, report vandalism, and keep an eye on natural features of the property.
When a CVLT monitor found dead fish in the creek, CVLT knew something was amiss. When they went to investigate, they counted 30 dead trout. Something was very amiss.

The problem, says Minard, is that a portion of Finlay Creek has been built over. “It actually goes from Home Depot under the Aquatic Centre and keeps going under the subdivision to Sandwick Park; it’s all been put underground with a system of pipes and drains. So if anywhere in the system someone puts something down the drain, we get dead fish.
“What we need to do is educate people,” says Minard. But a good education program needs a concerted effort with strong leadership and financing. That’s why he went to the City of Courtenay with a bag of dead fish—to get the municipality involved.

“We’d like to see the city not just sharing costs but also taking the lead,” says Minard. Thus far he’s not entirely satisfied with the City’s response, but he’s not giving up. He did get noticed, and this has initiated discussions about some kind of partnership.

“We did talk about the City helping to pay for a neighborhood campaign educating people about pouring things down the drains. Something is going to happen, although not with the level of municipal leadership we’d hoped for,” says Minard.

Sandwick Forest is one of 10 covenants that CVLT holds, with an 11th currently in the works. Four of these are parks, open to the public, and the others remain private, focusing solely on ecosystem and wildlife protection. “Eleven covenants is a lot,” says Minard, proudly. “I don’t know of any other small conservancy that has taken on that many.”

CVLT was founded in 1999 by Shirley Ward and Diana Caldwell, two neighbours who were both concerned citizens. In particular, they were concerned about wetlands being drained, about massive use of pesticides, and about ecosystems dying out. They began to research the possibilities for creating a local organization that could garner a broad base of support, gather together diverse interests, and make a lasting difference to the environmental health of the Valley. The result was CVLT.

The CVLT website sets out compelling evidence of the need it intends to address: only 13 per cent (approximately 23,500 hectares) of Comox Valley land is protected; and more than 90 per cent of that land is within Strathcona Provincial Park. Unless steps are taken to address this, the Valley will see a continuing loss of biodiversity, which will eventually undermine nature’s ability to provide essential environmental services. Clean air and water, healthy soils, local food production and natural resource industries are at stake.

The popularity of the Comox Valley makes matters worse. The Valley is one of the fastest growing areas in British Columbia. The population is projected to reach 78,373 by the year 2020, representing a population increase of 19% (BC Stats information as of May, 2007).

CVLT clearly has its work cut out. But it is not alone.

The Comox Valley Land Trust is one of 32 locally-based land trusts in BC. Also, there are two province-wide land trusts, as well as one Canadian land trust. The oldest land trust active in BC is an international one, Ducks Unlimited. Land trusts often work together on conservation, stewardship projects, and campaigns, and it is common for two land trusts to act as co-holders of a covenant, providing an extra level of assurance and sharing the responsibilities involved.

Beyond all the work involved in seeking out, setting up, and overseeing covenants, CVLT has been very active in setting up partnerships in the community.

“Our strategy is to expand to be a real voice for conservation in the Comox Valley,” says Minard.

One of CVLT’s most exciting projects is the Comox Valley Conservation Strategy. The goal is ambitious: to ensure that all land-use in the Valley serves conservation values.

CVLT has set up a Conservation Strategy Steering Committee, which is working with regional and municipal planners, engineers, politicians and community groups to develop a new way of doing business. A big part of the conservation strategy work involves creating clear information about conservation issues, such as maps of sensitive ecosystems, identification of areas identified by the community as high-priority for conservation, maps of protected lands (parks, greenways, wildlife and ecological reserves, and covenants), and wildlife information.

Minard says local authorities and residents have been receptive to this initiative. As CVLT makes more partnerships and gets involved in more projects, it becomes more influential.

“We do seem to have government’s ear,” he says. “For instance, they are referring development proposals to us for comment.”

This is proof, says Minard, of the power of working in a group. While individuals can, and have been, very powerful in the environmentalist movement, he feels that the coordination that groups provide is invaluable.
“In the past, the most passionate people would go to city hall. Definitely, a clear, articulate person can do a lot, and here in the Valley we’ve had very effective people like Melda Buchanan. But even more effective is collaboration and partnerships. You can speak for large swathes of land.

“Perhaps the most effective thing people can do is get involved with an organization. There’s one for every creek in the Valley, and each of those are part of the Comox Valley Environmental Council.”

Minard says that even those who seem to be “the enemy” of environmentalism can turn into partners. He cautions against a confrontational approach, instead advocating dialogue. Ultimately, he says, we will be more powerful if we can find common ground—and this isn’t as hard as it may seem.

“Every individual, even the most irascible of developers, when you talk one-on-one with them, wants the same thing as me—a nice healthy planet with some security, and a good chance of jobs for our grandchildren. We want the same thing, but we go about it differently.”

CVLT’s love of partnership was very evident in their recent fundraising event, Celebrating the Lorax, held at the Comox First Nations Band Hall and Big House this past April Fool’s Day.

“This was our answer to galas. These events are usually raising money for one specific organization; they are dressy, kind of staid events which seem to be losing their popularity,” explains Minard. CVLT decided to do something very different—something livelier that would reach out beyond the established base of supporters.

“Board member Vivian Dean had encountered the Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, and in all her creativity thought that we could get kids involved,” says Minard.

“It made sense. At the time we were looking around the table and seeing see a lot of grey hairs. Who will carry the torch as we age? And really, it’s the young people who have the most vested interest in the future.”

CVLT decided to create an award called Celebrate The Lorax –Caring for the Trees Award to honor youth environmentalists. The Lorax is a classic Seussian story of a creature who speaks up to prevent a forest being destroyed for a development.

Organizers added another youth element, as well as a multi-cultural emphasis, by inviting the Kumugwe Dancers, a youth troupe from the Comox Band, to come on board as performers. Scouts Canada also joined in to take part in an innovative fundraising activity described as an “interactive pledge tree building,” in which, over a the period of just a few minutes, the Scouts ran around getting people to sign pledge forms which they used to decorate a big tree.
“It ended up as this incredible collaborate fundraiser,” says Minard. “Sailors brought spinnakers to hang as decoration, we had trees from River Meadow Farms and Streamside Native Plants; we transformed the hall. The I-HOS gallery was open next door. The Kumugwe Dancers did a traditional welcome and led us into the big house. It was magical.”

The event included a silent auction, a speech by Iona Campanola, and the presentation of the award to 18-year-old Emily Sunter, a very active member of the Interact Club, a student environmental group at Highland High School.
So far $8000 has been raised, and they are still waiting to complete the raffle of a donated Brian Scott painting. Some of the funds were used to buy a new bear mask for the dancers, some donated to the Scouts, and the rest will help keep CVLT going for the next year.

As well, important partnerships were developed, people had fun, and young environmentalists gained encouragement.
CVLT has more plans for fundraising that include a sense of fun and community building. This July 17, at the Downtown Courtenay Market Day, CVLT will be hosting a Toonie Walk. This is a resurrection of an event held back in 1956, when a woman’s group held a penny walk to raise funds. However, back then there were no toonies.

“Each person was invited to lay down a penny along 5th Street. They made a line from Cliffe to Fitzgerald,” says Minard. “Of course, we need to correct inflationary cycles so we’re doing it with toonies. It’s going to be a fun part of the whole great atmosphere of Market Day. And you can fit a lot of toonies on that stretch of road. We can make thousands of dollars.”

Whether thinking up fun ways to raise funds, walking through City Hall with a bag of fish, talking to the media, or strategizing at a board meeting, Minard stays motivated by his deep conviction that environmental engagement can (and has been) effective.

A long-term activist—he spent 18 years involved with the influential group SPEC (Society Promoting Environmental Conservation) and currently is Executive Director for the Tsolum River Restoration Society as well as working for CVLT—Minard has never become jaded, and has no plans to.

“I sometimes see around me a kind of cynicism that has resolved itself, become hard to shake. That’s the biggest enemy to democracy,” he says.

Getting involved—with a group, or on your own—always pays off, he says.

“There has been a gradual greening going on. People have been pounding away, saying we have to do things differently. It’s been slow, slow, slow, but change is happening. The littlest change can make a big difference.”

Not wanting to miss a chance for a direct appeal, he points out that CVLT is always looking for volunteers, members, and donors.

“I would suggest that CVLT is one of the best regional, broadly-based conservation-centred groups to join,” he says.

For more information on the Comox Valley Land Trust or to volunteer or join, visit:
“The Comox Valley is very well suited for cycle commuting,” says Ed Schum, who is working—along with the newly-formed Comox Valley Cycling Coalition—to make local streets safer for cyclists.If you could look into the future, what would be the outlook for cycling in the Comox Valley? The Comox Valley Cycling Coalition has a clear vision. In fact, a 20/20 vision—by the year 2020 to see 20 per cent of the transportation budget spent on cycling infrastructure, with the goal to get cycling up to 20 per cent of all the modes of transportation.

On a perfect day for cycling, sunny and warm, Ed Schum, founder of the newly-formed Coalition, leads members along a recreation and reconnaissance ride. The Coalition has 173 members from all walks of life, many who give time, talents and expertise to help make conditions for cycling in the Comox Valley safer and more convenient.

Today’s diverse group includes a trio of three generations of cyclists—Melissa, a competitive cyclist once coached by Ed, with her 16-month old son as a passenger in a trailer behind, and her mother Terry. Another member of the group, Brian, a flight instructor at CFB Comox who commutes to work along Ryan Road, contributes electronic support. With a combination of GPS, iPhone, and other wizardry, he can map the route, take photographs, and calculate distance and elevation gain, to be posted on the Coalition’s website at

Schum is a grandfather himself, and has been cycling for most of his life, racing and coaching. After retiring as owner of the former Mountain Meadows Sports in Downtown Courtenay, he began touring by bicycle and blogging about it at

“Now that I am over 65, I thought it was time to slow down,” he says as an introduction. “Get into some touring and see more of the beautiful Canada I live in.” His online journals include Grandpa Cycles across Canada, 2007 and Grandpa Cycles Europe, 2008.

“I went across Canada to see how safe or unsafe cycling is in Canada, and saw a lot that could be improved,” Schum says. “So I went all over Europe to find what they’ve done there to make cycling safer and more popular—and now we’re putting the two together.”

Pink plum-tree flower petals scatter over the roads as the group leaves Downtown Courtenay over the Condensory Bridge. Along the way, Schum provides helpful tips about cycling safety. The mission of the Comox Valley Cycling Coalition is to create a safe environment for cycling in the region, and encourage cycling as an effective, economical, healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

The group’s regular rides scout problem areas. “Try to stay about one metre off the edge of the pavement,” he advises Melissa, with the wide trailer behind her bike, as the road shoulder disappears. “That way the trailer won’t catch the edge.”

The group rides in single file and turns onto Cessford, a quieter road. The paving surface changes noticeably—the coarse surface Schum calls chip seal is an inexpensive re-paving method used by the Ministry of Transportation, but is quite dangerous to cyclists. “Part of Headquarters Road and Coleman Road—very popular cycling routes—were freshly done in this surface last year,” Schum says. “If anybody ever went down on that, they would be very badly injured.” It is ironic that over a century ago roads were originally paved to accommodate bicyclists, but now the needs of cars dominate. The Coalition has reached an agreement with the Ministry that all chip sealing will be put on hold, until an acceptable surface for cycling is decided upon.

Luckily the rough section is short, and the smooth surface resumes— in time for an uphill incline along Piercy Road. The pace slows, and the temptation is to stop and smell the roses—or here, the scent of cedar from the nearby sawmill. Everyone gears down but soon the grade flattens and the group turns north onto the Inland Highway. The shoulder is wide and the rumble strip that separates the car traffic allows plenty of room for cyclists.

“The rumble strips here are not bad,” Schum says. “The shoulder is still wide enough for cyclists.” His neon-yellow cycling vest is highly visible and traffic gives the group a wide berth. At the Dove Creek interchange there is a pause for a group photo by Brian. After the turn, the group continues to complete the ride, some exploring a longer route before heading back to town for a sociable coffee.

“The Comox Valley is very well suited for cycle commuting,” says Schum after the ride. “If you draw a five kilometer circle around the hub—say the Superstore—it encompasses just about the whole Comox Valley. Cumberland would be a little bit outside of that. Many more people here could ride their bikes to go shopping, to go to and from work, to ride to school, and so on. We do have a relatively high ‘cycling mode share’ of people traveling by bike—just over four per cent here, which is fairly large for North America. There are so many more people who would like to ride their bikes, but they just find it too dangerous.”

The Coalition initiated a survey to learn the community’s thoughts about cycling in the Comox Valley. “We have about 650 survey responses by now,” Schum says, “and the number one issue is not enough safe cycling routes—specifically too many cars and the traffic is too fast. The other major issue is that the bridges are unsafe to cross.”