Comox has just lost the last remains of the 6,000+ year-old Cape Lazo Garry oak prairie. Until last year when the Department of National Defense took an active interest in this site, it was a poorly- stewarded 1 to 2 acre corner of land at the bottom of the Comox Valley airfield fronting Knight and Kye Bay Roads. This original part of what must have been Dr. Walter Gage’s father’s farmland, was converted on the eve of WWII into the airfield that we know today as CFB Comox.
Before 1860, most of that was a rich traditional Pentlatch Garry oak meadow. It was together with the lower Tsolum Valley “Comox Prairie” the original wealth of the valley in which British pioneers settled. These last 2 acres was all that remained of 65 square kilometres (25 square miles) of a northern Californian flora and fauna, that we know today as “ Garry oak ecosystem,” and it even had some stunted wind-blown Garry oaks.
From a floristic point of view, this site was a charm. It was a site I regularly took visiting botanists to. They came from the USA and Victoria, to view the native flowers and grasses amidst the Comox garbage and vandalism. New plants, often not found anymore in and around the rest of Comox and Courtenay, such as red maids (Calandrinia ciliate) which are otherwise only found locally on Hornby, would be spotted about every second year. So we are still uncertain as to what lay hidden in the site’s soil seed bank. A one day count in April 2017 identified 28 species of native flowers ( camas, harvest brodeia, Hooker’s onion, Chocolate lily, Scouler’s popcorn flower, and the list goes on) a carpet of purple and gold. Nobody had time to study the pollinator populations, and the Western bluebirds have been long-gone, probably with insects unknown. Again, we will possibly never know the full extent of our children’s losses.
For years, everybody, including DND who put signs up to limit trespassing, thought that this was DND land. For conservationists, this was a boon, although it limited access, DND has an excellent record of responsible stewardship. Indeed, last year when it was pointed out that the site was being vandalized by atv’s and was becoming an unmanageable and illegal dumping site overgrown by broom, DND mobilized soldiers to remove broom and garbage, and the erected a gate to limit illegal access. We had every reason to hope that with responsible stewardship, this site would one day be an important regional conservation legacy.
As it turns out, the land is private. And it is within the administrative boundary of the Town of Comox, whose uncontrolled development policies have laid waste the Lazo Sand Dunes ecosystem area over the past two years. Garry oaks on private land have been extirpated and native flora replaced by Kentucky turf. That is largely because Comox mayor, Town Council and staff either don’t care, or are ignorant of Comox’s natural heritage, or are hell-bent on development vandalism, which they seem to have a well-honed reputation for. Sadly, they are the town’s “representatives.”
In either case, DND learnt indirectly that it was not the owner of this piece of land, and was unable to buy it from the new owner, who it seems had no problems obtaining building and development permits from the Town of Comox on what any other town would have classed “ecologically sensitive habitat.” Comox, after all, has no real tree by-laws or special environmental permitting requirements that would encourage landowners to manage land responsibly, for the benefit of other Canadians. If the political leadership is lacking and only exhibits a tendency to systemic ignorance, reckless vandalism, and disregard to the public interest, one should not dare expect private landowners to meet a higher standard.
So the new landowner did what every almost every other landowner in the Comox Valley before him has done: he hired an excavator to strip the topsoil and “improve” the building site, undoubtedly assuming it was a valueless field, and never having been told otherwise. He is not to blame. We all do it, and he sought permits and guidance from the Town of Comox.
We have lost the last remnant of our native grass prairie. At a time when this planet is experiencing a species collapse unmatched since the Cretaceous (65 million years ago), this is more significant than it seems. This prairie survived all the insults we threw at it since white settlers arrived, and stole it. It is proof that we have been the worst stewards imaginable. Even those of us who claimed to care, myself included, did not care enough to check the title, we took for granted DND ‘s claims, adn what local environmental organizations told us. So we failed all those other species whose DNA we share, and handed our trust and future over to Comox Council and staff.
It is exactly that ill-placed trust that drives mass extinction, and climate change, every day.