Who Owns and Controls the Beaufort Watersheds?

Conceptual image of Dunsmuir and others carving up the private land map of Vancouver Island 1887 – CV Collective magazine

The East side of Vancouver Island is one of the most uniquely managed forest lands in BC—if not in Canada.  Based on the Vancouver Island Great Private Land Grant of 1887, the majority of our local forested watersheds, that are being actively logged right now for the second time, are privately owned. The public has no legal right to involvement in the management of these lands—no say or input what so ever—even though the majority of drinking water on the east side of the Island originates from these vast industrially logged watersheds. Private forest companies own most of the land outright and therefore have the right to lock the public out with gates.  This is markedly different from the rest of B.C., in which the areas being logged are mostly Crown Land.  Actually 96% of BC that is forested is Crown Land and does require public involvement in land management– as imperfect as that involvement may be.

Few British Columbians are aware that a land privatization deal was written into the Terms of Union when B.C. joined Canada in 1871. As part of its commitment to connect the B.C. seaboard with the Canadian railway system, the federal government of 1884 agreed to contribute $100,000 annually towards the construction of a railway on Vancouver Island. British Columbia offered additional incentives, promising roughly 8100sq km (about 2 million acres of old growth forest) and $750,000 to a company that would be interested in constructing a railroad on the island.

In 1887, the federal government found that interested company: the well-known coal baron and member of the BC Legislature, Robert Dunsmuir and his investors. They were granted outright the land, cash, all mineral rights and timber rights. Without any negotiation, the land grant privatized Crown lands and First Nations territories from Esquimalt to Sayward on the east side of Vancouver Island.

Archived Government map of the 1887 E&N Private Land Grant of 8100 square km (810,000 ha)

Dunsmuir negotiated with Dominion officials to form the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Company, making himself president and owner of half the shares. Dunsmuir cared little about railroads. What he really wanted was on and below the ground: timber and coal. This land gift, known as the E & N Land Grant, would make the Dunsmuir family one of the province’s richest. Dunsmuir only partially fulfilled the railway promise as the tracks stopped abruptly in Courtenay before reaching Campbell River.

In the years that followed, Dunsmuir’s land was parceled up, then sold and resold multiple times to various logging and resource interests. In 1905, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR) paid just over $1 million for the E&N rail line and $1.25 million for the remaining 566,580 hectares of land not yet sold. In 1910, Dunsmuir sold his coal mining interests in the granted lands for $11 million.

Most of that private forest land is now owned by large industrial forest corporations, including TimberWestand Island Timberlands. In 2019, these companies merged their operations into one company called Mosaic Forest Management. You will now see Mosaic signs posted at the beginning of most forest roads in the watersheds—usually just before a gate.

There were scattered parcels of forest land that were logged privately in the 1930’s and 40’s but the land owners of the day defaulted on their taxes. Subsequently these lands reverted to Crown ownership and are now jointly managed under Crown forestry tenures and laws by the K’omox and Qualicum First Nations, in partnership with the Provincial Government. These scattered crown parcels make up approximately 30% of several watersheds on the east side of the island. Unlike the privately-owned land, these parcels do not have gates on their logging roads.  Local examples include Rosewall and Cook Creek Forest Service Roads.

Google Earth Satellite Image 2020 – Showing Fanny Bay and Ships Point.
Areas inside the red lines are Crown Land and the balance of logged lands right up and over the Beaufort Mountains are private forest land from the E&N Land Grant 1887

The E & N Land Grant is a textbook lesson on how decisions made more than a century ago can affect the lives of ordinary people in perpetuity, making Vancouver Island, especially the southeast coast where we live and play, an anomaly. The clock can’t be unwound; it’s something we have to live with, or do we? 

Dave Weaver is Beaufort Watershed Stewards’ Vice-President and a retired Professional Forester.

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