Since 1985, Metro Vancouver’s population has increased by more than a million people. As a result much of the natural habitats in the area have been lost, including more than 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of forest – equivalent in size to four Stanley Parks.
“There is no ‘old growth forest’ left in the lower mainland,” says Utta Gagel, co-president of the Cariboo Heights Forest Preservation Society along with Aruna NB Khan. “I am so grateful for the nature that we have protected, but when you walk through the forest and see the giant cedar stumps of what used to be here and you see historical photographs of the area,” says Gagel. “I just wish I could have been here to see that!”
The Cariboo Heights Forest has not fallen to urban development despite being zoned for development under the 1987 Cariboo Heights Community Development Plan. Locals are now working hard to protect it.
“We have taken several members of the council and the Mayor through the forest,” says Gagel “…everybody who has walked through the forest has said that they cannot conceive of developing this. Once you experience the forest, it’s hard to imagine the area without it.”
The Society, originally called the Old Interurban Forest Preservation Society, came to life in 2015 after Rod Deakin-Drown discovered the remains of the old BC Electric Railway (Burnaby Lake Interurban Line) and hiked the rail bed all the way along to Cariboo Road. Enchanted by the beautiful second growth forest on either side, Drown was determined to preserve the trail and the surrounding forest.
Nature walks, birds, blooms and berries
According to the Society, the benefit of green spaces, especially in urban areas, is becoming increasingly more important. They are places where people connect with nature, and support important biodiversity and wildlife habitats that would otherwise become extinct, while also helping to mitigate the increasing effects of climate change.
As part of Burnaby’s Environment Week, the Society is organising a free, fun, family friendly guided tour through Burnaby’s secret forest to discover birds, blooms, and berries. They also hope to continue coordinating events such as this, as well as advocating the removal of invasive plants, like the project at the Mill View Park site, to transform the area to a more beautiful, inviting, and ecologically friendly space.
Gagel feels strongly about the need to connect people with nature, quoting the motto of BC Nature ‘to know nature and keep it worth knowing’.
“The greatest value of this land is as a natural ecosystem, supporting a huge amount of biodiversity in the middle of a huge metropolitan area,” she stresses.
Protecting green spaces
Gagel, who grew up in Vancouver, has always considered nature education to be important. She believes kids need to spend a lot more time out in nature and a lot less time behind screens. Kids are hardwired to love nature, but they need time and space to explore and understand these environments. She is using her nature and education background to develop a school program to get kids into the forest, as well as working with Nature Kids and the Burnaby Home Learners, and creating walks tailored to families and kids.
“I do think it’s important for kids to get out into nature,” explains Gagel. “Sometimes families need a little support in order to know the best ways to take their kids into nature.”
The Cariboo Heights Preservation Society is also collaborating with the Stoney Creek Environment Committee as one of the stewardship groups involved with the Road Salt and Salmon Project aimed at identifying the extent to which road salt contamination affects the salmon population in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
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