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Birder Royann Petrell fights for more access in Fairy Creek

Supreme Court turned down petition on grounds she had access, other legal option
A retired professor from the Comox Valley has been fighting for more access for birdwatching in the Fairy Creek area, especially when it comes to mapping threatened species. Photo supplied

A retired professor in the Comox Valley might have lost a court challenge for more access to go birding at forestry sites on southern Vancouver Island.

Royann Petrell though is continuing to go out into the field and would like to bring more people with her.

The issue standing in her way has been closed gates — specifically those that Teal Cedar Products Ltd. applied and received a court injunction for to keep out protesters over logging in the Fairy Creek area last year.

She was not part of the efforts to stop logging in the TFL 46 region, though she said that like many people she was curious about what is going on at Fairy Creek.

“I’m not part of the blockade,” she said. “I never blocked a road.”

RELATED STORY: Fairy Creek’s threatened biodiversity the subject of upcoming presentation

The company actually did allow Petrell access, though she was limited to two people she could have with her in a vehicle while birding.

Petrell is a retired scientist from UBC who lives with her husband on a farm in the upper Royston area. She contested the move in B.C. Supreme Court, while Teal Cedar asked that her petition be struck down, saying its gates are legal and that it has granted Petrell access with a limited number of people.

“I’m a very avid birder, and I have been for a long time,” she said.

Petrell documents what she finds on the eBird online database, and she said she had heard sounds from three owl species. Most notably, she found the western screech owl.

“They actually thought they were extinct in the area,” she said. “Now, I’ve found so many, I can’t count them all.”

Petrell contacted the forestry company last year about reviewing the policy but did not hear back. She got in touch with the province, which then contacted the company. By fall though, birding season was over.

She is surprised there are no surveys of threatened species required, which she feels makes the work she and others do all the more valuable, even to the forestry companies in terms of the information they turn up about what is living in these regions.

“We’re doing a really great job,” she said.

While there is a ‘nest law’ to protect migratory birds, she wonders why government is not doing more to help populations of birds like the western screen owl or the marbled murrelet.

Some gates have been opened, but there were still a few gates she was not allowed to go through at the time she spoke to the Record. The situation of figuring which gates are open and which are closed is confusing to her.

“It’s not clear when and why you’re being restricted,” she said.

The court decision notes she is allowed access with two other people, and Justice John J. Steeves wrote in his decision that Petrell had another remedy available to contest the process, specifically through the Forest Practices Board.

Shawn Hall, a spokesperson for parent company Teal-Jones Group, said, “It’s unclear why the main petitioner felt it necessary to launch this suit, given she was able to gain access by simply identifying herself at the gate. Members of the public may gain access through gates on a case-by-case basis if they do not create a safety hazard in doing so.”

The forest company’s position is that blockaders have engaged in dangerous and illegal activities designed to make harvesting areas unsafe, in spite of WorksafeBC requirements for companies to maintain safe workplaces and keep the public away from potentially dangerous sites.

“In light of the illegal and often violent antics blockaders have undertaken, we have no choice but to implement security measures, including gates, to ensure a safe workplace for our employees, contractors and the general public,” Hall added.

Teal-Jones added it is working in a responsible manner consistent with stringent provincial regulations, third-party certification and engagement with local First Nations.

An environmental law organization, Ecojustice Canada, is challenging Steeves’ decision in the B.C. Court of Appeal on Petrell’s behalf. The grounds are that the B.C. Supreme Court was incorrect about the matter needing to go before the Forest Practices Board prior to a court hearing.

“The Forest Practices Board can only make non-binding recommendations and, unlike the courts, has no authority to cancel the gate authorizations,” spokesperson Sean O’Shea said.

Ecojustice’s lawyers expect the appeal to be heard either later this year or in early 2023.

For Petrel, beyond her studies, this is ultimately public land with others potentially wanting to make claims for different interests, from mining to tourism, so the matter of closing off gates is puzzling.

“If you grant me access, it doesn’t mean they’re going to grant anyone else,” she said.

For Petrell, there is more work to be done — for example, trying to get more information from the field to determine whether there are two separate subspecies of the western screech owl — but she is hoping for more access. She would also like more people from Vancouver Island to help, though currently she can only bring a couple with her.

“That is why I’m still very frustrated,” she said.

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The forest company had put up gates at the site to keep out old-growth logging protesters. File photo