Kathleen Burton, executive director of the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary. Saanich News file photo

Saanich to study funding help for nature sanctuary

Saanich will offer a helping hand in the replacement of a popular walkway in a local nature sanctuary.

Council unanimously passed a motion Tuesday that asks staff to “develop options for council’s consideration to provide funding toward the Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary boardwalk replacement.”

The Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary needs about $800,000 to replace the floating walkway that currently runs across the lake at a length of more than 300 metres. Made out of cedar boards, it opened in 1991 and ranks among the most popular tourist destinations in the region, as the sanctuary draws some 65,000 visitors annually and serves as an ecological educational centre for students across the Greater Victoria region.

The society has so far raised $350,000 through its ‘Give-a-Sheet’ campaign to replace the current cedar boards with fibreglass sheets said to be longer-lasting and eco-friendlier.

The issue arose after Coun. Fred Haynes and Coun. Dean Murdock brought it up last week. Haynes said Saanich has a number of tools including interest-free loans and community contributions from nearby development. Without Saanich’s help, the state of the walkway would continue to decline, potentially exposing Saanich to liability, said Haynes. He also expressed concerns that the need for constant upgrades would exhaust volunteers.

Council asked staff to investigate funding options after hearing from neighbourhood leaders and Kathleen Burton, executive director of Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary Society among others.

Haji Charania, president of the North Quadra Community Association, urged council to help fund the walkway. Portions of the walkway have deteriorated to the point that they have become dangerous, he said. The walkway needs a new lease on life to make it safe and enrich the visitors’ experience. The sanctuary represents a “precious natural asset” for Saanich and the walkway is a “vital” part of it, he said.

Burton said the need to replace the floating walkway dates back several years. While initial estimates pegged the replacement cost at $400,000, that figure has now doubled. “And if we don’t do it soon, that number is going to grow,” she said. “We really, really, really need the help.”

Burton said in an earlier interview that the bridge will also help improve the experience of visiting the sanctuary.

“That is a way for us to tell our story more,” she said. “It is a way for people to get out in the middle of lake, where they wouldn’t normally be able to be and get a different view and often see a lot of different things that they wouldn’t be able to see. But it is also for educational programming.”

The new boardwalk will actually be above water, thereby serving as a wildlife corridor for muskrat, otter, waterfowl and other creatures. It will also feature so-called ‘teaching pods’ where visitors can learn more about Swan Lake and its unique ecosystem.

The origins of the sanctuary date back to 1975. More than a decade earlier, the District of Saanich had started to acquire land around Swan Lake and Christmas Hill with the aim of “retaining the area in its natural state, for the use and enjoyment of the public.”

Council’s direction to staff passed unanimously. “I’m a big fan of options,” said Coun. Susan Brice. “This will be an important piece of information to come forward.”

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