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More nests found but highway construction delays unlikely

Eagleridge protesters in court Friday, appeal hearing on Monday

Birders working with the Coalition to Save Eagleridge Bluffs have found several more active bird nests near the planned rerouting of Highway 99 outside of Horseshoe Bay, but acknowledge the best they can hope for is to delay construction while they make their case.

"The only thing (the nest discoveries) can do is to stall the project for the next phase but it won’t shut it down, and that’s a real tragedy," said Jane Sikorski-Bethune, a spokesperson for the coalition.

However, the coalition feels they can use the nests to bolster their case, which is that the bluffs and the adjoining wetlands are home to several rare, endangered and or migratory species in the region and should be spared from the Sea to Sky Highway realignment. When it comes to protecting migratory birds, Sikorski-Bethun called existing laws "toothless."

At the very least she feels that the ongoing construction on the first phase of the project should stop until the coalition gets its appearance before the B.C. Court of Appeal tribunal on June 12.

Despite previous setbacks in court, and the fact that 23 protesters were arrested at the site on May 25, Sikorski says that opponents of the highway realignment are optimistic.

"As devastating as it is to lose a magnificent grove of Arbutus trees (in the first phase of construction), the only one like it left on the Lower Mainland, there is still hope we can save the wetlands and surrounding old growth forest," she said.

"We all want a safer road, we know how dangerous it is, but destroying a sensitive ecosystem is not the way to go if there are other options. If there were no other options we could accept it, but there are and they haven’t been looked at properly."

Those options include building a tunnel through the bluffs or adding another lane to the existing highway to bring it to three lanes. Both options were rejected by the province after extensive consultation on the basis of cost and safety. Members of the coalition claim they weren’t given all the facts or an opportunity to compare bids – an argument the Ministry of Transportation rejects. As recently as April 28 the Ministry of Transportation published a backgrounder to show that the tunnel concept was seriously explored and was confirmed to be the most expensive option.

Last week birders found a nesting Cassin’s virio in the path in the right of way where the next phase of highway construction is to take place. Trees have already been cleared from the area for the first phase, and crews are in the area doing road work.

This week the coalition added several more active nests to their discovery list, including a Western Tanager and Red Breasted Nuthatch.

If findings are confirmed, highway crews may have to leave a buffer around active nests during construction of the next phase. Buffers for species of birds that are not endangered are in the neighbourhood of 20 metres, depending on the species in question, and are only in place until the end of nesting season.

According to Mike Long, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, a detailed bird survey was done before the first phase of highway construction began and another detailed survey will be done before the second phase gets underway. The Canadian Wildlife Service will have to approve environmental management plans before any work can start, which most likely means establishing buffer zones around active nests.

"(The nest discoveries) are a good example of how phased environmental management plans work and why they’re a good thing," he said. "Rather than do an environment plan for the whole area at a certain time of year where you might not be getting the entire picture, it’s done in sections so the information is current and up to date and accurate in terms of what’s really going on in that time."

Long says crews won’t be applying to start work on the next section of the highway alignment for several weeks or possibly longer. In the meantime none of the nests are in the current work area.

"Mitigation, if it’s applicable when the crews do go in there, will be applied," he said. "(The project) is following all processes in accordance with the environmental assessment and the environmental management plan, and the courts have backed that up as well."