Saving Little Mountain

Across the Fraser Valley, engaged individuals and groups are working to preserve mid-valley mountain sides as parks that can be enjoyed by residents long into the future. This is Little Mountain's story.

By Grace Kennedy | June 3, 2022 |5:00 am

This is the second story in a series on the region’s mid-valley mountains and efforts to preserve their natural assets in a fast-growing region.

Part 1: McKee Peak | Part 3: Hillkeep Park

Anne Russell hadn’t lived there for nearly 30 years, but she still knew the spot—a flat little outcrop on the side of Little Mountain where a small cottage once stood. It had been partially supported by tree stumps, and rocks that formed part of the basement. But for Russell and her husband Daryl, then in their mid-20s, it was home.

It also introduced the pair to Mount Shannon itself. Rising 125 metres above the floodplain on the north side of Chilliwack, Little Mountain has spent the last 110 years being carved by quarries, cemeteries, and later residential developments. But it is also home to endangered phantom orchids, towering cedars, salmonberry bushes, and interconnected trails.

In the 1990s, when Russell was first exploring its slopes, Little Mountain was a bower of wilderness. But its forest was also at risk of being cut down for new development. Russell, her husband, and a gang of other like-minded mountain-protectors banded together to stop development in one of Chilliwack’s last wilderness areas. Now, 30 years later, another group of advocates are hoping to ensure Little Mountain can be preserved for even more generations.

They’re not the only ones. Last week, we reported how hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers are concerned about the future of McKee Peak’s beloved trails. And across the Fraser Valley, engaged individuals and groups are working to preserve mid-valley mountain sides as parks that can be enjoyed by residents long into the future.

Story continues below.

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Memory lane on the mountain

This April, when the salmonberry’s pink flowers were just starting to bloom, Russell took a walk with a reporter up familiar pathways to the top of Little Mountain.

She had often ventured this way with her newborn daughter decades earlier, wending their way along paths her husband had secretly cut between the cedar and maple trees, and past the reservoir where teens would host midnight parties. They would come to a clearing, where a tree had bent its trunk almost to the ground before growing up towards the sky. There they sat, alone, drinking in the forest.

In April, Russell stood looking at that same spot, now home to a mountain bike jump next to the tree.

“I think every town needs a place like this, where you can just come and be in nature a little bit,” Russell said. She felt the same way back in 1993, when the future of Little Mountain’s green spaces was in doubt.

Russell first saw the notice in the paper. The District of Chilliwack was selling one-third of 20 acres it owned on Little Mountain to the highest bidder. Russell and her husband Darryl were devastated, but what could they do? The municipality owned the land, and it wanted a development to pay for the construction of a second road up the mountain.

The couple wrote a letter to the local newspapers. They asked: do you know what you’re missing?

“Preserve, don’t pave” was Anne Russell’s letter in the Chilliwack Progress, calling on the city to save the wilderness on Little Mountain. 📸 Rosedale Annie/Flickr

“We’re just a couple of renters with a dog who feel fortunate to live near this suburban forest while it’s still here,” they wrote. “We wish that council had the foresight to preserve some of these special areas, instead of planning ways to pave them.”

Others took notice. Some lived on Little Mountain already and didn’t want blasting in their backyard. Others lived in nearby neighbourhoods and appreciated the forest in their backyard.

Together, they formed the Friends of Little Mountain. Their slogan: Save some of Little Mountain.

“We accept that you have to develop somewhat on hillsides. But that doesn’t mean we have to develop every developable piece on the hillsides,” Russell remembered saying. “It’s worth saving some of it.”

The Friends of Little Mountain had the specific idea to create a nature park on Little Mountain. The municipality still wasn’t keen. With Chililwack largely protected agricultural land, they were seeking places where new homes could be built.

Russell remembered councillors and then-Mayor John Les taking a paternalistic approach to the young group that had formed to protect the mountain.

“‘It’s a money issue,’” Russell said, paraphrasing what she remembered Les saying all those years ago. “‘You don’t get it. We have to save the farmland, we can’t save the trees.’

“We were like, ‘You can do both you know.’ And so we were persistent.”

The Chilliwack Progress archives don’t have a record of those statements from Les. However, it does include a number of stories from the June 1993 public hearing. At that hearing, the developer First National Properties shared its plan to create at least 128 units of “cluster housing” on the property. More than 200 residents crammed into Chilliwack’s council chambers to speak about the proposal. Most of those residents sided with Russell and the Friends of Little Mountain.

The decision wasn’t made overnight. Council referred the matter back to staff, and Les said he wasn’t sure there were “only two options.”

“There are half truths and slanted views on either side of the argument,” the newspaper reported him as saying.

That August, council decided not to go ahead with First National’s proposition, and Little Mountain was temporarily saved from a bevy of new homes. But it wasn’t for good. First National already owned 50 acres on the mountain, and council did not go ahead with any efforts to develop a formal park.

Today, the majority of the land on Little Mountain is owned by various developers—although the city still owns its approximately 20 acres. A new group of activists are now hoping to preserve the mountain, as a nature park with its own protections.

Story continues below. 

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The next generation

This stand of trees on Little Mountain is located on a property owned by First National, which the Chilliwack Parks Society hopes they can turn into a nature park. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Of the nearly 100 acres of forested land on Little Mountain, 74 acres are zoned for residential development. The owners of four properties have submitted applications to the city for subdivision and development. One owner began clearing the land for construction in 2019.

That is what prompted the Chilliwack Park Society to start taking a look at Little Mountain.

The Chilliwack Park Society started in 2014, working with the city to develop what would eventually become the Community Forest in Chilliwack’s Eastern Hillsides. In 2019, it also began to manage Lexw Qwo:m Park, a new city park below the Community Forest, off of Hack Brown Road. At that same time, trees began coming down at the top of Little Mountain.

“Somehow, it just seemed to come to a crash, and more and more people felt some sense of urgency that maybe wasn’t there before,” Debora Soutar said.

A former forestry professional, Soutar remembers exploring the forest as a kid in the 1960s, riding her bicycle to the mountain with friends and daring each other to look over the edge of its cliffs. Today, retired and a member of the Chilliwack Park Society, she’s working with around 20 others to help save Little Mountain’s forest.

There are two plans in place to make that happen.

The first is through the City of Chilliwack. The city is planning to develop a greenbelt on the steep, undevelopable strip of forest on the north of the mountain. It will obtain 27 acres of land from developers for its park through contributions in the subdivision process. That land would be connected to the city-owned property off Quarry Road.

This plan wouldn’t stop any development on Little Mountain. Instead, it would take contributions from developments as they occur and establish a connecting line of trees around the edge of the mountain.

The city said it will update its Greenspace Plan to include the future Little Mountain park, but that it could take at least three years for some of the parkland to come to the city. It could take even longer for the full park to be developed, as one owner hasn’t yet applied to build on their property.

The Chilliwack Park Society has a bolder plan: to turn two of the properties slated for eventual development into a protected nature park.

It’s not as unreasonable as some may fear. Soutar said the property owners are “not unwilling” to sell the land—although it has to be for the right price.

“Some developers will say ‘Pound sand, I’ve got dreams here. I’m gonna make a fortune,’” she said. “But this developer said this sounds like a good idea.”

The developer is First National—the same company that faced such staunch opposition 30 years ago. One of the two properties is assessed at $3.8 million, while the other is assessed at $1.8 million.

The price tag is high, almost prohibitively so. It would take a very generous donor for the Chilliwack Park Society to be able to purchase both properties, society president Marc Greidanus said, and an intermediate goal would be to raise enough money to partially compensate First National for leaving developable land undeveloped.

The society has started fundraising through its website, and is applying for grants to build up the rest.

Its hope is that the City of Chilliwack will match funds obtained through any grants. Council isn’t promising anything yet—in an April council meeting, staff noted that the city doesn’t have extra funds in the budget to put towards parks. But councillors were not opposed to supporting the park project. That, Russell said, makes for a very different atmosphere than 30 years ago.

“I am delighted that people are now seeing that this makes sense. I’m delighted from what I’m reading and hearing that members of council are now seeing that it makes sense,” she said.

“You look at places like Teapot Hill and Lindeman Lake, and there’s cars all around them,” she continued. “The population has caught up to what we viewed as an express need in 1992. The public wants it, the public needs it more than ever.”

Soutar agreed.

“That forest is a valuable forest for many, many reasons,” she said, noting the many endangered species that call it home—like the phantom orchid and the Oregon forest snail—and the benefits to the people who can visit its shrouded groves.

There is still a ways to go before Little Mountain is “saved”—either through the city’s park plan or through the Park Society’s planned purchase. The Chilliwack Park Society is still fundraising, and the city is still waiting for development to begin so it can get its contributions of parkland. Once the land is made into a park, more discussions will need to happen to decide who would continue to use the land and what preservation will truly mean.

But for most, it seems like Little Mountain is heading in the right direction.

“We know that trees aren’t going to save us, but boy they’re going to make a difference,” Soutar said. “Some things are hard for us to grasp because we can’t see it, we can’t feel it. But this is something we can feel.”

The Chilliwack Park Society is hosting a trail walk on Little Mountain starting at 10am on Saturday, June 4. Arrive at either Quarry Road and Beaver Crescent at the bottom of the mountain, Hope River Kinsmen Park on Hope River Road, or Swallow Place and Bluestone Crescent at the top of the mountain to meet up with a guide. Registration is officially closed, but all are welcome.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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