New Threat to Lighthouses Illuminated

Reprinted with permission from Jack Knox, Times Colonist

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New threat to lighthouses illuminated

By Jack Knox, Times Colonist April 3, 2012

Imagine the fuss if the owner of a 152-year-old downtown heritage building just walked away from the structure, allowed it to crumble.

But the Race Rocks lighthouse isn’t downtown. It’s plunked in the waters off Metchosin, as out-of-sight, out-of-mind as many of the other West Coast lighthouses that Pat Carney worries about.

That’s why Saturna Island’s Carney is sounding the alarm (or perhaps the foghorn) about a rapidly approaching deadline that could determine whether lights stand or fall.

This has been an ongoing battle for the former senator and Mulroney-era cabinet minister who, even retired from politics, remains a fierce advocate for B.C.’s coastal communities. This fight goes back years and years, a reaction to Ottawa’s history of tearing down, burning down or neglecting-to-death light stations it no longer valued.

t took Carney seven attempts over a decade, but just before leaving the Senate in 2008, she managed to push through the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, which prevents historic lighthouses from being destroyed without the public first being consulted.

People interested in seeing historic lights given that protection were given until May 29 of this year to petition to have them placed on the preservation list.

But here’s where it gets tricky, and where Carney and heritage groups think the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which owns most of the lights, has pulled a sneaky one: DFO responded to the legislation by declaring almost 1,000 lights, including 18 on the West Coast, as being surplus to needs. When a light is deemed surplus, a 25 name petition alone won’t bring it heritage status; there must also be a community group willing to take over its operation.

The surplus-to-needs clause isn’t as much of an impediment in Atlantic Canada, where lights tend to sit at the edge of communities such as pretty Peggys Cove, Nova Scotia. Old lighthouses make nice tourist draws – museums, gift shops, tea houses.

But out here in B.C., the lights tend to be in hairy hermit territory, clinging to some lonely rock poking out of the ocean. What’s a community group supposed to do with that? Heritage Canada said that in declaring such lights surplus (even though they are in service), DFO “effectively emasculates” the legislation.

Carney and others have spent the past few years urging people to petition for the preservation of about 40 B.C. lighthouses. “What we want is to have heritage status so they cannot be destroyed without a public process,” she says.

So far, 25 lights have been nominated, including those at Trial Island off Oak Bay, Sheringham Point near Sooke and Cape Mudge on Quadra Island.

But with the May 29 deadline looming, petitions have yet to be submitted for several of the lights deemed surplus by DFO, including Race Rocks, generally seen as the jewel in the crown.

Carney stresses that merely submitting a petition doesn’t mean the petitioner assumes responsibility for a light. The government has another three years to sort out which lights get heritage designation, so she advises getting the paperwork in by the deadline and figuring out the details later.

“We’re saying ‘petition first.’ Signing petitions for Race Rocks does not obligate you to do anything at the moment.”

It’s not as though the Race Rocks light is in immediate danger of keeling over, though. The tower went through eight months’ worth of restoration work in 2009 – everything from repairing the masonry (after years of neglect, it had deteriorated to the point where bits of the sandstone walls would break free when touched) to fixing the lantern-house glazing and applying new weatherproof coatings.

But that just highlights how silly this seems, the government simultaneously pouring money into the place and ducking any obligation to do so. It’s also strange that one branch of government, DFO, is running away from a heritage program being administered by another, Parks Canada. Meanwhile, B.C.’s Heritage Branch is monitoring the process to ensure that the likes of Race Rocks and the Fisgard Lighthouse are protected.

For more on the heritage lighthouse program, go to Parks Canada site.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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