In 1973, Barbara Hourston’s son Ian, then 15, took her for a walk through Nanaimo’s Linley Valley. He wanted to show her the beauty of the place, the peacefulness of the forest and the animals that lived there.
She was instantly taken with the valley and visited frequently in the following years to relax, walk and enjoy nature.
Nanaimo had not yet sprawled that far north and the thought of development threatening the property was far from anyone’s mind.
In 1991, with development creeping closer to the borders of the valley, Hourston was asked again to go for a walk through the valley by another 15-year-old boy – this time Andrew Simpson, who had recently moved to Nanaimo and was homesick for the pristine and expansive outdoors of his native Kootenays. He found that perfect place to explore in Linley Valley.
Soon after, the pair collaborated and made a presentation about the valley to Nanaimo city council, making it aware of the gem that existed within city limits.
That presentation proved to be the seed of something much larger.
Later that year, Gail Adrienne (Simpson’s mom), Hourston, Dean Gaudry and a few others attended a workshop at what was then Malaspina College on alternative transportation, spawning Vancouver Island Transportation and Land Use (VITAL), but the members lacked the critical knowledge of covenants and the concepts of land trusts.
On her own dime, Hourston recruited Tyhson Banighen, founder of Turtle Island Earth Stewards in Salmon Arm.
Banighen was invited to host a weekend workshop at Malaspina where he taught the group everything it needed to know about starting up a land trust. People from up and down the Island attended.
From that emerged the Linley Valley Park Committee in 1992 with a mandate to protect the natural jewel, and the committee worked closely with the city to secure 59 hectares of the valley as protected parkland, which eventually came to pass in 2001.
By 1995, the Linley Valley committee had morphed into the Nanaimo and Area Land Trust, which was officially incorporated as a charitable society that has since protected land on Mount Benson, continued to protect Linley Valley, assisted in protecting Moorecroft Camp and Buttertubs Marsh, among others, and has created countless stewardship and covenant programs both in Nanaimo and surrounding areas.
And that weekend workshop with Banighen spawned much more than NALT.
It was also the inspiration for: the Cowichan Community Land Trust in Duncan; the Habitat Acquisition Trust in Victoria, which later became The Land Conservancy; and the Comox Valley Land Trust.
Last Thursday, Hourston, who was co-chairwoman of NALT since 1995 and the driving force behind the organization since well before its inception, announced she was stepping down from her duties as a director.
“It has grown beyond my wildest dreams,” said Hourston. “This whole thing fermented for quite a number of years. There have been so many great people, supporters and countless volunteers along the way. None of this could have happened without them.”
Four years ago, Hourston underwent heart surgery, and she said she simply doesn’t have the energy to continue with the work.
“I’m flagging, I’m getting old,” she said. “I think it’s time some new blood participated. I think it’s good to have new people take over and carry on the work with renewed energy.”
Adrienne, NALT executive director who has been with the group almost since the beginning, said it was a series of chance encounters that she came to know Hourston.
“I met Barbara soon after I moved to Nanaimo in 1990, through another amazing woman – Gail McGee,” said Adrienne. “Although I can’t say we were close friends right away, our paths often crossed. Then came a day in 1991 that I ran into Barbara and she asked, ‘What do you know about the Linley Valley?’ I replied that my 15-year-old son Andrew was crazy about the area and had walked me through it.”
Gaudry met Hourston at the alternative transportation workshop that sparked VITAL. He said her sense of humour and ability to get things done were an instant inspiration to him.
“I’ve always been inspired by Barbara’s commitment to the environment and her dedicated activism,” said Gaudet, noting Hourston was also instrumental in starting the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange and the Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition.
“It’s been an absolute delight to work with her. She brings a sense of humour and a very positive and proactive approach to things. Where a lot of people would just throw up their hands and say something couldn’t be done, Barbara’s response is always ‘we can do this’,” he said. “She has a deep respect for the environment, but also for people and a tremendously positive approach.”
In a tribute to Hourston at the annual general meeting, Adrienne said NALT won’t be the same without its founding member.
“Over the years, Barbara has been a tireless champion, worker, and personal supporter of NALT – both with her time and her donations,” said Adrienne. “She has also become a good friend to me – a great support in times of need and she also doesn’t hesitate to let me know if I’m getting out of line. That’s what good friends are for. It will feel very strange if she ceased to be a part of NALT.”
Hourston, who was provided with director emeritus status at the land trust, said looking back, it was more than worth it to dedicate the past 40 years to protecting Nanaimo’s green spaces.
“It started with Linley Valley, then we fought for Neck Point and it went from there,” she said. “But there is so much more that can be done. It’s so important to have a land trust with this kind of designation and charitable status. But it’s tough financial times, and I just hope we can make it through.”