Tree farm links Nanaimo to logging past

NANAIMO – Volunteers restore former arboretum used to test exotic species for commercial timber

A team of volunteers has spent nearly a decade revitalizing a little-known link to Nanaimo’s logging past.

The H.R. MacMillan Grant Ainscough Arboretum, 12 kilometres south of Nanaimo, is nearly restored to its former glory thanks to the work of volunteers and former employees of MacMillan Bloedel. New interpretive signs are  propped up near trees, the grounds are  cleared of weeds and deep ruts have been repaired.

It’s now a far cry from the “awful” state of the neglect the grounds were in eight years ago when the Regional District of Nanaimo first purchased the property for a potential transfer station and park, say those involved in its restoration.

At one time, the arboretum sported more exotic tree species than any other experimental farm in British Columbia and attracted university tour groups from across the province, who wanted to study the behaviour and growth of the trees. It was a “beautiful” and well-utilized site geared at testing exotic species for commercial timber production and educating the public, said Don Pigott, who worked at the arboretum and Tree Improvement Centre for 13 years.

But the 2.6-hectare site began to fall into a state of decline  with little or no maintenance after 1999 because of changed ownership and shrinking budgets, reports the regional district. The arboretum had wind damage, weeds and garbage; trees had been cut down and ruts carved into the property from all-terrain vehicles.

A team of volunteers – most of whom were former MacMillan Bloedel employees – offered to help the district restore the site as a historical, educational and recreational park.

“It was just in an awful state … there was a lot of work to do in the start,” said Pigott, who originally helped propose the revitalization effort.

Today “it is very gratifying to see something … the founder of Macmillan Bloedel started over 56 years ago is still here for the public to enjoy.”

The experimental tree farm was the brainchild of lumber magnate H.R. MacMillan, whose mill operation was once considered the cornerstone of Nanaimo employment.

More than 150 exotic species were tested at the site, which is now maintained and monitored by the district and volunteers as an unofficial park.

Tom Osborne, general manager of recreation and parks, said the area is still not very well known but is a neat and unique feature in the Harbour City that’s working its way back to its original glory.

Volunteers have almost finished adding interpretive signs and hope to soon add picnic tables.

“It is a really neat link to the forestry background of Nanaimo,” Osborne said. “There are some really [interesting] looking trees and some really ugly ones [but] they are still there and some you can see are doing fairly well.”