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Cleaning up after a squat

A Squamish conservationist and his spring routine



All is quiet on the Squamish Spit. It's early morning in February; the sun is up, but the light is only radiant, the source still somewhere behind the Chief. John Buchanan fiddles with straps binding a canoe to the back of his truck, while Mayor Greg Gardner stands by.

This is a springtime chore for Buchanan. He paddles around the estuary, crosses Squamish River and roots through the woods in search of squat camps, some of which are small, though others are large and complicated, with bunks and decks - to say nothing of waste.

It's long been a problem in the estuary, and the reasons can be hard to nail down. For some people, squatting is simply a lifestyle, one free of rent and other domestic responsibilities. For others, it's a necessity, one delivered by any number of misfortunes, be they financial or mental. Interestingly, the west side of Squamish river seems to be home to the former, while the parts of the estuary nearing downtown are nest to the latter.

"I check up on a lot of camps," said Buchanan, as he combs through the bush on the west side of the river. "I never find the needles or the booze bottles over here. On the other side, yes."

Buchanan isn't sure what happens to squatters after he reports them to the authorities. In August 2007, after years of effort, the Skelwil'em Squamish Estuary Wildlife Management Area was born, thus bringing 673 hectares of land at the head of Howe Sound under the purview of the B.C. Ministry of Environment. A squatter caught on those lands is issued a trespassing order by B.C. Parks. If caught elsewhere on Crown land, a land officer issues the order.

But that's not what Buchanan is about. He doesn't engage the squatters, doesn't want them brought up on charges. It's the environmental footprint the camps have that concerns him. Gardner, who is with Buchanan to explore the problem, agrees.

"Let's not judge the lifestyle," says the mayor. "Let's worry about the impact."

The impact can be significant. The camps aren't always apparent, but, as with one on the west side of the river, they loom rather suddenly out of the bush. This camp is sizeable. A blue tarp covers a rather able piece of rustic architecture. Already, bits of the tarp are breaking off, collecting in nearby streams and thickets. On a previous visit to the same site, Buchanan found an outhouse structure dumping straight into the water. According to some of Buchanan's research, degraded plastics are found in a good deal of sea birds, up to 80 per cent, though the sources aren't always squatter camps.

"There's just so much," he says.

Things are getting easier, though. Now that certain areas are protected under the auspices of the Estuary Management Plan, enforcement is more practical.

And that leaves clean-up. In previous years, Buchanan had help from government when it came to wading through his camp inventory. When that help wasn't available, he would do it on his own. But, as with so much, that help is falling prey to budgetary axes. Further, the camps are becoming more numerous.

"I'm going to get the high school involved," announces Buchanan.
Education and fieldwork make a classic cocktail, one that inspires ownership. That kind of mentality has sunk into Buchanan's own thinking, right down to his diction. Seldom does he refer to the estuary without a personal pronoun, and seldom do people who speak that way about a thing forget about the importance it holds for them.

"This kind of stuff makes me so mad," he says.