Opening the west: push for road from Cowichan Lake on

A push is on to improve the road between Cowichan Lake, Nitinat and Port Alberni, with the aim of opening up the area for business development.

Driving the movement is the Huu-ay-aht First Nation, a group of about 750 members which owns 8,500 hectares of land in the Barkley Sound region on the west coast of Vancouver Island at the entrance to the Alberni Inlet.

The Huu-ay-aht signed their treaty with the provincial and federal governments in 2011, and now operate under a municipal system where they collect taxes to provide services to their people.

The Huu-ay-aht want "significant" road improvements to the 120 kilometre stretch to bolster the development of two large industrial projects, a transshipment hub in Port Alberni and a liquid natural gas project at Sarita Bay.

These projects are key to the future of the band, said Chief Councillor Jeffrey Cook, because 85 per cent of their people don’t live on the nation’s lands, and they’d like to lure them home with the promise of good jobs.

Both proposed projects will require materials to be transported overland from the east to the west coast of the Island.

The long-ignored stretch of what they’re calling the West Coast Vancouver Island Road is the preferred route.

"We’ve been talking about the road for the better part of 30 years," said James Edwards, the band’s executive director, but said upgrade proposals are finally starting to gain some traction.

The province has indicated the development is a matter of when, not if, he said.

"We want to make sure the when is soon," said Edwards.

The goal is to have the road designated a public highway and brought up to safety standards and either have asphalt laid or have the surface chip-sealed.

Saying that "the road isn’t great, perhaps is an understatement," Edwards said.

At some times of the year it’s not really even passable, he said, and is certainly not suitable for those looking to go camping or hiking in the area.

Attracting such visitors is also an important part of developing the entire area economically, he said, including Lake Cowichan, and Nitinat.

Fixing the road will also significantly improve access to medical and emergency services, Edwards said, especially if a disaster were to occur.

The current lone highway into Port Alberni has both safety and congestion issues, he pointed out, and a secondary route is smart development.

The vision is to pay for the upgrades with both private and public funding.

"We do see that this is going to take a partnership," Edwards said.

The CVRD is being asked to voice their support for the project and be part of a group meeting with the province to sell the idea.

Directors were enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Coun. Tim McGonigle from Lake Cowichan said he could see that the area "would most definitely benefit," while Dir. Ian Morrison said of the proposal, "This is music to my ears.

The proposal will come back to the board for action at a later date.