One of Canada’s most fragile ecosystems is reopening to the public two years after the discovery of an unexploded mortar shell triggered the closing of the dunes at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Mortarmen destined for combat in Europe during the Second World War practised their aim at dunes near Tofino, dropping shells on a unique ocean-side landscape of pink sand verbenas, an endangered flowering perennial with thick leaves and the appearance of up to 16 bright-pink petals. The military stopped training in the area in the mid-fifties, but at least one shell was left behind in the sand.
“The area is perfect for small-arms fire and mortar practice because you have these nice high dunes,” said Jim Morgan, the park’s superintendent. “We took the land over in 1970 for the park reserve and for 42 years we have no record of any high explosives being found. It was an unusual occurrence.”
In February, 2012, an unexploded mortar shell was found and the task fell to the Department of National Defence to clean up the site. The shell was exploded there. However, the search for more explosives on the dunes – about the size of 20 soccer pitches – was complicated by ongoing efforts to restore the delicate local environment.
“It’s quite a rare ecosystem and there are a number of plant species and insects that live only in these dunes,” said Mr. Morgan. Parks Canada crews have been removing invasive grass and replanting pink sand verbena since 2009.
Working around the restoration was the main reason for the prolonged closing. Experts found “hundreds and hundreds” of pieces of shrapnel in the ground. Each piece of metal was dug up and removed, careful work in a field that could hold high explosives. No shells were found.
Moses Martin, 73, is the chief councillor of the nearby Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations. The small community is just north of the park’s boundary and heavily reliant on fishing. Mr. Martin remembers when soldiers were training in the area and when nearby Tofino airport was a Royal Canadian Air Force station.
“People weren’t surprised that they found that bomb there, but I spent many years on the ocean and I never worried about unexploded bombs,” he said.
Mr. Martin and local youth were in residential schools at the time and he never knew where the soldiers were training. Many years later, he is among the locals who enjoy the dunes on a warm summer day.
“It’s been hard to keep people out of such a popular area. It’s a great place to go in the summer as the light reflects off the sand and you are shielded from the wind,” said Mr. Morgan.
Parks Canada has put up new signs warning visitors that while the risk of uncovering more shells is very low, the dunes will never be completely hazard-free.
If people see metal on the dunes, they are asked to leave the area and call 911 or a posted number. Mr. Morgan suggests that they leave something behind, like a travel mug, to help parks employees find the object.