Haida Gwaii, July 2011, a set on Flickr.
After a short jaunt to Seattle, where we nearly got our anchor stuck (Rob finally yanked it free just as we were about to go look for a diver), picked up our new ham radio (it’s working great so far), lugged a shiny new life raft back to the boat on the bus, and spent some time with an inspiring friend, we’re working our way west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of Washington. Although the weather is great right now, it looks like there’s some ugliness spinning towards Alaska that may be big enough to affect our weather here as well. If that’s the case, we might be in Neah Bay for a couple of days before we head south.In the meantime, we’ve continued to think about our visit to Haida Gwaii, and, through a team effort, have put together some thoughts on what makes the islands so unique (with photos).
Sailing to the offshore island archipelago of Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, was noteworthy for the exciting crossing from British Columbia and the beautiful scenery, but it was the story of the people and the land that fascinated us the most.
As you approach Haida Gwaii from Hecate Strait, it’s the smell of cedar that tells you you’ve nearly reached land. But most of the giant red cedars that once flourished on Haida Gwaii have been cut. The Haida, the indigenous people of the islands, now struggle to find cedars suitable for building traditional canoes or totems, and the composition of the forest has changed dramatically as a result of logging, mining, and the introduction of several non-native species. The islands, sitting on the edge of the continental shelf, are still beautiful, but in many areas, the behemoth stumps of cut cedars and the scars of large mines make you feel deeply the loss of what must once have been a truly profound landscape. For decades, the Haida, who once had villages throughout the islands, fought to curb unsustainable logging on Haida Gwaii. This landmark campaign resulted in the creation of several reserves, including the entire southern half of the islands, now called Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site. The forethought and determination needed to set aside special areas like this is significant, but on Haida Gwaii this forward thinking also lead to a unique cooperative management of the park and the creation of a one-of-a-kind marine reserve. The Haida and the Canadian government have spent decades on opposite sides of the fence in disputes and litigation over logging and are now involved in ongoing disputes regarding the ownership of Haida Gwaii, yet the two have managed to work together to create a co-management board for Gwaii Haanas National Park. The board operates on a consensus basis, with the goal of protecting both the wilderness character of the park and the cultural heritage in which the remains of village sites, the half-finished ancient canoes hidden in the forests, and the land itself are inescapably steeped. The board is made up of both park officials and Haida leaders, so that the Haida have an equal say in the management of the park.
Further, a unique “Watchmen Program” launched by the Haida before the park was created, provides an avenue for modern Haida to foster their tie to the land and share their history and culture with visitors every day. Through this program, Haida people live at culturally important sites throughout the islands and act as interpreters, guides, and protectors for these ancient village sites and other important areas. During our visit to the park we met young Haida watchmen just learning about these special places, as well as seasoned watchmen who spoke with such authority and passion for the sites that we came away awed by the privilege of being allowed to walk in such sacred spaces. One of the program’s greatest benefits is that it provides an opportunity for both the watchmen and the visitors to gain through the experience and to develop a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the connection between the land and traditional practices, as well as their influence on modern Haida culture. Without the willingness of the watchmen to share their culture and history, a visit to the park would lack much of its power.
The Haida’s connection to the land, however, does not stop at the boundaries of the intertidal zone. Modern science and traditional knowledge both explain that the land and sea are connected, and this connection is central to the goals of Gwaii Haanas. A salmon, for example, is born in a freshwater river in Haida Gwaii, then travels to the sea to mature and grow. Eventually, it will to return to the freshwater to spawn, where it may become lunch to a bear or, after spawning, its decaying body may supply nutrients to the earth. It only makes sense for protected areas to manage both the land and the sea. In 2010, the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve claimed the distinction of being the first place to manage an area that extends from the top of mountains to the bottom of the ocean floor. This reserve extends roughly 10km offshore and includes estuaries, sandy beaches, rocky shorelines, kelp forest, and deep waters of the continental shelf and slope. Although the specific zoning structure of the marine reserve is still being worked out, it will likely include tourism, traditional harvesting, recreation, and commercial fisheries in some places, while other areas may be fully protected. Habitat restoration projects to bring back salmon runs devastated by past logging practices are already underway, and more research and restoration projects are under development for the future.
You may be saying to yourself, “Of course a park should engage and work with the native and local people.” Or maybe, “Of course reserves should manage the land and water together.” Indeed, these seem like obvious steps, but a surprising number of protected areas struggle with these two critical points. Implementing these principles in the management of special areas can be challenging and is frequently met with considerable opposition, political hurdles, and communication issues. It takes thought and effort to take these two points from theory to practice, but the results, as we saw in Gwaii Haanas, can be more successful, comprehensive protection for the cultural and ecological values of special places, broad support for protection of the area, and a more meaningful experience for visitors as well as for those with long-standing cultural ties to the land.