The Land-Sea-People Plan Creates A Future Full of Hope for Gwaii Haanas

Battlegrounds Story 03 – Cindy Boyco & Ernie Gladstone – Co-Chairs, Haida Gwaii Archipelago Management Board

Text by Blake Butterfield & Jason Murphy – Co-Editors-in-Chief

From Mountain-Top to Seafloor

The processes involved in establishing a working conservation area anywhere are complex. This may be especially so in Canada, where there are often a multitude of players at the table.

Since the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982, besides local and provincial government, communities and affected industries, Canada has committed to considering all First Nations claims to any area where conservation efforts become a focus. This doesn’t always tip the balance in favor of conservation, but it can. While governments and communities run on money, and industry runs in pursuit of money, the citizens of Canada’s First Nations can often provide an additional mediating voice against potentially unchecked capitalist interests.

Haida Gwaii–previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands–is an island archipelago off the Northwest coast of British Columbia (BC.) To find it on a map, follow the coast of BC north to Prince Rupert and then look west across the Hecate Strait.

In 1985, the Haida Nation declared a Haida Heritage Site encompassing more than 160 islands in Southern Haida Gwaii. In 1993 this same area was renamed Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, and 17 years after that, in 2010, the waters of Gwaii Haanas were also protected and given the official title of Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve.

 Gwaii Haanas

Gwaii Haanas


Today, most visitors to the entire jaw-dropping experience just say Gwaii Haanas, and thanks to the efforts began by the Haida Nation, it is now recognized worldwide as a priceless ecological and cultural treasure that includes a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the historic Haida settlement now known as SGang Waay (“Skuung Wy”) but originally called Nintstints (“Nan Sdins”.)

Gwaii Haanas is a remarkable achievement that stands testimony to how well things can go when disperate parties cooperate, but today’s successes are rooted in a battle that binds Haida land title to conservation efforts, first in the forest, and then in the ocean.


Disputed Territory

The road to protecting Gwaii Haanas started with logging disputes that began in the early 1970s, in what was then known as the South Moresby Wilderness Area. At that time, and for years to come, the province of BC claimed all title to the land and resources of Haida Gwaii, and doled out huge parts of it to logging companies.

In 1981, plans to extend logging to Burnaby Island, led to the first organized efforts to protect the trees, and in 1985, logging protests on Lyell Island brought the area into the international spotlight.

The first steps towards marine protections were modest. Today 3% of the waters of Gwaii Haanas are strictly protected, but the archipelago stands on the brink of massive change

The resulting pressure led to an agreement, finally signed in 1987, between BC and Canada’s federal government for the title of all of the lands in what was to become Gwaii Haanas to transfer from the province to Canada. This agreement not only committed the federal government to pay BC for the land, but also to establish a national park reserve and a marine park in Gwaii Haanas in the future, and in 1993 the Gwaii Haanas Agreement–the first ever agreement between Canada and the Haida Nation–created the Archipelago Management Board (AMB) for the purpose of managing the entire area.

Comprised of members from The Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) and Parks Canada, the AMB stood at its inception as both a symbol and practical manifestation of the mutual respect and commitment for both Haida and Canadian interests in the governance of Gwaii Haanas.

Thanks to the Agreement’s promise of future legislated protection of Gwaii Haanas, four major oil companies relinquished their petroleum leases within Gwaii Haanas boundaries in 1997. In 2001, Gwaii Haanas seabed interests were transferred from the province of BC to the federal government.

The later Marine Agreement promised that “the Gwaii Haanas Marine Area shall be regarded with the highest degree of respect and will be managed in an ecologically sustainable manner that meets the needs of present and future generations, without compromising the structure and function of the ecosystems.” It also paved the way for representatives of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to join the AMB.

The first steps towards marine protections were modest. Today 3% of the waters of Gwaii Haanas are strictly protected, but the archipelago stands on the brink of massive change–work has been underway to go much further and now, concrete steps have been taken to not only fulfill the promise of the Marine Agreement but to wrap these protections into the world’s first mountain-top to seafloor environmental management scheme.

Inclusive Process

The finalization this year of the Gina ’Waadluxan KilGuhlGa (Talking About Everything) Land-Sea-People Management Plan shows what can be accomplished when time and care is taken to follow through on a fully inclusive process.

Together with input from the public, other stakeholders and a technical team, the AMB has designed a program of conservation policies that will among other things increase the total strictly protected marine area in Gwaii Haanas from the current 3% to 40% percent, and they are quietly proud of their achievement.

AMB Co-Chairs Cindy Boyko and Ernie Gladstone agreed to talk to The Sealives Initiative this summer about the Land-Sea-People Management Plan, how it was brought to completion, what it means to them, and what they envision moving forward.

According to the CHN website, the plan “Seeks to protect Gwaii Haanas’ ecological and cultural values while also ensuring that livelihoods are protected.”

As such, the Land-Sea-People Management Plan includes:

  • A vision for the future

  • Guiding principles grounded in Haida law

  • Goals, objectives and measurable targets

  • A zoning plan driven by key ecological and cultural targets

The AMB understood that including the fishing industry and local fishermen in discussions and listening to their concerns, might be the only viable option for reaching lasting compromise on conservation safeguards.

It took longer than the AMB wanted for the Land-Sea-People Management Plan to reach where it is right now: signed by the CHN, Parks Canada and DFO, and before Canada’s parliament for final ratification, but from a conservation perspective, most agree that it represents a big step forward. Socio-economic factors have been a big part of the process as well: Livelihoods are at stake, especially for fishermen. And for many, it runs deeper–for many, fishing is a way of life.

Realism Gets Results

It’s a feature of our political system that commercial interests can have an overpowering influence on decision-makers both locally and globally, and, as is often the case, fishermen were the one stakeholder group that had the leverage to upend the whole process if they were not on board.

The AMB understood that including the fishing industry and local fishermen in discussions and listening to their concerns, might be the only viable option for reaching lasting compromise on conservation safeguards. From the start, they recognized the need to create a plan that was inclusive and held the best interests of as many stakeholders as possible in mind. This quiet determination has served them well, putting them at the forefront of conservation planning strategy, and they hope The Land-Sea-People Management Plan will be seen as an example that can be used elsewhere.

They admit that developing the Plan cooperatively between many stakeholders was the main reason it took so long to put together, but this was a concession they were willing to make to ensure they got as much right as possible. It took longer, but taking care to listen carefully to commercial fishermen, NGOs, tourism operators, the shipping industry, government agencies, and local communities, has resulted in a much better plan in their view.

The way they tell it, the process was educational for everyone involved. They believe that a natural byproduct of all their work is that all parties now understand each other more, and this should aid in the development of future versions of the plan.

Ernie and Cindy told us that the AMB and CHN were aware that fully protecting any area in Gwaii Haanas could mean more socio-economic pressure across the archipelago and potentially more commercial pressure on areas elsewhere in Haida Gwaii. They know they are not in a bubble–commercial and other forces do not disappear when squeezed out of one place. They just move.

In the case of logging in Gwaii Haanas, this meant compensation for logging interests in return for an end to commercial logging. In 1987, the BC government and the Government of Canada each agreed to put $12 million into an account established to compensate the forestry industry for employment. There was also a Forestry Compensation Account set up to receive a further $8 million from BC and $23 million from Canada.

In the case of commercial fishing, it has meant compromise in some areas – at least for now. Recreational or sport fishing and eco-tourism create their own impacts and will need to be governed carefully.

Gwaii Haanas restricts the number of visitors allowed within its boundaries but a modest increase is included as part of the Plan–travel to Gwaii Haanas will be allowed to increase by about 2% per year. The Haida will have rights to fish or gather trees everywhere in Gwaii Haanas but for traditional uses only.

A Legacy of Conservation for First Nations, Canada, and the World

Where the Haida have been particularly successful is in establishing the interwoven nature of ecological and cultural protection–an obvious truth from their cultural point of view–in the minds of Haida and Non-Haida alike, making it easier to set a high standard for both from the outset.

Some think that protections should go further–NGOs suggested a target of 80%, and some locals question whether even more couldn’t have been done–but central to the methodology is the hope that conservation efforts can work hand-in-hand with commercial interests when common ground is established.

With these non-negotiable goals made clear at the beginning, the AMB were able to approach the fishing industry and ask them to return to the table with their own solutions. This enabled the fishermen to respond with a list of compromises that they believed could work and allowed the for entire agreement to be brought into balance over time. The AMB believe that the finished plan will allow for economic opportunities in the future while protecting ecological systems today.

Some think that protections should go further–NGOs suggested a target of 80%, and some locals question whether even more couldn’t have been done–but central to the methodology is the hope that conservation efforts can work hand-in-hand with commercial interests when common ground is established. The AMB say that by working with the fishing industry instead of entering into conflict, the Plan has a chance to succeed. After the Plan’s ten-year lifespan is up, new recommendations and legislation may be put in place in light o progress made and lessons learned.

Nature does not put lines on maps and ecosystems traverse geophysical boundaries. But people like clarity so the Land-Sea-People Management Plan does feature maps with lines on them but only in so far as they are necessary to set-out an integrated protection plan over the entire area–a strategy that Ernie says the AMB knew was the only way forward.

In respect of this, the Land-Sea-People Management Plan will zone everything from seabird nesting sites to kayaking and camping. Forests on land and under the sea will be protected. and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have been targeted.

It’s all very grown-up.

Gina ’Waadluxan KilGuhlGa–Talking About Everything–has resulted in real-world solutions.

The work that Ernie, Cindy and the others involved have done is a testament to cooperation. In today’s increasingly polarized societies, we often forget something very important: working together with people who have different viewpoints is one of the building blocks of civilization. It is how we learn to behave in a civilized manner, and it’s how we get things done.

North America’s First Nations people were dismissed as uncivilized savages by Europeans when they first arrived to exploit them and their lands. Try as the white invaders did to crush them, the Haida survived, and, supported by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and their own legal strategies, are now reasserting their title to their land and their say as to how the environments they have lived in for centuries should be cared for.

It is a bittersweet irony that the actions of a First Nations people in a remote archipelago would today lead such a disparate group of stakeholders in the creation of a cutting-edge integrated plan to protect the magnificence of what remains. And, in doing so, perhaps create a template for other groups around the world to begin working together towards halting centuries of ruin and start instead down the long road to conservation.