The Gitxsan Model: A Vision for the Land and the People
(Photo: Russel Collier of SWAT)
Strategic Watershed Analysis Team, British Colombia, Canada
Russell Collier, email@example.com
Lands and Resources Planner, Former Director
Martine Rose, Director
In 1984, the Gitxsan people, along with their neighbors the Wet'suwet'en,
embarked on a long journey that would be known as the Delgamuukw aboriginal
title case. This Supreme Court of Canada decision established hopeful new
tests for the content and proof of aboriginal title and allowed the Gitxsan
the opportunity to prove legal entitlement to their territory. At the same
time, the Gitxsan saw it necessary to develop an alternative model for the
management of their land, one predicated on long-term sustainability.
This report presents the ecosystem-based planning model developed by the Gitxsan
Strategic Watershed Analysis Team (SWAT) for the Gitxsan territories in northwestern
British Columbia, Canada. This report describes why this model represents one of the
best community forestry solutions in British Columbia today.
In summary, the Gitxsan Model Is:
- A process for long-term ecological and social sustainability
- A solutions-based model that builds cooperation between the Gitxsan
and nonaboriginal members of the community
- A viable alternative to current practices for both aboriginal and nonaboriginal
- One of the most sophisticated ecosystem-based community forest models
in British Columbia, combining aboriginal knowledge and values with the most
up-to-date scientific information and technology (such as GIS)
- Fundamental to tenure reform and forest policy change in British Columbia
The Gitxsan: Their Land and Their Struggle
Gitxsan territory is in
northwestern British Columbia, east of Prince Rupert. Ecologically, Gitxsan
territory includes extensive old-growth forests and numerous unlogged watersheds.
Wildlife is abundant and includes populations of grizzly bear, black bear, fisher,
wolverine, northern goshawk, trumpeter swan, pine marten, marmot and mountain
goat, bull trout, and tailed frog. The Skeena watershed and its tributaries
form one of the larger Coho runs in British Columbia, which is endangered.
The main threat has been
industrial forestry, which has resulted in extensive clear-cuts and roads across
Gitxsan land, the loss and degradation of wildlife and habitat, and a constant
undermining of Gitxsan ways of life and opportunities.
Gitxsan territories fall
mainly within the Kispiox Timber Supply Area (TSA), an administrative area managed
by the provincial Ministry of Forests for the purpose of expediting industrial
logging. The British Columbia government allows over 1,000,000 m3 of wood to
be logged from the Kispiox TSA each year, an amount that the government admits
exceeds the long-term sustainable level of harvest by almost 75 percent. Almost
all logging is done by clear-cutting.
The Gitxsan have meticulous
records of over 400 referrals on cut blocks and road layouts in which the Gitxsan
requested changes to logging and road layout plans to protect the environment,
wildlife habitat, and Gitxsan cultural values changes, which the Gitxsan say
are necessary for them to exercise their aboriginal rights. With rare exceptions,
all of the Gitxsan's requests for better management of their land have been
ignored by the Ministry of Forests, contrary to the government's fiduciary obligations
to the Gitxsan.
In response, the Gitxsan have waged an unrelenting battle to protect their land
and culture from destruction. Their courageous efforts, documented in the 1991
film Blockade, managed to keep industrial logging out of one Eagle Clan territory
for many years, but only temporarily.
The Gitxsan: Their Victory and Vision
This strong nation may
be known best for their decade of battles and victories in the courtroom. Most
recently, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that aboriginal title must be recognized
as a distinct property right to land, capable of overriding all other interests
This historic court ruling, known as the Delgamuukw Decision (named after one
of many Gitxsan and Wet'suwer'en chiefs who first brought the case to court)
is a precedent-setting decision that may forever change aboriginal entitlement
to land and resources-in particular, forests. (Please See Appendix 2 for details
on the Delgamuukw decision.)
What Delgamuukw Means
For British Columbia First Nations, the decision finally offers an opportunity
to prove legal title to unceded land.
For the British Columbia government, the decision challenges the current treaty
process predicated on aboriginal extinguishment of land rather than entitlement.
For environmentalists and forest activists, which include Gitxsan persons, the
decision marks an opportunity for legal resistance to industrial logging and
other pressures on Gitxsan land.
For the community forestry movement, the decision represents a significant fissure
in the rigid tenure system, with the possibility for the people who live on
the land to make decisions about how it is managed.
For Gitxsan people, the decision is the latest victory in an ongoing mission
for cultural, ecological, and economic long-term survival.
Delgamuukw and SWAT
(Photo: Mari, Janet and Darlene of SWAT take GPS fizes)
With the Delgamuukw decision allowing the Gitxsan to prove legal entitlement to their
territory, the Gitxsan saw it necessary to develop an alternative model for
the management of their land, one predicated on long-term sustainability.
In 1994, the Gitxsan SWAT resumed work on an ecosystem-based plan for Gitxsan
land. SWAT determined that the best way to stop the large-scale destruction
of the forests, salmon, culture, and social health of the people was to develop
a sustainable ecosystem-based community forest model.
The SWAT modeling project also mapped "defensible information" that
could be used in court to demonstrate legal title to the land. Delgamuukw does
not immediately award the Gitxsan rights over their territory. First, the
Gitxsan must prove their claim to aboriginal title in court, and once they do,
legally they will hold right to entitlement. In order to prove aboriginal title,
they must document evidence of use and occupation of the land.
Thus, the Gitxsan Model is a mapping strategy that has two linked objectives.
1. To develop an ecosystem-based alternative to industrial timber planning
2. To map the Gitxsan land-holding system-both past and present use and occupation
of their territory
The second objective (entitlement) leads to the implementation of the first
objective (the alternative model). Delgamuukw, therefore, means that unlike
other community forestry proposals in British Columbia, the Gitxsan Model actually
has the potential of legally being implemented.
The Gitxsan Model: An Ecosystem-Based Plan
The Gitxsan Model is an ecosystem-based plan that maps where and how any logging
or activity may take place on Gitxsan territory. Unlike conventional timber planning,
which allocates cut blocks primarily according to short-term political and economic
criteria, the Gitxsan Model studies first the ecological and cultural requirements for
long-term sustainability. This is done through the overall examination of a
series of inventory maps for various ecological, biological, and cultural indicators.
SWAT has spent years in the field collecting biological, ecological, and cultural
inventories and using GIS technology to map this information. SWAT has inventoried
and mapped particular species and resources that are representative of the whole
ecosystem. These include grizzly bear, moose, and salmon. In addition, SWAT has
inventoried and mapped for such conditions as soil and terrain stability, age and condition
of forests (such as old growth), the health and quality of salmon-bearing waterways,
as well as nontimber resources such as pine mushrooms and berries.
Inventories have also been conducted for culturally significant values and areas.
For centuries, the Gitxsan have hunted and trapped pine martens, wolverines,
mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, and marmots, as well as fished and
collected a wide range of plants for food and medicinal purposes. Gitxsan territory
is criss-crossed with trails to hunting, gathering, fishing, and trapping areas
as well as seasonal and permanent camps, village sites, and culturally modified
trees. Evidence of the Gitxsan's occupation and use of their traditional lands
is extensive and beginning to be well documented on maps. More than 400 days
of oral testimony on the Gitxsan's occupation and use of their territories was
provided by Gitxsan people as part of the court battle that led to the Delgamuukw
decision and is being used by SWAT for the mapping project.
The inventories transect both horizontal and vertical landscapes-from the soil
layer to the top of the forest canopy. Morover, a goal of the work is to transect
time. SWAT plans to use both terrestrial ecosystem mapping (TEM) and predictive
ecosystem mapping (PEM) to move different kinds of planning scenarios forward
and backward in time. The objective is to move far beyond five-year development
plans and 60- to 80-year timber rotation cycles that dominate current Ministry
of Forests planning to a model that more closely resembles how an ecosystem
functions. This type of technology is not being employed by the British Columbia
government, which continues to use outdated forest cover maps that account for
no other criteria beyond timber to make decisions about where and how much to cut.
The Gitxsan Model is a
comprehensive examination of the ecosystem, its structure, its function, and
its components. Based, then, on the overlay of these maps, the plan determines
important and sensitive sites as well as areas suitable for ecologically responsible
forest use. To date, a tremendous amount of information has been collected on
the structure, composition, and function of ecosystems for Eagle Clan territory
in the Skeena West area and the Wolf and Frog Clan territories in the Babine
area (Map 3). These planning areas comprise approximately one-sixth of the Gitxsan
Appendix 1 of this report
contains four example maps specifically for the Skeena West planning unit. The
grizzly bear map shows the range and habitat for resident grizzly bears. Information
was collected through aerial surveys, forest cover maps, intensive surveys of
grizzly bear trails, and "strip" mapping (the process of walking a
transect and recording detailed observations of habitat use along the transect).
The salmon map was compiled through a detailed ground survey of salmon spawning
and rearing areas. The berry map is based on both detailed ground observation
and interpretation of forest cover maps. The timber map shows areas where ecoforestry
could be practiced on stable terrain without compromising other values.
Thus far, SWAT has produced
over 50 maps using GIS to portray the location and extent of indicator species
and resources within these two planning areas. The information base for these
planning units now includes a remarkable amount of information, from soil layers
to the top of the forest canopy, combining both traditional ecological knowledge
and modern resource uses.
An Ecological Approach
The Gitxsan Model is a
plan for the entire landscape and considers whole watersheds, biodiversity,
animal migration patterns, critical habitat, and the traditions and culture
of the Gitxsan nation.
Gitxsan "houses," or wilp territories, generally conform to natural
watersheds. All house members are responsible for the health of the wilp territory.
The Gitxsan First Nation is composed of approximately 60 wilps, which are extended
family clans with ownership and responsibility over the wilp's territory (see
Appendix 3). Gitxsan identity is defined by the interrelated wilp structure
and is deeply rooted in the land.
While establishing planning areas according to watersheds or other ecosystem-based
boundaries makes ecological sense, these boundaries clash with the Ministry
of Forests timber-based planning regions. The Gitxsan Model, when implemented,
would assist in overcoming current barriers to ecologically sustainable planning.
was developed by forester Herb Hammond and to date has been adopted by 10 communities
in British Columbia. The Gitxsan Model is one of the most comprehensive of these
plans, as it integrates the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of the Gitxsan
people with modern science and information systems.
A Cooperative Approach
The Gitxsan approach to
management is inclusive and cooperative. The Gitxsan do not intend to exclude
others from being involved in, and contributing to, the sustainable management
of their lands. Once the Gitxsan prove entitlement, they will hold significant
legal authority over their territory; Delgamuukw recognizes aboriginal title
as a distinct property right to land, capable of overriding all other interests
including logging. However, the Gitxsan wish to work with local nonaboriginal
communities as well as existing tenure holders to develop cooperative management
agreements that respect and comply with the ecosystem-based plan.
An agreement struck with
the Kitwanga Lumber Company, a small locally owned licensee holding tenure on
Gitxsan land, allowed Art Loring and his team to practice ecoforestry. More
recently, the Gitxsan Eagle Clan and Kitwanga Lumber Company proposed a joint
venture whereby the company agreed to develop a plan with the Eagle Clan for
ecosystem-based mapping, protection of sensitive and culturally significant
areas, horse logging, and other forms of ecoforestry. Unfortunately, the Ministry
of Forests rejected the venture on the basis that it would seriously reduce
the region's wood supply and the size of the operable land base. Later, Kitwanga
was sold to Repap, which had a poor record of consultation with the Gitxsan
and is now insolvent. Nonetheless, this case offers a rare example of a local
tenure holder and a First Nation working together to reconcile the interests
of timber, culture, and ecology.
Gitxsan have always sought outside expertise and opinion and thoughtfully incorporated
the input of others in order to determine the best possible management approaches
for their land. For example, the SWAT team has worked closely with Herb Hammond
to develop ecosystem-based mapping and management approaches. Within the Eagle
Clan territory, Art Loring, who trained under Herb Hammond, has trained members
of his community to practice ecoforestry. The Gitxsan have brought in many experts
from outside the community not only to help with the development of the model
but also to equip members of the community with the skills and capacity to continue
the work on their own. The Gitxsan team and its growing array of volunteers
and community members are fully trained in GIS wildlife and biological inventory,
GIS mapping, and ecoforestry along with a host of other administrative, business,
and management skills. As the model expands into other house areas, SWAT transfers
capacity to the members of those houses so the process is conducted and led
locally. It enables an expansion of self-sufficiency, awareness, capacity, and
involvement throughout the territory.
Despite many years of hard struggle, costly legal battles, and numerous setbacks,
the Gitxsan remain remarkably positive that they can and will establish good
working relationships with the nonaboriginal community. The Gitxsan want to
work with the nonaboriginal sectors of the community to develop tourism opportunities
and other strategies for community economic diversification and value-added
production that will benefit both aboriginal and nonaboriginal communities in the region.
The Gitxsan have entered
into discussions with the provincial government to develop a legal framework
for implementing the Gitxsan Model, and these discussion are ongoing.
Strategic Watershed Analysis Team
SWAT is the technical arm of the Gitxsan. A registered, not-for-profit society, SWAT
is charged with developing long-term sustainable resource management solutions.
One step in developing a new relationship with government and industry is the
articulation of our own lands and resources management model in light of Gitxsan
aboriginal rights, ownership, and jurisdiction.
SWAT is accomplishing this
with a series of innovative projects designed to build local capacities, seek
out new relationships and partnerships outside the Gitxsan communities, and
provide technically sound and culturally relevant alternatives. Our products
are a creative fusion of the best of both Gitxsan and non-Gitxsan worlds that
all sides participate in.
The SWAT mandate is:
- To provide ecological, land use and resource use research, training, educational,
and map production services to Gitxsan wilps within our territories in a manner
that supports and is consistent with Gitxsan laws, culture, and societal structure
- To provide technical support and advice to Gitxsan wilps, clans, and other
Gitxsan institutions for aboriginal rights, treaty rights, and litigation
- To provide technical support and advice to non-Gitxsan communities and organizations
where such activities support and are not inconsistent with the above purposes
We have many projects currently under way:
- Mapping the ecosystem-based cultural infrastructure
- Analyzing government and industry development plans for the consultation processes
- Developing foundations for ecologically responsible forest use
- Conducting baseline inventories and assessing renewable and nonrenewable resources
within Gitxsan territories
- Building technical capacity using GIS, GPS, and other geospatial reference tools
- Building the capacity of house groups for effective natural resource decision
making and territory management
- Technical training and employment initiatives