Connection to the land and ocean has guided the Ahousaht people throughout their history and that bond is now at the root of a new sustainable economic development plan for the First Nation whose territory spans the heart of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Under the first phase of the plan, announced Thursday, there will be no mining or industrial logging in Ahousaht traditional territory and about 80 per cent of almost 171,000 hectares will be set aside as cultural and natural areas “to conserve biological diversity, natural landscapes and wilderness and to provide to Ahousaht continued spiritual, cultural and sustenance use.”
During recent years there has been controversy in Ahousaht territory over a proposed open pit copper mine on Catface Mountain on Flores Island and over old-growth logging, which was halted after Ahousaht hereditary chiefs declared a moratorium in 2015.
Another source of dissention has been salmon farms, which have operated in the area for several decades and employ Ahousaht members, and there will be community discussions before any decision is made on their future, hereditary Chief Maquinna Lewis George said at the announcement in Tofino.
The plan says no uses will be allowed that undermine community food fish resources.
“The economic sustainability of our community must be underpinned by sustainable marine and land use planning and that is where we are starting today,” Maquinna said.
The land use vision is the culmination of two years of community work led by the Maaqutusiis Hahoutlhee Stewardship Society, which represents the Ahousaht hereditary chiefs, with technical support from The Nature Conservancy, which has committed to raise a stewardship endowment fund to help implement the land use vision.
“This is the largest leap forward in old-growth forest conservation in over two decades on Vancouver Island,” Ken Wu, executive director of Ancient Forest Alliance, told DeSmog Canada.
The Ahousaht First Nation has more old-growth forests in their traditional territory — both in terms of percentage and in terms of remaining hectares — than any First Nation band on B.C.’s southern coast, he said.
“Their plan raises the bar for conservation across Vancouver Island…where only about 20 per cent of the remaining old-growth forests still stand.”
Nature Conservancy executive director Hadley Archer said the plan is “a blueprint for a sustainable future rooted in sacred cultural values and protective of a globally significant ecosystem.”
Ahousaht, which has about 2,000 members with one-third living on reserve, also received a financial boost last summer when Premier Christy Clark announced $1.25 million in economic development funds for the community over the next five years.
Hereditary Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said the vision of a more diversified, sustainable local economy, with development of tourism opportunities and community forestry reaffirms traditional teachings that the Ahousaht people are inextricably linked to the natural world.
“This bold vision brings certainty to the future of old-growth forests and ensures functioning marine and aquatic ecosystems into the next millennia. It is a proud day to be Ahousaht,” he said.
The plan divides the territory into seven land use management areas that are designed to protect Ahousaht cultural and heritage resources, maintain and enhance the Ahousaht way of life, protect and maintain biological diversity and natural environments and provide community development opportunities.
Possible activities in the different zones include community infrastructure construction, light industrial development, run-of-river hydro-electric development, tourism and hospitality development, silviculture, food and community timber harvesting.
The plan is being applauded by environmental groups who praised Ahousaht leaders for taking a principled stand to protect their territory.
The land use visions “steps up to meet the environmental and social imperatives of the 21st century with solutions for rainforest conservation and community benefits within their famous territory, located in one of the most beautiful and ecologically rich landscapes in the world,” said Valerie Langer of Stand.earth.
Nuu-chah-nulth political scientist Eli Enns, North American regional coordinator for the Indigenous Peoples and Community Conserved Territories and Areas Consortium, said the agreement is part of a pattern of hereditary chiefs working for sustainable use of their territories.
The Ahousaht people always managed their territory in a sustainable fashion, but, in recent decades the community faced the frustration of seeing the decline of the fisheries and forestry sectors because of reckless decisions made by the provincial government, Enns said.
There was also the irritation of being left out of the booming tourism industry in other parts of Clayoquot Sound, such as Tofino, he said.
“A lot of the emotion of the last 15 to 20 years has been because of trying to transition, but also it has been a call for support,” Enns said, pointing out that many community members continue to struggle with the fallout from residential schools.
“I think the most important story here is resilience. People still know who they are and they still have their values,” he said.