As the world watched the oil disaster unfold in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, Canada made history by establishing the first national park to extend legal protection from mountaintop to ocean floor.
The Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve covers about 2,200 square miles of the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Shelf, and extends 6 miles offshore and 2,000 feet below sea level.
The marine conservation area enlarges the existing Gwaii Haanas National Park, a sizable portion of the archipelago off the coast of British Columbia formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands and recently renamed Haida Gwaii, “islands of the people.”
The battle to protect what is now Gwaii Haanas started 25 years ago, when 72 Haida First Nation elders were arrested for blockading logging trucks en route to old-growth forest. Their actions brought international media attention. Working with environmental groups, the Haida nation eventually struck an accord with the Canadian government to end logging and create a national park.
Since then, years of discussion among the Haida, Canadian government officials, scientists, environmentalists, fishermen, and a range of industries have yielded an unprecedented model for conservation—an equal partnership between a First Nation and national government to oversee the area.
In the Haida language, Gwaii Haanas means “islands of beauty and wonder.” It is indeed a jaw-dropping landscape—a mix of fjords, mountains, tundra, bogs, and windy beaches. Conservationists have dubbed it the “Galapagos of the North.” It hosts at least 39 species found nowhere else, including a genetically unique black bear larger than those in mainland North America. The marine area is home to sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and humpback, orca, and minke whales. Gray whales stop there during the summer on their migration south. Haida Gwaii’s coast is also a significant nesting site for Pacific Ocean seabirds.
The conservation area allows limited fishing, tourism, and alternative energy development but prohibits oil and gas exploration. There is concern over the environmental impact of a proposed oil pipeline on British Columbia’s mainland coast that would increase tanker traffic in Hecate Strait east of Haida Gwaii.
—Kristin Kolb wrote this article for A Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Kristin is a freelance writer in Seattle, who directed communications for the campaign to save the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia.
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