The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: The interconnectedness of people and place

The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats is inseparable from the story of those who shaped them.

After thousands of years of evolution alongside Coast Salish peoples, the story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats is inseparable from the story of those who shaped them. Storyteller, map maker, filmmaker, and restorationist, Tiffany Joseph shares experiences and expertise gained from growing up in, and as part of, these ecosystems as a W̱SÁNEĆ, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Quw’utsun person.

What can you tell us about the native forests and other ecosystems characteristic of the Saanich peninsula and the Gulf Islands, known as the Coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone?

The Saanich Peninsula has very limited old-growth forests, and the ŚIŚEJ, Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forests, grow intertwined with the ḰȽO,ELENEȻ, Garry Oak Ecosystem. Prior to non-Indigenous settlement, these landscapes were carefully tended to in harmony with mother nature. The whole peninsula, and the Gulf Islands were managed by fire for thousands of years to help cultivate all of our food plants. The ashes from the fire provided nutrients to the soil. The ashes were our fertilizer. We didn’t rely on additives like manure, the way western approaches to building soil do. The western way results in run-off into waterways and beaches, and contaminates our foods; using fire enriches the soil while keeping the surrounding land and water clean. These fire-enriched soils  helped provide an abundance of berries and sizeable camas bulbs. 

Camas with a bee on it.
Photo by Alex Harris.

My people and my ancestors have always had a very respectful relationship with fire. We have a prayer word for fire, because our relationship to fire is so sacred.  But, fire also has a sense of playfulness and lightness of spirit. I have heard people talk about how when they were kids they would play in the cool-burning, controlled  fire. They would run alongside it and jump through it as it burned the grasses. But with settler arrival, fire was removed as a tool from W̱SÁNEĆ people. The narrative settlers focused on would describe fire as fierce, and uncontrollable. Most people in this contemporary society are afraid of fire, and perceive it as wild and out of control. There is caution rather than trust and respect because most of us are inexperienced with fire.

People standing and looking at a burn mark on a tree.
Photo by Alex Harris.

As a young W̱SÁNEĆ person, it is hard to find people in my own Nation who have knowledge of prescribed burns as they were done historically by our peoples. While the young people will continue to respectfully ask our elders for these important teachings, we have to find another route for controlled fire knowledge. 

The settlers treated everything that Indigenous people did as a nuisance and inferior to western ways of management. This means people who continue to hold these prejudiced ideas have to do a lot of unlearning to recognize that Indigenous people have managed this land for thousands of years using fire in a safe and productive way that fed everyone without endangering fellow species. Species that are endangered today were abundant when Indigenous people were managing the land with fire. Species that everyone reveres, like the salmon and killer whale, were far more abundant than anyone alive today has ever seen. If seniors of today think they’ve seen a decline in salmon, our late elders saw much worse. 

Sockeye salmon in a river.
Photo by Fernando Lessa.

Beyond the disruption of Indigenous food systems, removing this relationship with fire from land management practice has led to what we have been experiencing in recent years: fierce and accidental fires that are more than we can handle. It is important to consider how the land was historically. When settlers came to our land they treated it as a resource and a place to create crops–not only vegetable crops, but forest crops–this has drastically altered the landscape.

So many forests in so-called BC have been planted by settlers, in places that were once meadows. Now, the land is out of alignment and people are attached to maintaining forests where they may not actually belong. A better relationship with the land is needed to make well-informed decisions. That is, decisions that are informed by thousands of years of knowledge rather than just 300 years. People in this region have to remember that Captain Vancouver did not arrive here until 1776. Often people go back to 1492 as the initial year of colonization, but that is not the history of colonization here, in what is colonially  known as British Columbia.  

Forest with little succession.
Second growth forest. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What is your connection to these ecosystems?

Being of W̱SÁNEĆ, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Quw’utsun ancestry, the entirety of the Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem is my ancestral homeland. I’ve lived in this zone, and the vast majority of my travel is within this zone. This means this zone  was tended to by my ancestors with ceremony, controlled burns, and returning the salmon to the creeks and rivers to ensure they’d always come back. We managed our food systems, following harvesting laws to only take what we needed and we were guided by many more laws and teachings.

How have these ecosystems changed over time? What are the major threats?

It will always weigh on me that 75%+ of British Columbians live in the Coastal Douglas-fir zone. A considerable amount of land in this region is privately owned. Our territory on the Big Island has experienced extensive and dense residential development in the area of Langford and along the Malahat highway during the pandemic alone. There has been considerable blasting of hillsides and mountainsides, and deforestation. Strange events have been happening, such as a weak tornado in the area colonially known as Saanich, BC.

It is challenging to answer this question specifically within the confines of the CDF zone. The way that these ecosystems are defined are not transborder. Coast Salish Territories extend beyond political borders. Likewise, the interconnectivity of waterways and ecosystems means actions have cascading effects, so a development in one place will have consequences somewhere downstream. 

For example, in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territories rivers have been drastically changed. The Capilano River where I grew up, for example, was once really wide. Now it is running next to a mall and has become much narrower. I remember, many years ago when my uncle was building his house there was an old tree trunk decaying deep underground–evidence of the time when the river extended much farther. This drastic narrowing was designed to make more space for economic development. The natural flows of the Capilano and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Rivers have been redirected so desirable building areas would stop flooding and this has resulted in loss of Oolichan and other fish. 

Altering water flows in this way, or draining wetlands, or changing creeks into something else, like a pond is an example of something that can have cascading effects into neighboring ecosystems. To reverse these impacts, restoration methods like taking out dams or rerouting a river to support salmon runs has brought salmon back to rivers where they’ve been extirpated, or increased their abundance. The Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS) has been helping to bring salmon back to this watershed. There is proof that when we re-establish the natural way of things nature can bounce back.

More specific to the CDF, draining wetlands for colonial-style farms rather than following Traditional practice to allow Indigenous foodways to flourish has been a widespread practice. Settlers destroyed lush camas meadows to make space to plant produce more desirable to the European food system. Yet, Indigenous foods, especially camas bulbs, can not only grow in standing water but can withstand drought–it is a food source that is perfectly adapted to this climate. Not only has it been an important food staple for humans, but camas and the other meadow species that typically grow with it like nodding onion, sea blush, wooly sunflower and many others are essential to pollinators. The destruction of camas fields has harmed Indigenous wildlife, bugs and animals alongside Indigenous people and food systems.

Indian celery with a bug on it
Photo by Alex Harris.

Finally, if you moved here in the last decade,  it is a completely different place compared to what I have known and lived in for the past 37 years. These past 10 years have been hard for me. For several summers now, we’ve had lots of blue skies and heat waves, but growing up I knew lots more gray days, and heat waves were uncommon. 

What are your recommendations for managers and others working in the ecosystems found within this zone?

For municipalities and cities in the CDF

  • Rezoning is needed to prevent further destruction of lands deemed greenspaces, and to improve walkability to reduce car dependency. Many non-residential areas are having a hard time generating business with current zoning in place, and people continue to struggle to find housing in the CDF zone, despite how densely developed it is. 
  • We need to be well prepared for climate-change induced weather events. We have to recognize that some areas have always, and will always collect more water. And, with climate change, more flooding is occurring.  We need to make decisions that are aligned with nature instead of going against it by recognizing that these ecosystems need to be respected as they are instead of being managed to suit short-sighted human needs or economic goals.

For land managers

  • It is essential to build strong relationships with Indigenous peoples and Nations, and to be open to accepting guidance and leadership from Indigenous peoples. Help protect Indigenous ceremony and ritual, we all have to do whatever is possible to protect land and expand protected areas. 
  • Speak with Indigenous elders and knowledge carriers and look at historical mapping comparing what exists now with what has been changed. There are many people advocating for the creation of more Garry oak ecosystems while others advocate for furthering the extent of conifer forests. In these efforts people need to be cognizant of whether they are advocating for the right restoration in the right area. Get to know the land and its history. 
  • Plant for pollinators and help educate people about the importance of pollinators.
Chocolate lily among wildflowers
Photo by Alex Harris.

For everyone

  • Honor each day, and be grateful for it.
  • Remember that cities like Victoria and Vancouver  were built in key trading areas for Indigenous peoples. These places were taken because the Indigenous people were so rich here. This is stolen wealth, and stolen land. Because the settler people were envious of what the Indigenous people had, they took it for themselves rather than building partnerships of mutual respect. 
  • Many settlers are not looking at truth. They just want to reconcile. There’s fear about  facing the truth, because it can bring up feelings of shame, and guilt. But, when we allow time and space for looking at the true history of Canada, and of our ancestors’ roles in colonization it gives us the chance to evolve perspectives, and recognize internal beliefs and prejudices that need to be transformed. As someone who is not from an oppressive race, gender, or class, I can see a greater understanding of the idea that when you love and respect and value yourself, you don’t commit harm to other people. In many Coast Salish languages, there is no word for sorry. All you can do is change your behavior. So at the end of the day we can apologize all we want, but the only true apology is changing behavior. 

About Tiffany Joseph

Bio: Tiffany Joseph has been learning Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Snichim (Squamish Language) from preschool to grade 10 and has been learning SENĆOŦEN language since 2015. Tiffany has produced videos for the W̱SÁNEĆ community, worked in environmental restoration, written stories and songs, and participated as a member of many committees to contribute to important issues in W̱SÁNEĆ territory. Tiffany is currently doing GIS Mapping, and often works with post-secondary classes focusing on Environmental studies and Indigenous studies.

Help us protect KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest

Together with Pender Islands Conservancy, we are raising funds to purchase and permanently protect a 45 acre forested property on the edge of the Salish Sea. The KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest is located within the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) biogeoclimatic zone, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Canada. It is also among the most threatened in Canada. Protecting these forests is an investment in our collective future.

We’ve just announced a donation matching campaign to support the purchase and permanent protection of KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest. Every dollar donated before December 31, 2022 will be matched by anonymous donors. This is a chance for you to double your impact!