First Nations are increasingly using geographical information systems and other cutting-edge mapping technologies as tools in land-use negotiations with government and business

Story by Curt Cherewayko, Business in Vancouver, October 21-27.

The Lil’wat Nation used to rely on contracted mapping professionals – or failing that, out-of-date paper maps – to gather detailed technical information about its land and resources.

Today, Lil’wat – and other First Nations – rely on their own increasing knowledge of sophisticated mapping technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS) to level the playing field during negotiations with government and business.

A land-use planning agreement that Lil’wat signed with the province last April was the culmination of negotiations that started three years ago, when Lil’wat first established a GIS program within its land and resource department.

In the agreement, six new conservancies totalling an area of 39,000 hectares were created, and Duffey Lake Provincial Park was nearly doubled in size.

According to Lil’wat’s GIS program manager, Tracy Howlett, the band couldn’t have entered the negotiations without technical information about its 797,000 hectares of territory that it collected using GIS.

“Just watching the past three years how the community has become aware of their own territory – it’s exciting to see the embracing of maps,” said Howlett.

GIS is software that translates spatial information – information that is primarily collected in the field by surveyors that use global postioning system (GPS) beacons to bounce signals off of satellites – into maps.

For First Nations, spatial information includes not only mountains and roads and rudimentary geography, but culturally relevant information such as traditional hunting and berry-picking areas, archaeological sites and the sites of former aboriginal settlements.

A lot of the mapping information that Lil’wat’s GIS program collects is used to respond to land-use referrals from third parties and governments that are interested in using crown land located in the band’s traditional territory.

Several court cases in recent years have reinforced the duty of government and business to accommodate and consult with First Nations on land and resource use.

As a result, First Nations are inundated with land-use referrals from forestry companies, mountain recreation operations and other businesses.

Roughly a dozen Lil’wat members are trained to use a terrestrial ecosystem mapping standard created by the Resources Inventory Committee, which is made up of resource specialists in B.C. from a number of disciplines.

The band’s fisheries branch uses GIS to survey watersheds, streams and salmon habitat restoration areas.

The band’s GIS program is entirely funded by grants, but in its five-year GIS technology and business strategy, the band is considering collecting fees for GIS services it provides.

In August, Maiyoo Keyoh Society of B.C. received funding from Geo-Connections, a mapping agency under the federal government, to assess how the society could use web-based mapping tools to better capture cultural data and better evaluate development proposals on its 22,000 hectares of land in central B.C.

The society has also forged a relationship with the largest forest company in the region, Canadian Forest Products to complete a land use and occupancy study that indentifies more than 2,000 locations of traditional land and resource use in the keyoh.

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation also known as the Burrard Band has completed a detailed atlas of the Say Nuth Khaw Yum Heritage Park and is using GIS in marine monitoring and watershed planning.

What connects the indigenous mappers of various bands is the Aboriginal Mapping Network (AMN), a non-profit organization that was formed in 1998 by the Gitxsan and Ahousaht First Nations and Ecotrust Canada.

The network’s mandate is to support aboriginal and indigenous peoples that are facing issues such as land claims, treaty negotiations and resource development using tools such as traditional-use studies and GIS mapping.

“These are people who are very focused on collecting that body of knowledge that has been missed by industry and government,” said Greg Kehm, information services manager of Ecotrust, which today hosts the AMN.

The AMN has partnered with the Lil’wat and Haida Nation to develop a web-based mapping application, which, when completed this fall, will allow non-technical members of First Nations to view referral proposals.

Located on Haida Gwai, the Haida receives dozens of land-use referrals, primarily from forestry companies, each month.

Marguerite Forest, the Haida Nation’s mapping co-ordinator, noted that there are trees on Haida Gwai that show evidence of aboriginal use dating back to the 1500s.

She said that by using GPS to mark their locations, culturally modified trees that have yet to be felled can be identified and protected.

The Haida also use remote sensing information from satellites and aircrafts to interpret aerial footage of Haida Gwai from the 1930s.

The data will give the band a glimpse of what Haida Gwai looked like before and after loggers discovered it.

“So much information can be gained nowadays from imagery,” said Forest, adding, “It’s a slow process: you have to spend years becoming a certified forest cover interpreter.”