The Gulf Islands Atlas is a web-based mapping tool that brings together a variety of information about the natural and cultural attributes and resources of the southern Gulf Islands region. Its main purpose is to foster public awareness of the resources within Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and to help park managers make informed decisions that promote the maintenance of ecological integrity on park lands while at the same time allowing for public enjoyment and education opportunities. The contents of the atlas can assist researchers in creating a profile of the myriad of ecosystems within the park (from the macro to the regional), be used in the development of communications and interpretive products, provide the building blocks for management planning, and paint a portrait of the human presence on the islands over the millennia.
Southern Gulf Islands
The Southern Gulf Islands are located in the protected waters behind Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and form part of a rocky archipelago that stretches into Puget Sound. One of the mildest climates in Canada and close proximity to major cities make this area a prime location for tourists and full time residents alike.
Major communities are based on Gabriola, Galiano, Salt Spring, Mayne, Saturna, and the Pender Islands. Smaller communities also exist on Thetis, Kuper and Sidney Islands. The largest town, Ganges, is located on Salt Spring Island and has amenities such as hotels, restaurants, and shops. Residents on the islands have diverse occupations; however tourism and agriculture play a major role.
One of the most striking features of the islands is the prominent northwesterly-southeasterly alignment of the islands and ridges. This is a result of the folded structure of shale and sandstone/conglomerate rock layers that have been eroded by glaciers and ocean waves. The prominent headlands and high ridges are formed from comparatively erosion resistant sandstone/conglomerate whereas the bays and valleys are sculpted from softer and more easily eroded shale.
The dominant tree species on the islands is the Douglas Fir, which is interspersed with Gary oak and arbutus in the drier regions, and western red cedar and grand fir in the moister regions. Lower growing plants include salal, Oregon grape, wild rose, sword fern, and salmonberry. The islands are part of the Coastal Douglas Fir biogeoclimatic zone – the smallest biogeoclimatic zone in BC extending only from Powell River to Victoria at low coastal elevations.
Common animal species on the islands include the Columbia bat, Columbia black tailed dear, Douglas squirrel, Pacific water shrew, Townsend’s chipmunk, and Western spotted skunk.
The rocky shores on and around the islands are stopover sites for migratory birds and nesting sites for many seabirds. Bald eagles are a common sight soaring above the islands and nesting in tall trees. There are also haul-out sites for California and Steller sea lions and harbour seals.
Intense pressure from urbanization, agriculture and other human development in the Gulf Islands has highlighted the loss of ecologically valuable areas, and conservation groups, government agencies, academics and local communities have lobbied hard to protect them. In 1995, during the Pacific Marine Heritage Legacy program, the federal and provincial governments announced their support for the creation of a new national park in the islands.
Ecosystem integrity outside park boundaries
While the establishment of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is a key step towards maintaining the ecological diversity of the Gulf Islands, regional management is still critical. Activities both inside and outside park boundaries impact on the ecosystem as a whole, and can affect how well the park can protect plants, animals and ecological processes. Some key issues in the Gulf Islands include the high level of private land ownership, management of shared resources such as groundwater, and unresolved First Nations land claims.
The uniqueness of the Gulf Islands has long been recognized, and in 1974 the Islands Trust a unique federation of local island governments, was established by the Islands Trust Act to “preserve and protect the Trust Area and its unique amenities and environment.” Visit the Islands Trust website. Ultimately, however, the responsibility falls to local land owners to work with the Islands Trust and to be responsible stewards of the land.