Monday, December 10, 2007

Cascadian Communities: The Gulf Islands

Welcome to another addition of Cascadian Communities. This time we head up into Maple Leaf Country to explore the abstract land pattern that makes up the Gulf Islands.

If any of you are scratching your heads, wondering what gulf these islands are in, don't fret, the name is a misnomer. It is a relic of the days when the unexplored Strait of Georgia was believed to be a gulf. With thirteen major islands and about 450 smaller ones, these wooded oases are essentially the Canadian half of the San Juans (see map below). Yet, their slightly different geography and proximity to Vancouver Island actually give them a unique ecology compared to the surrounding landscape. The area receives an average of only 30 inches of rain per year, far less than the Pacific and inland coasts. This has made the Gulf Islands one of the last refuges of the Garry Oak ecosystem, which supports around 350 different plant and animal species. Only about 5% of Garry Oak ecosystems are still in their natural setting and the Gulf Islands' late introduction to modernity means that much of that fraction dots the Islands' landscape.

Of coures, this does not mean that the islands have remained unpopulated. In fact, Coast Salish Natives had a host of settlements throughout the islands and many of them remain today. In the 1930's, as transportation methods improved, British Columbia began promoting the area as a regional tourist destination. The peace, serenity, and lack of infrastructure on the islands attracted many nature lovers who desired unobstructed exploration. In the 1960's the islands became a hot spot for American draft dodgers looking to hide out from the authorities. More recently, many wealthy celebrities have found the Islands' tranquil landscape the ideal place for large vacation homes.

All of this has added up to an increase in foreign species and pollution which was not realized until recent years. The unregulated development of the islands means that much of the endangered areas are in private lands and difficult to protect. In 1999, in an effort to stem the rising problems, the BC government, along with a number of NGO's, established the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, which works to promote conservation both on public and private lands alike. Similarly, in 2003 the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve was established, setting aside 35 square acres across 15 islands as a sanctuary. The goal is to eventually turn the reserve into a full on National Park but land disputes between private holders, First Nations peoples, and the state remain to be negotiated.

The hodge-podge mix of First Nations peoples, draft-dodging hippies, and urban weary nature lovers, has made the Islands famous for their alternative lifestyle. No where is this more prevalent than on Salt Spring Island. Salt Spring is home to over 10,000 of the Islands' 25,000 residents with its capital in the small town of Ganges. here, every Saturday, over 150 vendors gather in Centennial Park to sell everything from home-grown berries to hand-crafted benches. In its early days the market was a place for individuals strewn about the islands to swap books, or borrow cooking supplies without having to return to the mainland. But over the years, the market has grown in popularity, bringing in hundreds if not thousands of tourists every weekend. True to the Gulf Island style though, a rule was implaced in 1992 that allowed only Salt Spring residents to sell goods, and the vendors must, "make it, bake it, or grow it" to recieve a permit. In addition, the residents developed their own currency, called the Salt Spring Dollar which is accepted on-par with the Canadian dollar on the island. Many of the other islands cling to this simpler lifestyle as well. Many of the islands still lack electricity and the Galiano Island community of 1,100 residents has managed to survive on only 28 inches of yearly rainfall for all of their water needs.

[Wikipedia] Gulf Islands
[Canadian Geographic] Come to the Islands
[Gulf Islands Guide]
[Canada Parks] Gulf Islands National Park Reserve


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