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30 March 2021 Adapting Forest Management to Climate Change: Experiences of the Nisga'a People
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  • Non-Indigenous forest management was disastrous for the ecology of the Nass Valley area.

  • Non-Indigenous forest management showed no recognition of, or respect for, Nisga'a traditional approaches to land management.

  • Traditional Nisga'a resource management is a resilience-oriented management approach.

  • Future approaches need to be based on Indigenous people's knowledge and rights while at the same time utilising valuable knowledge from non-Indigenous sources.

  • An inclusive management approach focused on restoring ecosystem function can enhance Nisga'a forest resilience.


This study examines and characterizes the potential impacts of climate change on the lands of the Nisga'a Nation in British Columbia, Canada, and how these impacts might affect traditional forest practices. The study results were integrated with a review of current Nisga'a forest policy. The current forest policy has developed an inflexible approach to forest management that perpetuates a top-down decision-making framework inherited from the past relationship with the provincial government. Building from the experiences of the Nisga'a Nation, it is revealed that inflexible forest policies coupled with climate change impacts could lead the forest ecosystems to ecological thresholds. No approach by itself will be sufficient to meet the challenges these changes will bring to Indigenous peoples and society in general. An integrative approach, where the forest management is undertaken from a resilience point of view, is needed if current conditions are to be improved.


Indigenous peoples have lived in what is now known as British Columbia (BC) and its surrounding areas for more than 10,000 years, developing distinctive and successful livelihoods using local resources and adapting to the landscapes and environments in which they have lived (Berkes et al. 2000, Turner and Clifton 2009, Turner et al. 2000). Having distinctive economic, practical, spiritual, political, and historical connections to their homelands, Indigenous peoples are diverse. As such, they cannot be treated as a single entity (Turner et al. 2000).

The Nisga'a people from the Nass Valley, on the northwest coast of BC, are a matrilineal society comprised of four exogamous pdeek – tribes: Laxgibuu – Wolf, Laxsgiik – Eagle, Ganada – Raven, and Gisk'aast – Killer whale. Each pdeek is headed-up by a Sim'oogit – hereditary chief, and Sigidimnak' – matriarch. The Sim'oogit of each pdeek is the man who is thought to have the most significant influence in the pdeek. The level of respect a Sim'oogit has gained in the community determines the amount of authority he has (Boston et al. 1996, Burton 2012). Members from each pdeek belong to a wilp – house, an extended family with a shared female forebear. As the family grew in numbers, supplementary houses called huwilp were erected to provide shelter for the remaining people from the original wilp (Burton 2012, Griffin and Spanjer 2008).

Historically, the Nisga'a Traditional Territory was divided into 40 ango'oskw (traditional domains) owned by 60 huwilp (Wright 2002, cited by Burton 2012). A wilp was the primary economic unit in Nisga'a society. Each wilp had an ango'oskw with boundaries determined long ago by the forebears. Within each ango'oskw, there was an ant'aahlkw, berry and root picking place, and ankw'ihlwil, hunting land (Burton 2012).

Selected individuals, such as the Sim'oogit and their families, assumed the responsibility for monitoring and regulating resources within a particular territory. The involvement of children in traditional practices was crucial. In doing so, they benefited from observing and assisting their elders, parents, and grandparents; thus, they gained hands-on knowledge that would be important for their future as potential stewards of the land (Lynn et al. 2013, Turner et al. 2000). Being essential to the transfer of Indigenous knowledge, language was a target of the Residential School system for Indigenous children, as part of the Canadian Federal Government's aggressive assimilation policy over the last century1. Their languages were forcibly suppressed and virtually eliminated, hindering Indigenous knowledge's perpetuation. Even though the extensive loss of specialized terminology (e.g. names for plants and animals) and discourse associated with peoples' connections to the land is considered by many to be a major calamity, the concepts are at least partially preserved to the present day (Turner et al. 2000).

Despite the impacts of the Residential Schools described above and the Provincial Government's assimilation efforts, the traditional Nisga'a management system successfully maintained healthy forest ecosystems under each Sim'oogit and their families' management. However, beginning in the late 1950s when the first road to the Nass valley was completed (Barker 1998), the Nisga'a forest was converted from a non-degraded forest under the Nisga'a traditional management to degraded forest land under the management of non-Indigenous logging companies. Degraded forest land means a “former forest land severely damaged by the excessive harvesting of wood or non-wood forest products, poor management, repeated fire, grazing or other disturbances or land uses that damage soil and vegetation to a degree that inhibits or severely delays the re-establishment of forest after abandonment” (ITTO 2016: 72).

The use of large clearcut areas, a large number of logging trucks driving through the Nass Valley (Barker 1998), and the Nass river's use to mobilize the timber characterized logging companies' management. Commercial logging by non-Indigenous companies ended when the Nisga'a Treaty was signed in 1999 between the Nisga'a Nation, the Government of BC and the Government of Canada (NLG 1999). The Nisga'a Treaty establishes decision-making authority for a Nisga'a Government within a model that the Nisga'a have been accustomed to and have accepted for many years (NLG 1999). As part of the Nass River valley settlement, nearly 2 000 square kilometres of land was officially recognized as Nisga'a (NLG 1999).

Today, the Nisga'a Nation, represented by the Nisga'a Lisims Government (NLG), is attempting to return these forests to their pre-commercial logging status (i.e., non-degraded). At this intersection of paradigms, potential conflicts arise, as the approach used by the NLG to manage the forests applies harvest methods similar to the ones used by logging companies in the past. Although smaller than past cut block sizes, clearcutting remains the primary practice for harvesting forest resources in the Nass Valley and across BC (Wood 2021).

Climate change impacts coupled with current stresses on the environment from past human land use, development, and pollution, threaten some ecosystems' survival and recovery (Tompkins and Adger 2004, Wood 2021). Examples of environmental decline in BC that may at least to some extent be attributable to climate change include: dying western redcedars on many parts of Vancouver Island, forests decimated by mountain pine beetle (MPB) infestations, spruce budworm and other insect pests, Dothistroma outbreaks in lodgepole pines, noteworthy declines in frog and other amphibian populations, and failure of oolichan (Thaleichthys pacificus Richardson) runs in several rivers along the coast, especially the Kingcome and Bella Coola rivers (Turner and Clifton 2009).

In the case of the MPB, Ostry et al. (2010) explain that the expansion of MPB was due to warmer winters. MPB is indirectly associated with fire (Meyn et al. 2010) and flooding (Walker and Sydneysmith 2008). The presence of large areas of dead standing trees (Walker and Sydneysmith 2008), combined with an increase of precipitation (Loukas et al. 2002, Wood 2021) due to climate change, may intensify spring water runoff patterns, and increase the potential for flooding and drinking water contamination. Turner and Clifton (2009) emphasize that Indigenous peoples in BC are strongly dependent on the cyclical productivity of some resources, as well as the predictability of rainfall, snowpack and glaciers, to sustain the minimum habitat conditions for important resource species, such as Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.). These characteristics are shifting, becoming less foreseeable, and thus, making people feel helpless and at higher risk, despite modern weather forecasting systems, enhanced communication, and better technologies (Turner and Clifton 2009).

In addition to the impacts described above, the potential ranges of species will move northward and upward in elevation as the optimal growing conditions for local populations of trees can be relatively narrow (Coops and Waring 2011, Hamann and Tongli 2006, Spittlehouse 2008, Voggesser et al. 2013). Under a transformed climate, species may endure in their present location, but growth rates may be affected, and competition from other species more suited to the new site conditions may be greater (Walker and Sydneysmith 2008). Forest management and species occurrence and growth will be affected by climate change (Spittlehouse 2008). The role of forests and forest management in the global carbon balance will also be affected by climate change through forest growth and disturbance (Kurz et al. 2008, Spittlehouse 2008).

Climate changes are posing increasing risks for forest ecosystems, and no single approach will be sufficient to address the challenges that these changes are bringing to forest-dependent Indigenous peoples and society in general. With this in mind, several authors have discussed the importance of integrating different knowledge systems into natural resources management (Karjala et al. 2004, Mackendrick 2009, Pittman 2009, Reid et al. 2014, Whitney et al. 2020). An inclusive resource management approach “is one that links science and traditional knowledge, while embracing all the components of an ecosystem: land with its biophysical processes, plants, wildlife and humans” (Downing and Cuerrier 2011: 68). The goal of an inclusive approach that draws from Indigenous knowledge should be resource management from a resilience point of view (Berkes et al. 2000), where resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to “absorb disturbances while maintaining its behavioural processes and structure. It can be defined as the capacity to buffer perturbations, to self-organize, and to learn and adapt” (Seixas and Berkes 2003: 272). Resilience-oriented management responds to and manages feedbacks from ecosystems, instead of devaluing them in the decision-making process, to prevent crossing ecological thresholds at scales that menace the continuation of social-cultural and economic activities (Berkes et al. 2000).

Being a complex of knowledge, practice, and belief makes Indigenous knowledge practical and closely associated with a life system (Berkes et al. 2000). Therefore, its inclusion in resilience-oriented management planning has been successful where the decision-making process had sufficient flexibility (McGregor 2002). This feature allows community representatives to bring forth information that they view as essential and appropriate to maintain the context of the information being shared (McGregor 2002).

As described above, several potential impacts could affect forest ecosystems' health worldwide and affect the communities that depend on them. Implementing an Indigenous epistemological framework in order to include Nisga'a voices at every stage of the research, guides this study examining and characterizing actual and potential impacts of climate change on the lands of the Nisga'a Nation (northern BC), especially on the Nisga'a forests, and how these impacts could affect the traditional forest practices of the Nisga'a people. The need to implement a new integrated management approach that would allow the inclusion of traditional management knowledge to manage the forests under future climates was also examined. Thus, after Material and Methods are presented the following sections describing past and present forest management practices. The past is described from the time before logging companies came into the Nass Valley while the present refers to current guidelines in use by the NLG. Simultaneously, through the results, Nisga'a traditional management is contrasted with Western management of forest resources. This comparison provides context for the current state of the Nisga'a forests and explores why some impacts connected to changing climate, such as increased flooding, have been more severe due to Western management practices, despite being carried out over 40 years ago. Moreover, the study explores how traditional Nisga'a management approaches have successfully maintained healthy forests, and how Nisga'a knowledge could help inform the development of new guidelines for forest management that could improve Nisga'a forests resilience, and thus adapt and mitigate current and future impacts of climate change.


Area of study

The Nisga'a Nation, governed by the NLG, is located in Canada, in the Nass Valley, on the northwest coast of the BC Province (NLG 2012a). The Nisga'a Nation is composed of four villages located along the Nass River. From west to east, the villages' names are Gingolx, Laxgalts'ap, Gitwinksihlkw, and Gitlaxt'aamik (Figure 1).


Location of the Nisga'a Nation Villages



Indigenous methods were followed throughout the data collection. Restoule (2004) describes Indigenous methods as incorporating experiential learning where the collaborator2 is fully engaged. The actual data collection technique is respectful of and includes Indigenous protocols, values, and beliefs significant to a specific community.

This research sought to examine Indigenous traditional knowledge preserved by Elders, generation after generation (Agrawal 1995, Gadgil et al. 1993). According to Smith (1999), elders fluent in the language and specialized knowledge of the land, the spiritual belief systems, and the community's customary life have taught traditional practices. Kovach (2009) argues that an open-structured conversational method shows respect for the collaborator's story and allows them greater control over what they wish to share concerning the research question. Bearing this in mind, the study was permitted to conduct interviews with 17 collaborators during the summer of 2012. Consistent with Pittman (2009), these type interviews helped to develop a deeper understanding of the vulnerabilities identified by community members and the processes shaping them.

Collaborators were selected in a purposive manner, as their participation depended on their knowledge and experience related to this research (Pittman 2009). Two techniques were used to select the collaborators to be interviewed. The first was intensity, which seeks cases rich in information regarding the issue of interest (Patton 2002). The second technique was snowball or chain, in which all respondents were asked to direct the researcher to community members that they thought could help the study (Patton 2002). The goal was to include as many perspectives and experiences from the community as possible, bearing in mind the study's apparent constraints, such as time and funding. Dr Deanna Nyce, Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a Institute (WWNI) President and CEO, recommended the initial collaborators including elders, resource managers, and leaders from the four villages (ages ranging from the late 30s to late 90s).

Regarding the data analysis, following Fitznor's (2002) experience, thematic coding was used to analyze individual research stories, trying to reflect as much as possible the collaborators' voices in the resulting codes. Thus, the stories' truth was held within the collaborator's life context (Kovach 2009, Lavallée 2009). All interviews were digitally recorded for the thematic coding and then imported into NVivo 10, a software program commonly used to analyse qualitative data (Pittman 2009). Once in Nvivo 10, the interviews were transcribed verbatim to maintain the context of the collaborators' ideas. To be consistent with the Indigenous framework, once the interviewers' transcription was finished, the collaborators had the opportunity to edit and comment on the content in their interview. After transcription and editing, the interviews were coded. Thus, different themes were defined following the research's specific objectives (Table 1).

Coding the interviews allowed the researchers to identify the emerging issues related to the potential impacts of climate change in the lands of the Nisga'a Nation, and especially on the forests, which were then used as a starting point for the Nisga'a forest policy analysis and discussion.

Ethical Considerations

This research followed the ethical approaches proposed by the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS), regarding ethical conduct for research involving humans (Government of Canada 2011). Some of the practices used included the following key concepts: (1) Informed consent; each potential collaborator was provided with a copy of an introduction letter to this research, plus an informed consent form; (2) Confidentiality; the gathered knowledge was available only to the collaborators, and the authors; (3) Security; the data was kept in a laptop computer protected by a password; (4) Identifiable Information; according to the types of information defined by TCPS in Chapter 5 section A, this research asked for anonymous information only. The study also followed and acknowledged all the WWNI research protocol provisions. For instance, submitting a research proposal; distributing one copy of all materials, and results of the research to the WWNI; agreeing to, and executing an agreement with the WWNI regarding purpose, methodology, results, use, publication, and confidentiality of any information obtained as a result of the research. Thus, the research proposal was submitted to the WWNI Board of Directors for approval first, and then to the Behavioural Research Ethics Board (BREB) of the University of British Columbia (UBC BREB Number: H12-00705). In addition, as part of the WWNI research protocol, the study results were presented to the WWNI Board of Directors on June 21, 20133. The feedback and revisions derived from the presentation were included in this manuscript. This process was intended as an act of reciprocity and involvement towards the research participants (Lavallée 2009, Lincoln and Guba 2000, Smith 1999).


Themes defined according to the specific objectives



Forest ecosystems are vital to the Nisga'a culture, as they provide the habitat for several animals and tree species sacred to the Nisga'a people. For instance, the western redcedar (Thuja plicata Donn ex D. Don) is one, and is called Simgan -the literal translation of this Nisga'a word is real tree. This example indicates the importance of redcedar for the Nisga'a people and their survival.

Differing management approaches

Bearing in mind the sacredness of the forest for the Nisga'a people, the management of Nisga'a forests plays an essential role in the Nisga'a peoples' lives and wellbeing, and therefore differing management approaches could have completely different outcomes. Thus, this section first examines the traditional Nisga'a approach and then compares it with the Non-Indigenous approach carried out by logging companies.

Traditional Nisga'a approach to resource management

A worldview or cosmology incorporates fundamental beliefs concerning religion and ethics, and structures observations that create knowledge and understanding (Berkes et al. 2000). In the case of the Nisga'a people, at the highest level, people were traditionally tied to animal spirits and the spirits in the land, and all are ultimately connected to the Supreme Being (Figure 2).

The Nisga'a People understood the traditional Nisga'a economic system, which entails proper behaviour toward and management of relations between people, land, animals, and plants, as an expression of this relationship. According to Collaborator 9 (2012), the Nisga'a people believe in their Ayuukhl Nisga'a, which defines their code of ethics and behaviour regarding other people and the environment. In this view, the economic resources, land and animals, were far from inanimate tools; instead, they were spirit and corporeal beings in their own right (Nisga'a Tribal Council 1995). Indeed, contact with animal spirits taught the Nisga'a people the proper modes of respect for animals used as resources, the proper conduct required when butchering salmon4 and other animals, and when disposing of unused parts (Nisga'a Tribal Council 1995). This statement is evident in the words of Collaborator 10 (2012) who mentioned that “people of the land know, we communicate with each other, with the land, with the animals; if we don't respect that, they don't respect us” (Collaborator 10 2012).


Nisga'a worldview, adapted from the Nisga'a Tribal Council (1995)


The above quotation harks back to the Nisga'a worldview described in Figure 2, illustrating the strong connection between people and land. Indeed, the Nisga'a people believe that individuals do not own the land; instead, the land is a gift from the Supreme Being – a gift that the Nisga'a people are responsible for looking after (Collaborator 11 2012).

As described in the Introduction section, each wilp had an ango'oskw with boundaries determined centuries ago by Nisga'a ancestor. According to Collaborator 17 (2012), the stewardship of the ang̱o'oskw was the responsibility of a particular bloodline embedded in each wilp. Each wilp has a Sim'oogit as its head. Within each wilp, the wife of the Sim'oogit is a Sigidimnak', and the chief's eldest female relative (whether his mother, sister or niece) is also a Sigidimnak'. Although the Sim'oogit governed the ang̱o'oskw, it did not belong to him. Instead, the ang̱o'oskw belongs to the wilp. When the chief passes on, the family member next in line and who has received training takes the family's chief position and the responsibility to manage the wilp's ang̱o'oskw(Collaborator 15 2012).

Collaborator 13 (2012) mentioned that it was the Sim'oogit responsibility to supervise the activities carried out on his family ang̱o'oskw to ensure that there were enough resources in that area for his own family. In doing so, Collaborator 9 (2012) mentioned that the Nisga'a people did not stay in one place within their ang̱o'oskw; instead, they used to move to areas where the resources were abundant. Thus, zoning was a critical management activity undertaken by the Nisga'a people in the past; they had certain areas allocated for specific purposes. For instance, Collaborator 12 (2012) stated that they would have different areas for collecting western redcedar bark or harvesting entire trees. The same collaborator explained that “they would manage it in that way by designating areas just for those purposes, allowing trees to return, allowing trees to heal, so that they can be used for other purposes at another time”. Different areas would be known for their purposes, while other areas would be left alone because they did not have a specific purpose (Collaborator 12 2012).

As stated earlier, the Sim'oogit did not manage everything by himself; instead, he had the support from his family. Especially when making decisions, he had the support of the Sigidimnaḵ'. The Sim'oogit's family also helped him maintain a non-written record of the knowledge about specific areas of the family's property. As a result, these records were not restricted to one person, but each family member would record what was available in different parts of the family's ang̱o'oskw (Collaborator 1 2012). Moreover, since the Sim'oogit's children were typically from another clan, the Sim'oogit would depend on his nephews to monitor the land. According to Collaborator 11 (2012), this constellation exists mainly because the Nisga'a people do not marry someone from the same wilp and because their society is matriarchal. Therefore, the new-borns belong to their mother's wilp, keeping control in the matriarchal line. That is why the Sim'oogit would have to send his sister's children to monitor the territory.

Ang̱o'oskw were specific to each family; therefore, even to cross over that family's ang̱o'oskw someone from a different wilp would have to seek permission (Collaborator 1 2012; Collaborator 14 2012). According to Collaborator 14 (2012), every Sim'oogit would know the boundaries of his ang̱o'oskw so that no other chief could go over other chief's ang̱o'oskw. Each Sim'oogit strongly enforced this. Enforcement of the boundaries was a severe matter Collaborator 14 (2012) evoked a story of their village where “two of the young nephews of the chief were sent down to get ready for the oolichan camps, fishing down below Greenville. Those two young men got killed because they crossed the line without permission from the other chief”. Sim'oogit enforced ownership of their ang̱o'oskw not only to other families but also to other neighbouring nations. For instance, Collaborator 14 (2012) mentioned stories about wars against other nations trying to conquer the Nisga'a land, especially trying to control the oolichan and salmon grounds.

Non-Indigenous approach to resource management

In contrast to the Nisga'a people's worldview and beliefs, Western management is based on trees' economic value; therefore, its primary representation is embodied in the logging companies. These companies came into the Nass Valley to take over Nisga'a's forest resources, involving no consultation or explanation of what would happen to the valley and the Nisga'a people's lives (Collaborator 14 2012). Although the Nisga'a people did not do anything about logging companies coming into the Valley, Collaborator 13 (2012) offers another perspective, mentioning that logging companies came after the Indian Act5 was passed in 1951. This collaborator stated that the Nisga'a people relied on the government to provide for them, through the Indian Act, which changed their lifestyle and outlook.

According to five collaborators, logging started in the Nass Valley in the late fifties when the Nass Valley's first road was built. As indicated by Collaborator 13 (2012), these companies came when they got their tenure to log granted from the provincial government of BC. They undertook their activities without consultation with the Nisga'a Nation or seeking approval. While companies paid some attention to watershed protection, other areas used for berry picking, or redcedar harvesting, were not considered for protection if company-targeted wood was present.

During this period, the primary species harvested were Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis (Bong.) Carr.) and western redcedar. Sitka spruce was the prime tree that logging companies removed from the Nass. For instance, Collaborator 13 (2012) recalled that “if there is good spruce trees, solid quality wood there, then it would be logged, and that is what happened. You've seen the clearcuts from Gitwinksihlkw to Greenville, to Lax̱g̱alts'ap. Those are some of the biggest spruce that were growing in the bottomlands. So, that was easy logging, low cost, close to the river, close to the road, so they concentrated in those areas, took out the biggest, the best, and the cheapest first”. Collaborator 17 (2012) added that some of the Sitka spruce trees were so big that loggers could not cut them because they did not have the proper machinery at that time. Instead, they used to drill holes in the logs and dynamite them to be used as wood chips Collaborator 17 (2012). This practice contravenes the Nisga'a management principles considering proper use of the forest and other natural resources, especially regarding waste of trees that are felled for a particular purpose.

According to Collaborator 10 (2012), standing timber is visible on either side of the roads; however, beyond that, there is bare land because of past logging company practices. Collaborators identified these practices, first as clearcut, which was the primary approach for harvesting forest resources, and second as river-drive, which was an alternative to logging roads, to transport the logs.

According to three collaborators, logging company clearcuts in the Nass Valley were disproportionally large, ranging from hundreds to thousands of hectares (Collaborator 7 2012, Collaborator 13 2012, Collaborator 17 2012). In Figure 3, it is possible to appreciate these affected areas' size. Figure 3 also shows that clearcut areas were located directly along the Nass River.


Clearcuts pursued in the Nass Valley during the 60s


Collaborators provided several reasons that may explain the rationale for such big cutblocks. The economic value of wood at that time is the apparent reason, but collaborators also mentioned a progressive clearcut method that was employed (e.g., one cutblock was done next to the other), the remoteness of logged areas, and the pressure posed by Nisga'a Treaty, which was going to be signed.

Regarding the other practice identified by collaborators, river drive was a common means of transporting wood when logging companies operated in the Nass Valley6. According to six collaborators, companies used to throw logs into the river to move them to the ocean. Collaborator 7 (2012) stated that timber in the river was guided with booms tied together, and at the same time, they had boats that pushed the logs out and kept them from piling up. When piling up happened, the only way companies could remove jams in the river was using dynamite; however, this could have enormous consequences for fish. For this reason, sometimes companies did not use this method, leaving the jams in the river, which introduced other risks for the Nisga'a Villages, such as flooding events. Finally, Collaborator 16 (2012) commented on the amount of timber logging companies transported through the river. According to this collaborator, by the time the Nisga'a Nation signed the Nisga'a Treaty, the companies had removed approximately 200 million board feet of timber from the valley, worth around one billion dollars.

Galdoo'o – Nisga'a Forests and climate change

The main potential effects of climate change on the Nisga'a forest identified by the collaborators included flooding and fire disturbances7. These disturbances could impact species of great cultural importance for the Nisga'a people, such as the western redcedar, and therefore on the traditional forest practices associated with this species. Even though the disturbances were mainly considered adverse effects by the collaborators, there was one positive effect mentioned by Collaborator 13 (2012), a longer growing season associated with warmer weather. According to Downing and Cuerrier (2011), the warmer climate has resulted in trees having greater radial growth for the last two decades.


Flooding is one of the significant issues that the Nisga'a people experience in the Nass Valley. It is associated with changing weather conditions and past logging activities, which has influenced the magnitude and frequency of flood events. According to seven collaborators, past logging standards were so lenient that they led to deforestation, modifying the forest's ability to moderate rainwater release and melted snow. There has been a consequent increase in runoff and sedimentation. As a consequence of on-going flooding, some of the tree species in the Nisga'a forest may not survive wetter conditions at particular locations. For instance, western redcedar and Sitka spruce require sufficient moisture in the soil (Parish 1995). However, if there are frequent floods, resulting in waterlogging, neither species may survive in floodplain situations, and their distribution may shift to areas where the conditions are better. If western redcedar and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla (Raf.) Sarg.) fail to survive in the new site conditions, traditional practices such as bark and ksuuw'8 collection will be affected.

The biggest flood in people's minds occurred in October 1961. This flood is remembered because the village of Gitlaxt'aamiks had to be relocated. According to Collaborator 12 (2012), during that month “the snow came early, and it was followed by torrential rain, so middle of October I guess, later October maybe, there was a whole bunch of snow, and then followed by torrential rain. So, the rain itself wouldn't be enough to bring the flood, but because there was all the snow already, the snow melted at the same time and so, literally overnight the river went from normal to 200 years flood levels”. Even though it seems that the causes of this enormous flood were linked to weather conditions, another collaborator suggested that both weather conditions and logging activities in the Nass Valley were responsible (Collaborator 7 2012). As described in the previous section, logging companies' primary harvesting method was clearcutting. According to Wood (2021:13), “clearcut logging reduces a watershed's ability to moderate water flow and is associated with faster runoff and higher peak flows”. Thus, contributing to increasing flooding occurrence.

Flooding can also make access to floodplain locations harder, and the recovery of lands logged during the 1950s may be impeded. In the 1950s, logging companies had no reforestation standards, and now the NLG is having difficulty reforesting denuded areas because of the flooding. Collaborator 12 (2012) stated that “we are actively seeking ways to rebuild that forest, and the flooding does not necessarily help. So those big floods, they kill any seedling you plant. If there is any flood that year, all the seedlings are dead”. Being continuously wet makes these areas unsuitable for establishing culturally important conifers and large black cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa Torr. and A. Gray ex. Hook.) have taken over the area, making conifer establishment even harder.

There is a belief that floods will become more common because of the observed increase in precipitation during the spring and fall (Burton 2019). Thus, there will be more runoff and rapid snowmelt (from winter snowfalls) during the spring and heavy rainfalls during the fall. Consequently, the river level will rise, flooding all the areas adjacent to the river (Burton 2019a). Asked if there was any possibility that some species might disappear from the Nass Valley, one collaborator suggested that “it's possible, some of the Hemlock and Balsam, if it's raining all the time they may not stay that much longer, they would move higher up the hillside” (Collaborator 12 2012).

Constant flooding could also threaten cottonwood and red alder (Alnus rubra Bong.). These pioneer species colonize areas that have been affected by disturbances helping create the required conditions for other species (Burton 2019a, Parish 1995). Although cottonwood has several adaptations that allow it to survive floods, it is not as well-adapted to prolonged flooding as some other riparian species, and it shows signs of stress when flood conditions last more than a few weeks (Borman and Larson 2002). Thus, if the species affected frequently by flooding started to disappear from the Nass Valley, the consequences would be devastating for forest ecosystem regeneration.

Flooding affects not only the forests species but also river life. Four collaborators stated that flooding during spring and summer would have several effects on fishing. First, during floods, the river level rises, and the current strengthens. People cannot go fishing, which affects their ability to collect and preserve food for the winter (Collaborator 2 2012). When the current is powerful, turbidity increases, and the fish hold in different areas and do not move up the river (Collaborator 1 2012). Collaborator 7 (2012) suggested that there is so much silt in the water during floods that most salmon die before they get to the spawning areas. Another impact of flooding is the destruction of eggs in the salmon redds. Collaborator 12 (2012) explained that “if it is flooding all the time, then their eggs would be unable to stay in the shallow creek. That is where they spawn, and if it is flooding a long time, then the eggs don't stay, and the fish don't hatch, and we don't have salmon”.

Lakw – Fire

Even though temperate rainforest characterized the study area, natural forest fires are part of the forest's ecology and have affected the Nass Valley in the past. For instance, Collaborator 16 (2012) explained that “if a forest was unhealthy and needed to burn down, you should let it burn. I have been in conversation before with elders in our community, where they said that we should not let forest fires turn off. That is what they said about the pine beetle in the mid-90s – they said we should it just let the whole forest burn down, instead of letting that bug spread everywhere”. Being aware that forest fires are part of forest regeneration's natural process, the Nisga'a people deliberately used controlled burns to create berry patches (Collaborator 11 2012) and regenerate the land (Collaborator 11 2012).

As described above, before logging operations commenced in the Nass Valley forest fires occurred in the area naturally and were also used by the Nisga'a people as controlled burns to manage the forest. However, since 1958, when logging started in the Nass Valley, forest fires became more common. For instance, Collaborator 7 (2012) explained that forest fires resulted from the old machines logging companies were using and the type of wires they were using in the forest to extract the timber. According to Collaborator 14 (2012), there are regulations to minimize the potential risk of fire originating from logging operations nowadays. Some of the requirements mentioned by this collaborator include the positioning of a water tank on site. Also, each machine is required to have a fire extinguisher.

Although collaborators mentioned that forest fires frequently occurred in the past, natural and human-made, there have not been big forest fires in the recent past. Four Collaborators mentioned that very occasionally there is a lightning strike in the forest that generates big flames, but such fires are extinguished very quickly because the ground is wet, and the lightning commonly occurs together with rainfall during storms. Collaborator 12 (2012) mentioned that fires on the lava beds9 are more common than forest fires. Drivers mainly start these fires: someone throwing a cigarette out of the window can quickly start a fire on the lava beds, as they are scorched (Burton 2019a).

Collaborator 17 (2012) stated that perhaps there would be more forest fires since the trees will change, which will modify the forest. Nonetheless, according to Collaborator 13 (2012), the risk of forest fires should be lower under climate change due to an increase in precipitation, which would make the valley even wetter than it is today.

Managing the Nisga'a forests and adapting to climate change: a policy matter

Pre-treaty – as described previously – every wilp would have its ang̱o'oskw where they would pursue their traditional practices such as hunting, fishing, bark collection, wood harvesting, and other activities. Post-treaty, the traditional notion of territory changed utterly. Collaborator 17 (2012) described that today there are no ang̱o'oskw because they were consolidated into one shared territory belonging to the Nisga'a Nation; therefore, land stewardship is now in the hands of the Nation and its Fisheries and Wildlife, and Lands and Resources Directorates.

According to Collaborator 17 (2012), the treaty changed how values are transferred to younger generations. Before the treaty, the entire family would have detailed knowledge about some regions of the ang̱o'oskw; this knowledge was orally transmitted to younger family members to maintain stewardship of the land. Collaborator 17 (2012) recalled that “now, it is like nobody talks about it, in the feasts they very seldom talk about it, what the territories are? Or what the different names and different places are? They are just not being passed on. Another generation and it will be lost. I think it will be completely lost, and it is a direct reflection of the minimization of those cultural values”. Furthermore, the right to hunt, fish or engage in other traditional activities on a family's ang̱o'oskw is no longer granted by one family to another, and families are not personally responsible for monitoring the different areas within their ang̱o'oskw.

Nowadays, the NLG takes care of the ang̱o'oskw and the forest: the NLG is in charge of resources management, rather than the Sim'oogit and his family (Collaborator 17 2012). The NLG Land and Resources Directorate is responsible for management decision-making and its Forest Resources Department that manages Nisga'a forests. This approach involves implementing a total, integrated, and quantifiable forest management program and developing strategies to meet the requirements set out in the Nisga'a Forest Act (NFA)10. Collaborator 1 (2012) mentioned that “we are now the guardians of the forest, as a sort of a transference from the traditional treaty, what we call modified right under the country's constitution, we are governed by certain regulations”.

Collaborator 13 (2012) and Collaborator 15 (2012) stated that one of the NFA's essential features is consulting with the communities11. Collaborator 13 (2012) commented that “we consult with our people, when we have a forest development plan that is being drafted, we take it out to all communities, work through it with them, indicating what the plan includes, and then they provide their input, for example, where they pick a certain kind of herb, a certain kind of plant”.

Even though logging, carried out by a Nisga'a company named Lisims Forest Resources LLP (LFR)12, remains one of the primary forest practices in the Nisga'a Nation, nowadays logging takes place on a much smaller scale relative to what it was before the treaty was signed13 (Collaborator 13 2012). Besides, Collaborator 15 (2012) stated that to log in any given location on treaty lands, an LFR must design a forest development plan, as stated in the NFA Part 4 – Planning for timber harvesting (NLG 2012b). The plan must identify the forest cover, the location of sensitive areas such as streams, wetlands and lakes, particular areas, such as culturally modified tree (CMT)14 sites, and any requirements established for those areas. Once the plan is completed, it must be submitted to the NLG Land and Resources director for approval. The Director's responsibility is to verify the plans, ensure that plant identification is accurate, and make sure all the provisions stated in the NFA are adhered to (Collaborator 15 2012).

Although the NFA improved the way forest practices are being carried out (reduced size of the clearcuts and increased community consultation), there was still scepticism amongst the Collaborators. Underlying concerns included a perceived lack of diversification in forest practices, which have been reduced to mainly clearcut logging, lack of monitoring and transparency within the NLG, and lack of freedom to pursue traditional activities. Regarding the first concern, Collaborator 16 (2012) commented that “when you think of forest management in a modern age, I think that under the treaty there is still a fact that we are hewers of wood and fishermen. There has been no diversification to look at the wealth that our traditional knowledge and our culture and history on our land, have in terms of tourism and the other economic opportunities that our land hosts for us”. About the second concern, Collaborator 7 (2012) stated that there is no department in the NLG in charge of monitoring that logging practices are being carried out according to the forest development plans. Instead, the NLG relies on the Fisheries and Forest Departments to fill these gaps, and those same departments are in charge of assessing the management plans. Lastly, due to the Nisga'a Treaty and the NFA, to continue with traditional forest practices, the Nisga'a people need to get permission from the NLG. According to Collaborator 7 (2012), the only activity that has not been regulated through permits is traditional medicine collection. Other traditional forest practices, such as firewood gathering, wood harvesting to build smokehouses, and mushroom picking fall under associated regulations.

Additionally, the NFA has a proviso that allows the NLG Lands and Resources Director to decide whether to reforest remote areas, informed by the size of the cutblock and its accessibility (NLG 2012b). These examples show how decisions are still made in a top-down fashion. The Director of Lands and Resources has sole responsibility for decisions regarding forest resource use, particularly when granting permits associated with traditional practices, such as firewood and botanical forest product collection, under NFA Sections 15 and 17 respectively (NLG 2012b).

Western management paradigms significantly influence the Nisga'a Nation's current management approach to natural resources, due to its past colonial relationship with BC. Even though there have been improvements to the way forest resources are managed on the Nisga'a lands, such as community consultation, reduced cutblock size, and protection of cultural and traditional use sites (e.g., medicinal plant harvest sites), the primary orientation of forest resources management remains toward logging for commercial wood products.

The NLG (2012b: 34) states that “the long-term objective of the Nisga'a Nation is to promote the restoration of natural biodiversity across Nisga'a Lands”. In doing so, the NFA states that the Director must manage biodiversity at the landscape level (e.g., maintain wildlife corridors, understorey plants and plant communities within the cutblocks, and any residues and waste must be evenly distributed across the cutblock), in order to ensure that forest management activities reflect natural disturbance patterns. Although these steps seem to be appropriate measures to maintain biodiversity at both landscape and cutblock levels, they do not account for the variability and uncertainty that climate change introduces into forest management. As stated in the NFA, achieving the desired outcomes related to natural biodiversity restoration is more complicated. For instance, reforestation is difficult in areas logged in the past due to increased flooding incidents (Simula 2009) associated with increasing precipitation (Wood 2021).

Although the NFA includes some regulations to address climate change impacts, these are not directly associated with the impacts that climate change will have on the Nisga'a forests; instead, they are mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GGE). These regulations establish that an ecosystem restoration and carbon rights agreement could last up 100 years and apply to an area of up to 300 hectares. The NLG executive may enter into an agreement of this kind with a contractor, which could involve a Nisga'a Corporation or a Nisga'a partnership designated by regulation (NLG 2012b). This contractor would have to submit an ecosystem restoration plan to the Land and Resources director for approval. The contractors have the exclusive right to the carbon sequestered; however, the trees used in the restoration would remain the property of the Nisga'a Nation (NLG 2012b). The decisions over what kind of trees would be planted in the restoration areas are made by the contractors and expressed in the ecosystem restoration plan.

A new management approach is needed

Although the current entity in charge of forest management has established some tools to incorporate communities' ideas and needs into forest development plans, the approach is still orientated toward revenue creation. If significant changes to the climate occur, extractive economic activities such as logging will make forest adaptation to climate change even harder. As stated by Berkes et al. (2000), the “emphasis on steady states and the maintenance of predictable yields, such as maximum sustainable yield; focus on controlling the resource to increase the predictability of yields; and the use of primarily quantitative techniques, such as stock assessment. Such management appears to cause a gradual loss of resilience as well as reduction of variability and opportunity, thus moving the ecosystem toward thresholds and surprises”. Thus, the current management of the Nisga'a forests is more likely to reduce the ecosystem's resilience, instead of taking it to its past non-degraded state.

Considering predicted and observed climate change impacts forces the need to shift management toward enhancing socio-cultural services in ways that support ecosystem resilience (Whitney et al. 2020, Wood 2021). In doing so, this management should satisfy the needs of the Nisga'a people, especially the cultural and spiritual ones, yet it must also generate economic revenue to sustain part of the government's needs. A management style or paradigm is needed that offers a choice to the Nisga'a people to engage in traditional forest practices, not only as a way of satisfying their needs but also offers a venue whereby the Nisga'a can revitalize or re-define traditional knowledge regarding ang̱o'oskw and resource use within these if they choose to. This shift may provide opportunities for transmission of traditional knowledge to younger generations (Reid et al. 2014) which, according to Collaborator 17 (2012), is being lost among the Nisga'a youth. In a similar vein, another collaborator showed concern about people's attitudes regarding the traditional and cultural beliefs of the Nisga'a people. Collaborator 9 (2012) stated that most Nisga'a communities do not know the Ayuukhl Nisga'a, especially young people. According to the same collaborator, this is a significant issue because young Nisga'a are their culture's future. To preserve the culture and, at the same time, adapt and prepare for future changes in the environment, they will need this knowledge. Collaborator 9 finally added that the transmission of the Ayuukhl Nisga'a “is failing now. A lot of the younger people don't know [about Ayuukhl Nisga'a], and a lot of the people, even the older people, they know some of it, but not all of it. It is really important, I think, to know most of the law, all the law that we live by, how to live as a human being, how to treat each other”.

Both enhancement of ecosystem function and transmission of cultural values to younger generations, through community-based resilience-oriented resource management, could be a solution to improve the Nisga'a forests' and the community's resilience to anticipated climate change impacts (Tompkins and Adger 2004). In this sense, traditional Nisga'a resource management could be described as resilience-oriented, since it accomplishes all features described by Berkes et al. (2000). These features include: (1) carried out using rules that are locally crafted and socially enforced by the users themselves (e.g., ango'oskw managed by Sim'oogit as and his family following the Ayuukhl Nisga'a); (2) use area rotations, species-switching and other practices (e.g., zoning strategy to allow healing); (3) users have accumulated an ecological knowledge base that helps respond to environmental feedbacks, to help collaboratively monitor the status of the resource (e.g., Sim'oogit and his nephews keep knowledge of the abundance of the ang̱o'oskw resources); (4) use diverse resources for livelihood security, keeping options open and minimizing risk (e.g. fishing, hunting, berry picking, tree harvesting, bark collection); and (5) use qualitative management, wherein feedbacks of resource and ecosystem change indicate the direction in which management should move (e.g. more exploitation/less exploitation), rather than quantitative target yields.

Therefore, being aware that the current management carried out by the NLG under changing climate conditions could lead to the crossing of ecological thresholds, it is crucial to bear in mind that inclusive approaches could integrate traditional Nisga'a management practices knowledge into forest management planning. A successful example can be found in Karjala et al. (2004). Working in collaboration with Tl'azt'en Nation (250 km northwest of Prince George, BC), they developed the Aboriginal Forest Planning Process (AFPP), integrating traditional knowledge and Indigenous values into sustainable forest planning management. Additionally, Reid et al. (2014) working with Gitga'at Nation and Whitney et al. (2020) working with Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai'xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv Nations, both in BC, describe approaches to develop community-based climate change adaptation strategies and remark the importance of incorporating local values in planning to adapt to climate change successfully.

Considering that the NLG aims to restore natural biodiversity across Nisga'a Lands, it makes sense to develop a new approach that incorporates the Nisga'a traditional management approach, which has all the characteristics of resilience-oriented management described by Berkes et al. (2000). Moreover, incorporating Nisga'a values and knowledge into the planning process for a new management approach will enhance the discovery of priority actions for climate change adaptation, but also support fruitful implementation (Reid et al. 2014).

Thus, the development of an inclusive management approach focused on restoring ecosystem function in the context of a changing climate could maximize the forest's resilience to fire and control flooding, among other things (Wood 2021). For instance, this will reduce harvest intensity and extend logging rotations, letting the forest recover and grow to its climax (Carnus et al. 2006, Wood 2021), which is considered under the zoning practice in the traditional Nisga'a approach. A resilience-oriented approach will also consider the retention of broad-leaved trees among coniferous species as a management tool to improve biodiversity at the landscape (Carnus et al. 2006), thus increasing forest resilience to fires (Wood 2021). In areas degraded by intensive clearcutting, reforestation should encourage species and genetic diversity through plantings and thinning treatments, thus helping increase resilience to a changing climate by restoring hydrological function (Wood 2021).

Consequently, a forest managed in a cultural context focusing on ecosystem function would increase its resilience and cope better with the new environmental challenges resulting from the changing climate.


The impacts of climate change have started a chain reaction, affecting natural resources, and now the communities that depend on them. Amongst the disturbances associated with climate change described in this work, namely flooding and fire, flooding poses the most significant risk to forests. Flooding affects the regeneration of species that form the forests, even killing important cultural species for Indigenous communities, such as western redcedar and western hemlock that are not adapted to these conditions. These culturally important species are critical for preserving the communities' culture and transmitting their knowledge to future generations. Additionally, overharvesting that occurred before the Nisga'a Treaty reduced the resilience of the Nisga'a forest, and the current management approach has not being able to restore it, as it keeps using similar harvesting methods. Thus, forest management that relies on clearcut logging increases the risk of flooding by decreasing forest capacity to control runoff. Consequently, faster runoff and higher pick flows have made it impossible to reforest the regions logged before the Nisga'a Treaty.

Flooding affects the regeneration of the Nisga'a forest and the Nass river, and thus the salmon by increasing current strength and turbidity. Bearing in mind that the forest and the river are intimately connected, any impacts on forests would affect the river and, consequently, the salmon and the Nisga'a people. It would also make sense that any forest improvement would positively impact the fish. Thus, improving the forest ecosystems' resilience to climate change would improve the current conditions that salmon are facing during the spawning seasons.

The lack of flexibility and adaptability in current Nisga'a forest management represents an essential barrier to climate change adaptation. A resilience-oriented integrative approach that draws on Nisga'a knowledge and values to resources management appears to be a possible solution. However, adaptation strategies designed purely on Indigenous knowledge cannot be the solution alone. Instead, a combination of the different paradigms would offer a more robust approach to managing the forests in a climate that creates an uncertain future context.

There are examples in BC of existing integrative approaches to address climate changes and impacts which could inspire the Nisga'a people to develop its own. Nevertheless, for this integrative approach to effectively build resilience and facilitate adaptation, existing barriers (e.g., top-down decision-making) and external influences (e.g., provincial policies and guidelines) need to be addressed in a new Nisga'a Forest Act. Addressing them will present an opportunity also to address existing inequities in access to, and processes and outcomes of, climate policymaking, planning, and action.


We thank our collaborators in the Nisga'a Nation, who kindly opened their doors and shared their experiences and time. We thank Dr Deanna Nyce for her cultural and research assistance before, during and after the fieldwork. Irene Seguin provided cultural assistance during the fieldwork, and Nisga'a language support afterwards. We also thank two anonymous referees for their valuable suggestions. The Chilean National Commission on Scientific and Technological Research (Conicyt), the Terrestrial Research on Ecosystems and Worldwide Education and Broadcast (TerreWEB) program, and the Kloshe Tillicum Institute provided funding for this research.



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[1] 1 The following passage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report describes how this policy worked: “Aboriginal children were the victims of this policy of drift, neglect, and government–church conflict. During a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the country, the children who attended residential schools continued to be poorly housed, poorly fed, poorly clothed, and poorly educated. Separated from their parents, they were emotionally neglected, subject to harsh discipline, and, due to poor staff recruitment and supervision, at risk of sexual abuse” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015: 11).

[2] 2 The term ‘collaborators' is used instead of ‘participants' to emphasize the collaborative nature of this research, where the research work is done hand by hand. Whereas, the term ‘participants’ denotes an imbalanced researcher-participant relationship, being the participants the mere object of research.

[3] 3 General note about timeliness: full report was submitted to WWNI in December 2013 as part of José Arias-Bustamante's M.Sc. thesis. Dr Deanna Nyce was also part of the examination committee during the thesis defence. Due to several personal reasons, the research could not be published until now.

[4] 4 Pacific salmon species that spawn in the Nass River include: Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss Walbaum), Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha Walbaum), Coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch Walbaum), Dog (Oncorhynchus keta Walbaum), Pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha Walbaum), and Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka Walbaum).

[5] 5 The Indian Act is a Canadian federal law that governs in matters pertaining to Indian status, bands, and Indian reserves. The Indian Act is a part of a long history of assimilation policies that intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Aboriginal peoples by absorbing them into mainstream Canadian life and values. Visit online: []

[6] 6 For a better understanding of this practice, visit online: []

[7] 7 For the description of each disturbance related to climate change listed on Table 1 at the end of Methodology section, check Chapter four in Arias-Bustamante (2013).

[8] 8 This Nisga'a word means a food made of processed inner hemlock bark. Despite that, it is also used to refer to the inner bark of other species, such as spruce.

[9] 9 “The 26 kilometer-square lava plain left by the Tseax Volcano in the Nass Valley is an impressive central feature of the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park north of Terrace, BC” (Burton 2019b)

[11] 11 As stated in the Nisga'a Forest Act (Section 19 2c), it includes Nisga'a citizens, persons who are ordinarily resident within Nisga'a Lands, and persons specified by the NLG executive (NLG 2012b).

[13] 13 ∼ 40 – 50 ha post-treaty vs. over 100 ha pre-treaty

[14] 14 Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples harvested (and still do) the inner bark of western redcedar for making baskets, mats, cordage, and clothing (Turner 1998). Usually, less than one-third of a tree's perimeter would be removed, and thus, the tree remains living, which is known as CMT (Stryd 2001).

J.R. Arias-Bustamante and J.L. Innes "Adapting Forest Management to Climate Change: Experiences of the Nisga'a People," International Forestry Review 23(1), 1-15, (30 March 2021).
Published: 30 March 2021

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