Indigenous Guardian Programs as a Destination Stewardship Tool 

Indigenous Guardian Programs in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii of British Columbia are emerging as powerful tools for destination stewardship. Developed by local Indigenous communities, these Guardian Watchmen programs play a critical role in protecting and managing traditional territories, preserving cultural heritage, and fostering a thriving conservation economy. Mike Robbins tells us more. 

Indigenous Guardian Programs as a Destination Stewardship Tool 

The first time I experienced Coastal Guardian Watchmen on the British Columbia coast was back in 2009 on a trip to an ancient village site and hot springs in Haida Gwaii. The local indigenous Guardians took turns living in the small remote Guardian cabin at Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island). These Guardians were there to protect the site and cultural features, monitor tourism activity, and provide cultural interpretation.

The Guardian Watchmen on Haida Gwaii were some of the first members of
an Indigenous Coastal Guardian Watchmen program, working alongside a strong Indigenous ecotourism sector in BC. Together, they have reconnected the Indigenous communities to their traditional territories, and that plays a critical role in all aspects of stewardship along the entire coast.

BC’s Guardian Watchmen are at the leading edge of a global movement toward Indigenous-led destination stewardship.

Along the coast of B.C.’s expansive Great Bear Rainforest. [Photo by Mike Robbins]

The Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii

The Guardians operate in the Great Bear Rainforest (GBRF) and Haida Gwaii regions of British Columbia, encompassing the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest remaining in the world. Stretching along BC’s coast north from Vancouver Island to Alaska, the GBRF covers 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres). This is an area rich in biodiversity with ancient old-growth forests providing home to a multitude of species including grizzly bears, black bears, and the iconic Spirit Bear. Spirit bears are rare white or cream-coated black bears with colouration caused by a recessive gene. They inhabit onl a small portion of the Great Bear Rainforest.

Twenty-seven First Nations live along this coast, many in communities accessible only by air or water. The rich Indigenous cultures have evolved over the past 10,000 years since the ice receded, living in harmony with the landscape.

Colonialism changed that, forcing the Indigenous peoples away and out of their traditional territories to make way for a  lucrative economy, largely based on logging, fishing, and shipping, but with minimal benefit accruing to the First Nations.

A Conservation Economy

In 2016 the Premier of BC and First Nations of the GBRF announced a conservation agreement of global significance securing:

  • 85% of the rainforest is legally protected (North America’s most stringent commercial logging regulations in place on the remaining 15%)
  • First Nations shared decision-making over their traditional territories
  • Active support from forestry companies and environmental organizations

This agreement culminated following years of collaborative protests, market campaigns, land use planning, and negotiations orchestrated by environmental groups and First Nations.

Today this incredible intact Canadian wilderness area hosts a thriving conservation economy (an economy that sustains itself on income earned from activities that conserve and restore rather than deplete the natural capital).

The Guardian Watchman Program

Guardian Watchmen programs vary from Nation to Nation in the GBRF depending on their priorities. Activities typically include:

  • Scientific data collection and analysis
  • Upholding and advancing cultural knowledge
  • Restoration work
  • Monitoring fish and wildlife harvests
  • Emergency response
  • Tourism monitoring and protocol agreements with non-Indigenous companies
  • Planning and management
  • Education and interpretation for visitors

There is a lot of overlap in the work and skill sets of Guardians who monitor and protect their territories and tourism guides who bring guests out on the territory to view wildlife, see archaeological sites, and learn from storytellers. In the GBRF there is work progressing towards a combined Guide/Guardian training designation to support growth in the conservation economy.

Marvin, Guardian and Spirit Bear guide. [Photo by Mike Robbins]

The Kitasoo Xai’Xais Model

In the remote community of Klemtu (population 500), for instance, the Kitasoo Xai’Xais people have successfully developed what has become a best-practice model for community-based tourism in Canada. At the center of this effort is the Spirit Bear Lodge, a profitable community owned/operated ecotourism venture with a 12-room lodge. The Lodge works closely with the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Guardian Watchmen program.

As part of their stewardship efforts the community created the Spirit Bear Research Foundation, a collaboration between the community and conservation scientists, together conducting research that is: community-driven, locally relevant, and ecosystem-based.

The people of Klemtu do not view any separation between the people, the land and the sea. Every living thing is interconnected.

The Klemtu Big House, a symbol of Kitasoo/Xia’xias culture and resilience. [Photo by Mike Robbins]

As tourists started to arrive at Spirit Bear Lodge back in 2006 the village’s youngsters began to take an interest and started to drop by in the evenings to chat with guests. Out of this initial connection was borne the concept of Sua, a Kitasoo/Xai’Xais youth cultural program sponsored by the Lodge. Sua is a Xai’Xais word meaning thunder, and the youngsters now involved in the program are encouraged to be ‘loud and proud’ in sharing their identity and culture as they stage song and dance performances in the Big House for guests of the Lodge. Further accommodating youth, the community decided to integrate a new conservation arm of the Nation called SEAS (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards) with the guardian and tourism programs.

Today the community of Klemtu is benefitting from a thriving ecotourism venture and guardian programs that have helped to protect their traditional territories, act as a catalyst for cultural renewal, and helped in re-connecting community members back to their ancestral territories. The result is a healthier community, building capacity, and engaging youth in learning cultural traditions and language.

The Wei Wai Kum First Nation Model

Another southern GBRF First Nation, the Wei Wai Kum First Nation, many of whom live on reserve in Campbell River, are monitoring and gathering data in their traditional territories through a Guardian program launched in 2018.

Through their Guardian program, the Wei Wai Kum are applying traditional knowledge and using scientific techniques to carry out their stewardship responsibilities in a modern way, keeping watch over what’s happening and ensuring that visitors and resource users are following local rules.

Today, within their traditional territory, several industries from fish farms to forestry to real estate are competing for resources and space. The Discovery Passage, which narrows to just 750 metres wide in some parts, runs along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island and sees heavy traffic from cruise ships, cargo ships, fishing boats, and passenger ferries. Community members began expressing concerns over resource depletion, spill risks, and environmental impacts that could threaten the fisheries the community has relied on for generations.

A Spirit Bear scans the shallow creek for running salmon. It is believed that only about 400 Spirit Bears exist in the world. [Photo by Mike Robbins]

Through Nanwakolas Council, the regional Indigenous organization, the Wei Wai Kum receives a large and increasing number of referrals each month for consultation on development and resource use within their territory. As a member of the Council, Wei Wai Kum began to participate in the Nanwakolas regional stewardship network, which provides technical, logistical, and data management support for Indigenous Guardian programs in the region. Wei Wai Kum stewardship staff members participate in training and joint monitoring initiatives with other Na̲nwak̲olas members, learning how to run a modern Guardian program.

As an example, Wei Wai Kum Guardians conduct a kelp biomass survey in their territory. Kelp is an important habitat, food source, and carbon sink – and has been declining along the coast, due to climate change and increased predation from purple sea urchins.

The Benefits of Guardian Programs

Research suggests that places protected and stewarded by Indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia, and Brazil have levels of biodiversity as high or higher than lands protected by those countries’ national governments.

In 2016 research conducted by Coastal First Nations and Nature United evaluated the benefits of Guardian programs for their communities. The research determined that the programs returned benefits at least 10 times the dollar investment. As a result, Nature United helped develop an Indigenous Guardians Toolkit and through a Technical Support Team are offering additional hand’s-on technical support.

Indigenous communities across Canada have launched more than 30 guardian programs modeled after the successful Coastal Guardian Watchmen program in the GBRF and Haida Gwaii.

This model could be replicated in many other destinations where Indigenous communities still remain and  can resume their historical stewardship role in  their traditional territories, resulting in healthier communities, engaged youth, and enhanced capacity for research and tourism.


Mike retired as Chairman of the Board of Directors with CREST (The Center for Responsible Travel) based in Washington DC in December 2021. Mike is part of the TAPAS Group network (IUCN Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group) holds numerous other positions, including Board Member for the Aspiring (UNESCO) Georgian Bay Geopar,Member of the Trebek Council, Board Member of the Escarpment Corridor Alliance, Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, Fellow International Member of the Explorers Club, and Royal Penguin LT&C (Linking Tourism & Conservation).


The Nisga’a Offer an Indigenous Tourism Model

How to present an indigenous culture “written in the land” to tourists? Along with Laura Hope, communications manager at Coast FundsBert Mercer, economic development manager for Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, describes the process of tying together a culturally sensitive tourism experience for visitors to the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia, Canada.

Nisga’a chiefs, elders, matriarchs, youth, and guests celebrate the raising of a Pts’aan (totem pole) in Gitwinksihlkw. Photo by Gary Fiegehen, courtesy of Nisga’a Lisims Government.

Written on the Land—Weaving Together a Cultural Tourism Story

The Nisg̲a’a Highway, running through the heart of our Nation’s lands in Canada’s rugged northwest coast, was given the numeric designation 113. The number was not chosen arbitrarily; between 1887, when Nisg̲a’a chiefs travelled to Victoria to demand recognition of Title, and 2000, when the Nisg̲a’a Treaty was ratified and the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government passed its first law, exactly 113 years had passed. Over the next five years, our government extended and upgraded the highway, connecting the four Nisg̱a’a villages and inviting the world to visit.

The lands and waters of my First Nation, encompassing 200,000 hectares from the K’alii Aksim Lisims (the Nass River) to the Hazelton Mountains is astounding in its beauty. It is a place of aquamarine waters, soaring snow-capped mountains, and an enormous lava field. The story of our people is written on the land, so visitors to our lands are offered more than breathtaking scenery—they are offered the opportunity to experience Nisg̱a’a culture.

The plentiful resources of the Nass Valley have supported Nisg̱a’a citizens for millennia. Photo: Gary Fiegehen, courtesy of Nisga’a Lisims Government.

Bringing Cultural Tourism to the Nass Valley
Visitors to the Nass Valley are greeted by Txeemsim, a super-natural being who brought light to the Nass River in a time when Nisg̲a’a lived in semi-darkness. His image is the centrepiece of the Nisg̱a’a cultural marketing and tourism initiative. The initiative was expanded and enhanced to develop an auto-tour route along the Nisg̲a’a Highway, in addition to a brochure to guide visitors along the route and a website devoted solely to tourism in Nisg̲a’a lands. The project and the partnerships that developed as a result have boosted tourism in the Nass Valley, raised the profile of entrepreneurs in the four Nisg̲a’a villages, and reinforced the sovereignty and culture of the Nisg̲a’a Nation.

Nisg̱a’a lands have been dramatically shaped by the volcanic eruption of Tseax Cone. The eruption 263 years ago – Canada’s most recent – irrevocably moulded the surrounding landscape and lives of the Nisg̱a’a people. The lava traveled into the nearby Tseax River, damming it and forming Sii T’ax (Lava Lake). It traveled 11 kilometres north to the Nass River filling the valley floor for a further 10 kilometres. Two villages were destroyed, and 2000 people perished.

The land, with its storied and scenic landscape, is a perfect fit for a tourism initiative. And tourism, with its many cultural and economic benefits, is an ideal undertaking to pursue.

As economic development manager for the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, it has been my job to develop our tourism industry. According to a 2019 report, the Indigenous tourism sector is outpacing Canadian tourism activity overall. The direct economic benefits of the Indigenous tourism sector was valued at $1.7 billion in 2017, having grown 23% over the previous three years.

The whole idea of the cultural tourism initiative was to draw people into the Nass Valley. We had a number of tourism elements in place throughout the valley—a volcano tour, the Nisg̱a’a  Museum, our hot springs, and a unique and culturally rich landscape—we just had to package everything together.

The centrepiece of the initiative, an 18-stop auto-tour along 100 kilometres of the Nass Valley, takes visitors to culturally significant stops, all within an easy walk of the Nisg̱a’a Highway. The auto-tour signs create driver awareness by improving wayfinding, stimulating interest in our culture, and providing visitors with cultural, social, and geographic interpretations of our lands.

Bert Mercer, economic development manager for the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government stands in front of the newly opened Vetter Falls Lodge. Photo by Laura Hope.

By tying all the attractions together in this way, we can welcome visitors to stay longer. We can point them to local accommodations—like Vetter Falls Lodge—and local places of significance. We want visitors to get to know, and fall in love with, Nisg̱a’a lands.

The Nisg̱a’a tourism and marketing initiative exemplifies Indigenous cultural tourism, the symbiotic relationship between visitors who want to have an authentic cultural experience and First Nations like ours, who want to share and strengthen our culture.

Lessons Learned

 Government Dynamics: I’m proud of the work I’ve done for our government in developing the cultural tourism initiative to bring visitors into the Nass Valley, but the project has faced its share of challenges along the way.

One of the more challenging aspects was working to ensure that the initiative reflected the vision of each of the four Nisg̱a’a villages. Though I work for our central Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, early on I began working closely with the governments of the four villages to develop and approve the auto-tour and brochure.

Tourists outside of Bonnie Stanley’s U See Food U Eat it restaurant in Gingolx. The restaurant is gaining international recognition; visitors are starting to return each summer from Europe. Photo: Laura Hope

One of the keys to success has been developing a steering committee consisting of representatives from Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government and each of the four villages. We developed a terms of reference for the committee that clearly outlined its scope, what kind of recommendations it can provide to leadership, and what types of projects it can become involved in.

If I were starting this project over again, I’d put my steering committee in place right from the very beginning, even before planning with a consultant. They are the stakeholders and can help overcome the siloed nature of government structures.

Importance of Branding: In order to establish Nisg̱a’a Tourism as an international-quality product, I worked closely to follow the established brand guidelines of our government. The government designer, Jim Skipp, always reinforced that following brand guidelines is of the utmost importance and can really lend strength to a tourism initiative.

Cultural Sensitivities: I also worked closely with our elders to ensure the Nisg̱a’a  language was responsibly incorporated. Though the process took time, it was so important to include the language and cultural interpretations into the auto-tour. Providing wider access to culturally significant sites like the hot springs, and the lava bed memorial park  required careful thought and planning.

The hot springs are increasingly becoming a destination for outside visitors and we have to manage that impact with a desire to protect our cultural sites.

Allowing Room for Growth: The auto-tour and brochure were purposefully designed to allow for growth of tourism in the region. We knew we’d be opening Vetter Falls Lodge—owned and operated by the Nisg̱a’a  Lisims Government—and wanted to make sure we could add that to the printing of the auto-tour brochure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has paused tourism across the world. Here in the Nass Valley we are using this time to thoughtfully prepare for local tourism in the coming year when our Nation is ready again for visitors. We look forward to a time in the near future when we can once again welcome the world to our home.

Learn more about the Nisg̱a’a Cultural Tourism Initiative at