Why Mapping?

This piece was originally published in Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places, edited by Sheila Harrington, LTA Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia, copyright 1999.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

As children, we were encouraged to follow maps to find hidden treasure. Many of us are still drawn by the lines and images on maps to find our way. On Salt Spring Island, one woman walked up and down a watershed, preparing a “treasure” map which helped convince provincial ministry officials to put restrictive covenants on the creek and swamp areas which create a miraculous fresh and salt water canal needed by spawning salmon. For the people of the Megin area, near Tofino, another treasure map was created. Its lines and images led the people of this community to find a way to protect their precious watershed area. And for many indigenous people world wide, maps are helping to re-establish knowledge of both traditional and current land uses.

Not only is land the very basis of our own physical survival, it also has personal values, as our home place. The 100 year-old rosemary bush our grandmother planted could easily be cut down by a new owner if its whereabouts were not documented. This same bush may have supplied fresh rosemary to the local market and could be a source of income to the new residents – if only they knew!

Just imagine if you bought a piece of land and with the legal papers, you received a looseleaf book complete with surveys, inventories, and a series of maps showing natural and manmade waterways, building sites, underground aquifers, varying soils, bird nests, animal routes etc. You could then plan wisely and caringly for your new home place, using and adding to the records passed on from owner to owner. Mapping can help you create a land stewardship tradition!

This is mapping at the “parcel” level. It involves direct experience with a piece of land, making surveys of its geography and habitats. Preparing a parcel-level map will help you know and understand the interrelationships and dynamic nature of the land. With this knowledge you can make informed decisions on activities in and around your home place.

Once you have made a backyard or parcel-level map, you will realize how much the creeks or other habitats on your property are inherently linked to a larger region or bioregion. If you extend mapping beyond the parcel level to a neighbourhood, water­shed, or other region which shares biological and cultural boundaries, then you will be creating “bioregional” maps. Not only are bioregional maps on a larger level than parcel-level maps, they also include the human connections with the land over longer periods of time. Consequently, they can also describe patterns of specific limit and opportunity.

Maps are a basic form of communication – laying down the law (property maps, zoning maps), analyzing (weather patterns, import/export trends), or persuading (artistic maps, occupancy or development maps). Maps have tremendous power. Here are some local examples in response to the artistic mapping exhibition, Cherished Island Places: “You have inspired me! How can we stop the rot?” “You have cheered me and shown some things which are frightening.” “What a responsibility to preserve all these beautiful places.”

In a more distant community the power of maps is recognized and feared: the Penan people of Sarawak can be arrested for carrying a map. Until recently, maps were almost exclusively made by invading powers. Even today, most people think maps can only be made by authorized scientists. However, as the examples in this manual reveal, maps are now being made by landholders, individuals and community groups as we work to protect cherished areas and make community plans which reflect the current state of our regions and the area’s limits and potentials. For many communities, information about what is actually happening in the area is unmapped. How can we develop plans about the future quality of our home places, if we don’t know what is here now?

Maps can provide a baseline or snapshot of conditions at a point in time. This is of great value to a landowner because it provides a visual ledger which can be passed on to future occupants. For instance, when the Royal Engineers surveyed the Lower Mainland for settlement in the mid to late 1800s, they walked a compass bearing, representing the section or lot lines. Using measurements along the chain, significant features were recorded, including trees (by species), streams, swamps, burned areas, trails, roads and so on. Using just the vegetation, stream and wetland observations, and their corresponding locations along these lines, the pre-settlement vegetation patterns of the lower Fraser River floodplain were reconstructed on a map. Now we have a baseline from which losses to natural wetlands can be measured, remnant areas protected, and targets for restoration identified.

The most urgent problems facing indigenous peoples are how to get others to respect their land rights, how to demarcate those lands, and how to monitor and protect them. Strategies to address those issues include generating maps to articulate traditional knowledge and to express ancient patterns of occupancy.

Peter Poole, guest editor, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Volume 18, No. 4, 1995

Historically, maps were the earliest form of storing and displaying information about a place. Maps are still reliable and relatively simple visual tools to display thematic ideas, geographic and other information. In order to understand how maps have been generated, the following is a brief explanation of current methods.

Modern cartography can be roughly divided into two branches. The first involves accurately meas­ured and charted earth features (topographic, oceanographic, aeronautical charts) using precise survey data and air photographs. Today, electronic survey methods, aerial photography, satellites and computer-aided methods all have enhanced map making. In Canada, much of this work is done by the Department of Natural Resources.

The second branch, involving reference maps, usually depend on government statistics and sources. They include road maps, wall maps and thematic maps for atlases and textbooks. They also reveal earth features, but they are not made from primary photos or surveys; instead they are compiled from many other sources, data and existing maps (e.g. census data, climatic data, business and resource companies, social statistics, temperature or precipitation values).

Although this information is critical and valid, the mapmaker selects specific features only. Thus, the creation of maps is a highly subjective process. No rendition of topography, land use, or culture perfectly depicts the fluid state of social or physical environments. Maps are simply patterns of lines and symbols that describe highly selective aspects of what is real, frozen in one moment of time. Thus, all maps are only icons, powerful visual propaganda which intrinsically accent or ignore issues important to the map maker. By creating visual images which describe watersheds, soil capability, wind speeds, publicly owned lands, sources of environmental contamination, etc., a first wholistic picture of your property and the surrounding bioregion can begin to emerge.

Bioregional maps are being used to assist citizen-driven social change in a growing number of regions around the planet. They are helping to establish a park and biosphere reserve system in Slovenia in former Yugoslavia. The governments of Ontario and metro Toronto have started to organize planning activities within the context of an Oak Ridges Moraine bioregion. Artistic renderings of place have been created in over 200 communities in Great Britain and in the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Elsewhere in B.C. bioregion mapping projects are underway in the Lower Fraser River Delta and the upper Lillooet River basin. Governments of the United States and California have formally agreed to use bioregion boundaries to create new natural resource stewardship zones.

In California’s Mattole Watershed, residents inventoried and mapped the watershed in their region because they were concerned about salmon. Government maps and records were incomplete, so they made their own with some assistance from government scientists. The result was a comprehensive ecological picture on which to build a salmon recovery program. Within a few years, the salmon were returning to the watershed, due to the program which used the assistance of farmers, fishermen, foresters and others who were convinced of the viability of the plan.

At the core, both parcel-level and bioregional mapping are about taking responsibility for assuring that a prosperous and sustainable future is inherited by succeeding generations. The underlying premise is that people who live in place have the potential to guide governance and development of that place more efficiently and wisely than any distant authority. Bioregional mapping is not so much about learning to be an expert cartographer, it is really about community building. If completed in a manner that is systematic, with the enthusiasm of a wide variety of neighbours, they will describe a vision of sustainability. Opportunities to implement economic, environmental and socially just plans are immensely more achievable when a map works to show how this change can be achieved.

We hope that with the help of this manual, the process of completing maps, from a backyard to a bioregion, will be put within reach of all aspiring “barefoot cartographers.” The future of all the regions we call home is ours to describe – and ours to maintain for the sake of ourselves, other species and future generations.

The Bioregional Perspective

Citizens of many communities realize that new skills must be learned if a local and regional quality of life is to be broadly protected and enhanced. The impetus for creating and teaching these new skills of sustainability are coming from residents in scores of places who refuse to see their social and ecological capital either underutilized or squandered. This is a substantial challenge.

How can a whole picture of the land and community of which we are a part best be understood? What sources of information are available which describe the social and ecological identity of home? Once this vision is perceived, how can it be used to form the basis of environmental stewardship and local processes for positive social change?

In the early 1970s Alan Van Newkirk found himself faced with this same dilemma. He had emigrated from the United States to Nova Scotia and was living in a rural community outside Halifax. In studying the science of biogeography, how communi­ties of life and the physical environment interact, he came up with an idea which inspired the creation of a new grassroots movement. Van Newkirk reasoned that nature seemed to organize itself into communities that shared continuities of physical and ecological association. These areas, which he called “bioregions,” should become the territorial unit within which humans protected and restored natural ecosystems.

In 1971 Van Newkirk was visited by California-based cultural-activist Peter Berg. Berg and Van Newkirk spent several days together, talking over this new idea of “the bioregion.” Back in San Francisco, Berg made a critically important extension to the bioregional idea. The bioregion could be more than a focus for ecological restoration, it could also become the territorial “container” within which human societies might live in sustainable balance with surrounding natural systems.

This basic perception became the focus for a remarkable convergence of purpose. Berg, renowned ecologist Raymond Dasmann and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder began to share their common interest in inspiring a wholistic, bioregion-based process of social change on the North American continent.

The underlying premise is that human cultures thrive best when rooted in relatively small bioregions which share continuities of cultural and biophysical identity. Bioregions are thus identified by overlaying descriptions of watersheds, land forms, traditional territorial boundaries, patterns of flora and fauna, climate, and current economic linkages. Areas which show continuities of these, and many other possible features, become containers within which contemporary cultures begin to reinhabit a life-place.

Once bioregion borders have been agreed upon, interdependent webs of communities within bioregions can govern and develop themselves to build locally controlled and self-reliant economies designed to operate within the ability of surrounding ecosystems to support them on a sustainable basis. And they base their legitimacy on the ability to achieve a broad social justice for all residents in their jurisdiction.

How does a bioregional perspective apply to a person or family simply wanting to steward their own property in a sustainable way? In learning how to steward the resources on your land, it quickly becomes obvious that no single parcel is an isolated island. This realization implies that the best protection for your immediate family and property is the creation of a much wider shared perception of what “home” is. You can learn about the detailed capabilities of your property to sustainably support life. But you can also begin to work with neighbours to trace the habitats of plants and animals of which your property is only a part.

By extension on a community level, you could support establishment of a local weather station and stream recording gauges so that the local climate can be better understood. All segments of the community—youth, teens, adults, elders, tourists, the physically and mentally challenged—can be included in processes of community building. One could arrange for local producers of food and dry goods to gain a higher profile and wider distribution for their goods. All these activities increase the potential for you and your family to successfully steward a home property by creating a wider supportive web of mutual interest and skill. This is how a bioregional perspective on governance and development is evolved—slowly and steadily through the learning, sharing, and practical use of local knowledge.

Applying the concepts of bioregional mapping to their specific cultural and physical territories, people can focus their concern about their home places. Bioregional mapping is relatively straightforward, takes some persistence to achieve, and creates a tool with powerful organizing potential. By consolidating local knowledge of community history, both human and habitat conditions, and the future potential for sustainability, maps can assist in setting a broad agenda for positive change.

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