Tribal Park Cleanup

Community effort fosters respect for the land & each other

By Odette Auger

In one day, 4010 kilograms of garbage were hauled out of the back roads by thirty volunteers.

Hiking the back roads of Tla-o-qui-aht ḥaḥuułiʔakʔi (territory, pronounced Ha-houl-thee) in May, the forest floor is alive with wild ginger buds, and spring beauty is lighting the undergrowth. The sound of water is everywhere —from quiet pools with drips from cedar branches to rushing streams. It reminds you of the larger scope of a watershed, and of Tla-o-qui-aht wisdom — “everything is one.” It’s a surprise to see thousands of kilograms of garbage left in the salal.

On Saturday May 28, Redd Fish staff set up a tent at the Ucluelet-Tofino junction on Highway 4. Volunteers met for coffee and snacks by Zoe’s Bakery, and headed out to the main backroad with gloves and garbage bags. In one day, 4010 kilograms of garbage were hauled out of the back roads by thirty volunteers. The cleanup is catered by Ucluelet restaurants to show appreciation (this year by Flaka’s Tacos). Locals have gathered annually since 1995 for the Ha’uukmin Tribal Park Backroads Cleanup. It’s essential, as the backroads are littered with garbage – truckloads. Redd Fish Restoration Society (Redd Fish) coordinates the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks sponsored event, and Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District waives the garbage dump fee.

“There is no ‘middle of nowhere’ in Indigenous lands,” explains Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park Guardian Gisele Maria Martin. “These backroads are in Nuu-chah-nulth ancestral gardens, which have been cared for over many, many generations.” Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks, in the ḥaḥuułiʔakʔi (territory) of the Tla-o-qui-aht Hawiih (hereditary chiefs), “is but one expression of the care and reciprocity to the lands, waters, and biodiversity which continue to provide Tla-o-qui-aht Nation with home, culture, canoes, language, songs, identity, food, water, air, and life.” In her thank-you to the volunteers, Martin also noted this joint effort protects precious local salmon habitat.

“There’s people coming in, not knowing how to backroads camp, or knowing but leaving stuff behind – so we go in and clean it up, to mitigate human-wildlife interaction problems and so that it’s not polluting the local watershed.”

Redd Fish staff explain the importance of pristine watersheds. At this time of year, juvenile salmon have almost all emerged from their gravel nests (known as redds), sucked up their yolk sacs, and are now rearing in rivers and small streams up and down the Pacific Northwest. Some species stay much longer in local rivers – Chinook and coho can spend several months to years rearing in the freshwater.

Sarita Mielke, communications coordinator for Redd Fish, says backroads camping has been going on for many years and if it’s done in a respectful way, it doesn’t leave a lot of impact. “But, there’s people coming in, not knowing how to backroads camp, or knowing but leaving stuff behind. It creates a lot of issues for the land and the watershed there – so we go in and clean it up, to mitigate human-wildlife interaction problems and so that it’s not polluting the local watershed.”

The pandemic saw a rise in the amount of people camping out in the backroads, leading to a jump in the amount of debris left behind. Simone Levesque of Redd Fish explains, “Last year Tla-o-qui-aht Nation spearheaded shutting down the back roads because it just was too overwhelming. There were so many campers and there was so much devastation. There were people starting fires during the wildfire season – things were getting really out of control.”

The organization uses a holistic approach to ecosystem recovery. All factors must be considered to effectively accelerate the recovery of damaged watersheds and threatened or endangered species. The redd, or salmon nest, symbolizes this concept. It is a critical indicator of the health of our oceans, forests, and streams, and illustrates the connectivity that exists between each.

Another Redd Fish staffer, Mara McLaughlin explains, “We try to tie [together] all these aspects of restoring a watershed, including the slopes, the riparian forest instream, and it all is tying back towards protecting these salmon nests.” The salmon in turn also help feed the forest, as they decompose and their nutrients get recycled.

“So we really focus on working with the community and working with the nations in this region and in particular following their priorities in our restoration work,” says McLaughlin.

The cleanup matters to locals, and “It’s a point that draws all of the communities here together,” says Levesque, with a big smile. She recalls after the backroads closure, many individuals spent time over the season cleaning up. The annual cleanup continues, “To have one day that we can come out and do it together, because you can see the faces of everybody who cares so much and it’s pretty special.”

Martin emphasized the larger scope of respecting the land, and each other. It’s important, she explains, that “this intergenerational respectful relationship continues to grow worldwide in the face of unsustainable colonialism and destructive capitalism.”

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