The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement

🕔Jun 07, 2006

Most British Columbians are used to hearing that the province’s richly forested north and central coasts constitute the largest intact temperate rainforest on the planet.

Being so close by, it’s easy to take for granted the dynamic ecosystem of big trees, wild salmon, great bears, wolves, whales and eagles. And that it continues to be home to vibrant indigenous communities that have depended on those resources for thousands of years.

So it may have come as a surprise when the BC government drew world attention in February by announcing that it would legislate protection of more than a hundred new protected areas encompassing two million hectares of coastal rainforest.

In a New York Times article, which was one of over a thousand such international media stories, Premier Gordon Campbell declared, “there’s a new era dawning in British Columbia! You have to establish what you value, and work together. This collaboration is something we have to take into the future, and it is something the world can learn from.”

The “collaboration” the Premier referred to was the evolution of the Great Bear Rainforest campaign —the focus of global controversy, environmental protest and widespread international media interest since 1995.

ForestEthics, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club of Canada came together to target destructive logging. The groups’ efforts culminated in critical pressure from forest products customers: over 80 companies, including Ikea, Home Depot, Staples and IBM, agreed to stop selling wood and paper products made from ancient forests.

This marketplace pressure drove logging companies to sit down and negotiate. They agreed at the outset that key valleys in the rainforest would be protected from logging while further discussions took place. In these, the main goals were to protect the most important areas, change logging practices, and support a sustainable future for local communities.

What followed was thousands of hours of work by coastal community members and business interests, along with one of the most unexpected alliances in Canadian history. It included the Coast Information Team—a blue-ribbon science panel supported by provincial and First Nations governments, environmental groups and logging companies. Together they identified priorities for conservation and developed specific recommendations for an ecosystem-based approach to logging.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen First Nations along the coast were developing their own land use plans to protect key cultural, ecological and resource values in their traditional territories.

The conservation package announced by Premier Campbell followed a government-to-government process that attempted to harmonize First Nations land use plans with those negotiated at multi-stakeholder planning tables ( LRMPs, or Land and Resource Management Plans).

Many of the areas that will be preserved or sensitively logged have been chosen based on the oral tradition of Native groups and the opinions of their elders. “Now we can manage our destiny,” said Ross Wilson, chairman of the tribal council of the Heiltsuk, based largely in Bella Bella.

“Without this agreement, we would be going to court forever and we would have to put our children and old ladies, dressed in button blankets, in the way of the chainsaws,” he added, referring to the ceremonial dress worn in past protests.

Early in the negotiations the Heiltsuk, and other First Nations such as the Kitasoo of Klemtu and Gitga’at of Hartley Bay, made it clear that they would need support developing new economic and conservation stategies if ecological protection gains were to be maintained over the long term.

The conservation community responded to this challenge by raising more than $60 million from philanthropic sources, which has been partially matched by $30 million from the Province. This conservation financing initiative now awaits a similar commitment from the Canadian government to clear the way for a major investment in coastal First Nations communities.

From the environmental perspective, this agreement represents a revolution in the way we approach BC’s rainforests. We’ve developed a new, 21st-century model that combines conservation, new economic ventures and community involvement. The environmental sector will be working to make the agreements work, as well as watching to ensure that these announcement result in real change on the ground.

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Merran Smith, based in Smithers, BC, works with ForestEthics, one of the environmental groups which worked to create the coastal land use agreements for the Great Bear Rainforest. She has been involved in this issue for over a decade.