Looking back—and ahead—at ambitious plans for conservation, new approaches to logging, more First Nations land management, and broader economic development in the Great Bear Rainforest.
ALONG THE CENTRAL AND NORTHERN BC COASTLINE and archipelago stretch eight million hectares of coastal temperate rainforest. The Great Bear Rainforest (named for its resident grizzly, black and the rare white spirit or kermode bears) is also home to more than 30 First Nations and cultural traditions that span millennia. Ancient stands of Sitka spruce, red cedar and western hemlock tower above one of earth’s most diverse ecosystems. It is also a forest with a future cast in fanfare and criticism.
“What we’re doing is shifting the paradigm of how the economy and how forests are managed on the coast. And we’re doing it on a large scale, landscape level,” says Merran Smith, BSc ’95, a campaign director with the environmental protection group, ForestEthics.
In February 2006 First Nations chiefs, community leaders, environmentalists and a logging executive jointly announced protection agreements for the Great Bear Rainforest. It capped 10 years of environmental campaigns, First Nations negotiations and consensus agreements at government-led resource planning tables. The news spread to nearly 400 news outlets around the world.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement is monumental. But these agreements on paper must become a reality in the rainforest if we’re going to be successful in providing a conservation model to the world,” says Amanda Carr, of Greenpeace Canada. Greenpeace, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter, were three environmental groups who pushed the Great Bear agreement forward and remain among its most vocal proponents.
Others within the environmental movement are more skeptical. “They are really just paper parks,” says Ian McAllister, MEd ’88, of the Raincoast Conservation Society. Raincoast commended the rainforest deal as a step forward, but the group also noted it was just one of many steps needed to protect the rainforest.
McAllister doesn’t have a lot of faith in logging companies changing their practices.
But, what McAllister and Carr do agree on is that they want the protected areas to become a reality—and quickly. There are 107 protected areas that cover two million hectares (equal to 5,200 Stanley Parks) identified in the agreement. So far, the province has passed legislation for 24 of the areas, which were covered by a prior logging moratorium. Smith is confident the rest of the newly protected areas will follow, but is growing impatient with the pace of the process.
Apart from the gradual process of finalizing protected areas, the province, First Nations and logging companies—still establishing new working relationships—face the looming deadline for new, light-touch logging (or “ecosystem-based management”). Set to be implemented in two years, EBM is a system that focuses on what ecological attributes to leave behind before deciding what to harvest.
“The biggest frustration is how long it takes to move EBM objectives forward through so many diverse perspectives,” says Minister of Agriculture and Lands Pat Bell.
Dallas Smith of the Tlowitsis First Nation is on the EBM implementation committee and oversees an EBM pilot project in his territory. Smith also works closely with Art Sterritt of the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of First Nations located in the Great Bear. As a leader for nine central coast First Nations, Smith’s main focus will be the impact of EBM on cultural values, noting, “We practised EBM until colonization.”
While Merran Smith compares the collaboration among First Nations, the province and logging companies to an “arranged marriage,” she also hails the partnership as a human rights win. “From a human rights perspective this government-government relationship is a huge step forward for BC and Canada. Five to 10 years ago this would have never happened.”
Some, however, are not satisfied with either EBM or the protection deal. “Legislated protected areas are good,” says Chris Darimont, a PhD candidate in conservation biology who has done extensive research on wolves in the central coast region. “But almost right away I became disillusioned with the deal, how it falls short of what this ecosystem needs or deserves.”
Ethnoecologist Prof. Nancy Turner is more optimistic. “Changing logging practices requires a combination of different ways of thinking, new technologies, and societal values that place long-term health of communities and ecosystems ahead of short-term gain,” she notes in an e-mail message. “It’s possible for these elements to change quickly, but since it requires a multitude of steps, usually it takes quite awhile. I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction, but unfortunately, we have lost a great deal in the mean time.”
Traditionally, the economy of the central and north coast saw a lot of capital flow south as forest resources were harvested and shipped away for processing. Now, with a $120-million conservation fund in place, investment will actually flow into the region instead of out. In January the last piece of the Great Bear deal was finalized when John Baird, the federal environment minister announced that his government would match a provincial contribution of $30 million for conservation funding for communities in the rainforest. The fund includes $60 million dollars in private funding for investments in economic development activities like shellfish aquaculture or eco-tourism from Prince Rupert to Bella Bella to Alert Bay.
“There were a lot of skeptics,” says Merran Smith, looking back at the agreement and the influx of conservation funding. “A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘I never believed it would really happen’. One of the most exciting parts of this agreement is the potential for community health and conservation.”