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A Clearcut Answer?

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Issue: 45 Section: Original Peoples Geography: West Topics: social movements, habitat, Indigenous

April 18, 2007

A Clearcut Answer?

A year after the Great Bear Rainforest deal was struck, some wonder if the political compromise was worth it

by Zoe Blunt

According to critics, the Great Bear Rainforest agreement has protected only two-thirds of the spirit bear’s crucial habitat and the province is back-pedaling on its commitment to protect the rest. Photo: T. Wadsworth, www.bearsmatter.com

In February 2006, the “Big Greens” -- Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and ForestEthics -- along with many of their supporters celebrated a historic agreement to bring an end to the “war in the woods” in the Great Bear Rainforest in coastal British Columbia, Canada. But a year later, observers say the Big Greens’ agreement -- made under the campaign umbrella of the Rainforest Solutions Project (RSP) -- may be unravelling. Timber companies have ratcheted up the rate of clear-cut logging to unprecedented levels and guidelines for sustainable logging are not being implemented.

Ian McAllister of the Raincoast Conservation Society says the sudden increase in logging on the Central Coast is “unprecedented in 15 years."

“It’s unbelievable,” McAllister says. “It’s still just cut and run."

“Talk and log,” says Qwatsinas (Ed Moody), hereditary chief of the Nuxalk Nation. “It is not a victory; everyone loses.”

What’s at stake is the largest intact coastal rainforest in North America -- home to thousand-year-old red cedars, wolves, moose, mountain goats, grizzly, black bears and the rare white spirit (Kermode) bears. Protected from logging and development by formidable mountains, this wild and mountainous coastline stretches hundreds of miles, from the tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaskan panhandle. Whales and orcas swim through the channels and inlets. Indigenous communities, who in Canada are known as First Nations, fish, hunt and gather berries, as they have done here for thousands of years.

The Great Bear Rainforest deal was trumpeted as a wilderness legacy for our children and our children’s children in 2006. But reports from the grassroots suggest this “success story” has already turned sour.

Twelve years of campaigning

It was members of the Nuxalk Nation who first invited non-native environmentalists to their traditional territory to witness large-scale clear-cut logging in 1994. The following year, Greenpeace teamed up with the Nuxalk and other environmental groups to launch the campaign to save the place they named “the Great Bear Rainforest.”

By 1997, Nuxalk members and their allies -- Greenpeace, Forest Action Network, Bear Watch and People’s Action for Threatened Habitat -- were blocking logging operations on Roderick Island, King Island and Ista, which is sacred to the Nuxalk as the place where the first woman came to earth.

At dawn on June 6, 1997, workers for International Forest Products (Interfor) arrived at Ista to cut trees as usual. Thirty protesters -- including Nuxalk chiefs in full regalia -- greeted the workers with a blockade and a huge tripod towering over the middle of the road. One protestor was locked down to a cement anchor buried in the road, while two more were perched at the apex of the tripod.

In total, 55 people took over the road and shut down Interfor’s logging operation for 19 days. Twenty-four people, including six members of the Nuxalk Nation, were arrested when police arrived to enforce a court injunction.

In the 1990s, massive industrial clear-cutting was already taking place -- without the permission of First Nations -- under the auspices of the province, which simultaneously hosted a process called the Central Coast Land and Resource Management Plan (CCLRMP). The process was widely condemned as a “talk and log” exercise, until Sierra Club and Greenpeace set their sights on the planning committee. The groups won a moratorium in 1998 to suspend logging in intact rainforest valleys in the Central Coast while they participated in the CCLRMP process.

Meanwhile, environmentalists organized an international boycott of B.C. wood products around the world. As the boycott campaign picked up steam, companies like Home Depot and Ikea dropped their B.C. wood contracts, and the pressure was on to find a compromise.

“Customers don’t want to buy their two-by-fours or their pulp with a protester attached to it. If we don’t end it, they will buy their products elsewhere,” Bill Dumont, chief forester at Western Forest Products, told the Vancouver Sun in May 2000.

Also in 2000, the Rainforest Solutions Project (RSP) made a decision that changed the course of the campaign. According to Qwatsinas and others close to the Great Bear Rainforest, it was a serious strategic error.

While negotiating the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, the RSP formally agreed to end their protests, blockades and marketing campaigns. For the duration of the agreement, there would be no more high-profile blockades of logging operations on the B.C. coast, no lobbying international wood buyers and no hardball criticism of the process to the media.

Qwatsinas believes environmentalists gave up their only bargaining chip.

“They made the Central Coast an environmental-protest-free zone,” Qwatsinas says. “They’ve given away too much. It takes time to get the market campaign, the boycott campaign going again. Think about those strengths that were given up -- the power that they had in making demands, but it’s gone now. What else can they use?”

The Science of Compromise

RSP forged ahead with negotiations about how much land to protect and how to log the rest. With the Joint Solutions Project, the eco-groups collaborated with industry, government, communities, labour groups and First Nations to establish interim agreements, logging moratoriums and other small victories.

In 2006, the final agreement was announced with fanfare by a provincial government eager to paint itself Green after years of cutting park budgets and opening wilderness areas to development and logging. However, the Great Bear Rainforest agreement only commits to a "conservancy" designation for 32 per cent of the land -- part of which is open for mining and all of which may be open to roads, hydroelectric projects, tourism and other uses.

The parties pledged to base the agreement on the best independent science available and the province requisitioned a scientific review of the Central and North Coast flora and fauna to make recommendations about habitat protection. In 2005, the Coast Information Team found that a minimum of 44 to 50 per cent of the land area would have to be set aside to save ecosystems and wildlife. The decision to protect only 32 per cent may end up sacrificing the survival of the spirit bear.

Sierra Club campaigner Lisa Matthaus admits, “The protected areas alone are not sufficient, but this is a political compromise. You need to have a lot of parties in agreement. We wanted to meet the recommendations of the scientists [on the Coast Information Team], but we couldn’t.”

According to the deal, if one-third of the land base of the Great Bear Rainforest is protected, two-thirds will be logged. How it will be logged is still the subject of debate.

The logging industry agreed to phase-in new ecosystem-based management (EBM) logging practices by 2009. The RSP website describes "lighter touch practices" that would "protect old growth, wildlife habitat, sensitive watersheds and salmon streams."

Instead of starting to adopt gentler practices, it appears that some -- if not most -- timber companies are stripping the land as fast as possible before the 2009 deadline.

Even spokespeople for the RSP are expressing concern. An RSP press release in September noted that “some forest companies” still have not begun the eco-logging practices they promised three years ago.

Merran Smith of ForestEthics says, “These agreements are now at risk because a cornerstone of the agreement, ecosystem-based management, is faltering. We are tired of big talk with no action."

Division in the ranks

Qwatsinas calls the Great Bear agreement an “empty box.” Essentially, he says, the deal is only a framework. Ecosystem-based management is one of the details left undefined. Even when a set of practices is eventually spelled out, the definition will be subject to change.

The David Suzuki Foundation, one of Canada’s largest and most respected environmental groups, wouldn’t endorse the Great Bear agreement for this reason. “There are no guarantees that acceptable EBM practices will be adopted,” the foundation’s Bill Wareham said.

Other groups dedicated to the Great Bear Rainforest have walked away from the table, including the Forest Action Network (FAN), the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Valhalla Wilderness Society (VWS) and Raincoast.

Valhalla Wilderness Society has been collecting scientific data and working to protect the coast for 18 years. In a 2004 memo, society Chair Anne Sherrod blasted the RSP:

“In the future, while logging the unprotected ecosystems, timber corporations on the mid-coast will enjoy the signed agreement of two of B.C.’s largest groups, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, as well as the U.S.-based ForestEthics and Rainforest Action Network. The groups that will continue working on additional protection on the coast -- such as VWS, Raincoast, Forest Action Network and David Suzuki Foundation -- will be blocked by the B.C. government and timber industry, using the agreement signed by the RSP groups as a ’done deal.’

"In the last few years, some environmental groups and activists have lost patience with this. After 15 years of seeing this happen, there should have been more learning, more awakeness to the crisis of what we are losing and how we are losing it. Instead we have the rhetoric and delusion of ’win – win’ agreements.”

First Nations people are also divided in their response to the agreement. Even within the Nuxalk Nation, the band council supports the process, while traditionalists like Qwatsinas and the House of Smayusta vehemently oppose it. Their dissent is further fuelled by the fact that the agreement fails to respect a protocol with the Nuxalk members who first invited Greenpeace to their territory in 1994. The protocol between Greenpeace and the House of Smayusta stated that no deals would be made without the approval of the First Nations partners.

“It was a bold move for Greenpeace Canada to ignore the protocol and make the [Great Bear] agreement without our approval,” Qwatsinas notes. “The sovereignty of Nuxalk lands and rights in our sense took a back seat.”

Elsewhere on the coast, the Kitasoo Nation has signed the deal and now plans to reap the benefits by logging Green Inlet, part of its traditional territory. Although almost half of Kitasoo land is protected, and Kitasoo Forest Products is cutting trees selectively instead of clear-cutting, the project has brought the wrath of Simon Jackson, founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition.

The coalition says that the agreement has protected only two-thirds of the spirit bear’s crucial habitat and that the province is back-pedaling on its commitment to protect the rest. Jackson says the deal fails to protect the small spirit bear population, estimated at about 200 animals.

“Everybody thought the white bears were protected with that announcement,” he says. “A lot of great steps were taken . . . but it didn’t protect the spirit bear.”

Buying Silence?

Observers report that one of the conditions imposed on the negotiations was a ban on any public complaints or criticisms aimed at the process or any of the participants. The parties involved are not disclosing details about any such restrictions.

Qwatsinas suggests that more groups should be speaking out about the agreement’s shortcomings, but, “I don’t think they can. Some of their hands are tied, and the gag order is in place,” he says.

Besides the health and survival of the ecosystem, a substantial financial package is at stake for the Great Bear Rainforest agreement participants. The government and various foundations have pledged $120 million for First Nations sustainable economic development and conservation projects. Judging by the amount of glossy, self-serving literature generated by their offices, the RSP’s high-profile campaign, with the spirit bear as its mascot, appears to be serving the groups well.

Forest campaigner Ingmar Lee says that a cost-benefit analysis of the money spent on the Great Bear agreement comes up short.

“We’ve found organized, institutional environmentalism [in B.C.] has failed over the last four years to accomplish anything,” he says. “The successes have come from individual grassroots efforts that have basically bypassed the entrenched, bureaucratic, environmental institutions that have been sucking up the enviro-buck and just not getting the kind of accomplishments we need.”

Lee is not surprised that the RSP groups are getting “stabbed in the back” by government and industry apparently reneging on the spirit of the agreement.

“I just believe that we should be working together against these incorrigible forces of destruction rather than working together with them,” he says. “I have always advocated a broad spectrum of environmentalist effort, but the grassroots activist community has been excluded from the project from the start.”

Qwatsinas also makes a distinction between the grassroots groups and the “Big Greens”: “I’m glad there are some out there -- groups like Raincoast -- trying to make an honest effort, protecting the environment, who are not handcuffed by the process.”

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