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The agreement covers an area that represents 45 per cent of North America's three temperate rainforest ecoregions. New parks total 1.8 million hectares – more than three times the size of Prince Edward Island. Another 4.6 million hectares are subject to a strict new management regime that puts the ecosystem first.
The Great Bear Rainforest contains the world's largest tracts of intact temperate rainforest, and it is home to spawning runs for 20 per cent of the world's remaining wild salmon. The area is so rich in wildlife and flora that biologists have compared it to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon jungles. The agreement means that habitat for endangered species including grizzlies, the total population of 400 white "spirit" bears, coastal wolves, peregrine falcons, and the Northern Goshawk is preserved.
In 1993, following protests and blockades, the British Columbia government announced the Clayoquot compromise – a deal that protected 33 per cent of the region, leaving the rest to be logged. The decision sparked the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada's history; that summer more than 850 people were arrested. First Nations were not consulted and the communities remain divided over logging in Clayoquot Sound.
The focus shifted to the Great Bear Rainforest with its hundreds of pristine and intact watersheds. In a high profile international campaign, a collaboration of environmental groups forced the customers of the companies operating in the Great Bear Rainforest to cancel contracts. Over 80 companies, including Ikea, Home Depot, Staples and IBM, committed to stop selling wood and paper products made from ancient forests.
As a result of the market pressure lumber companies on the coast began to shift their approach and agreed to sit down with the environmental groups.
"It was tough in the beginning, but everyone agreed in the end," says Lisa Matthaus of the Sierra Club. "People came to accept that they no longer had the social licence to log in the way or in the places that they were, so it had to change."
The Joint Solutions Project was formed in 2000 as an initiative between coastal forest companies and a coalition of environmental groups including ForestEthics, Sierra Club of BC, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network.
While a land use plan was being developed, the coastal forest industry agreed to stop logging in exchange for a hold on the environmental groups' market campaigns. They then agreed to create a team of international and local scientists to create ecosystem-based management (EBM) for the coastal forests using the best available conservation biology. Environmental groups and industry each raised $600,000 to support this process with provincial and federal governments providing the remainder.
Two multi-stakeholder processes had been mandated by the province to develop land use plans for the Great Bear Rainforest region. The Joint Solutions Project fed the conclusions of its scientific work into this process.
Meanwhile, but separately, the David Suzuki Foundation was working with a group of eight coastal First Nations in an initiative called the Turning Point to develop a set of principles for EBM. To many coastal First Nations, EBM represents a scientific articulation of thousands of years of cultural practice and traditional resource use.
The area that is not protected will be managed according to the EBM process. "This is a transformation of what happens in the British Columbia forest," Merran Smith of ForestEthics says. "The revolution is looking at a standing forest not as a commodity, but as an economic model based on conservation."
The BC government took the land use plans developed by the multi-stakeholder committees and entered into unprecedented government-to-government negotiations with the First Nations, who had developed their own land use plans. The final outcome is a compromise between the two parties.
"It's a cultural shift," says Shawn Kenmuir, an area manager for Triumph Timber, which has already forsaken old clear-cut practices and begun consulting with the Gitga'at before cutting on their traditional lands. "We've started the transition from entitlement to collaboration."
Many areas that will be preserved have been chosen based on the oral tradition of native groups and the opinions of their elders. These include areas with cultural significance such as ancient cemeteries, or areas that contain medicinal herbs and cedars big enough to make totem poles, canoes and longhouses.
"We are [excited]. We all [coastal First Nations] came together and agreed to something that hasn't happened for a long time", says Ross Wilson, chairman of the tribal council of the Heiltsuk, one of the native nations involved.
"Now we can manage our destiny. 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 chain saws."
Transforming the economy
"For all the First Nations the value to protect the Great Bear Rainforest is utmost, not only for cultural and environmental but also for economic reasons," says Ross Wilson. To emphasize the economic benefits of preservation, he adds, "The hunter comes in and pays a lot for one night but you can never see that bear again; with wildlife viewing, as long as that bear lives you can have tourism activities that happen year after year."
This philosophy is supported by an innovative $120 million endowment to support the creation of a conservation economy in the Great Bear Rainforest. It includes: $30 million contributed by the BC government to help ease the transition of impacted forestry workers; $60 million raised by the US-based Nature Conservancy from donors and foundations; and a $30 million contribution from the federal government.
The endowment includes a Coast Conservation Fund that will invest in skills development and monitoring amongst First Nations to guarantee the implementation of the Great Bear Agreement. A Coast Economic Development Fund will invest in shellfish aquaculture, cruise-ship tourism, sustainable forestry, conservation activities, fisheries, high-end lodge tourism, and pine mushroom harvesting, potentially creating up to 1700 new jobs.
In addition, Vancouver-based credit union VanCity will create an innovative fund with up to $80 million dollars from socially responsible investors for sustainable economic initiatives on the coast.
Environmental groups acknowledge that challenges remain. It is not clear what EBM will actually look like on the ground. A number of First Nations groups have yet to sign government-to-government agreements.
Both the David Suzuki Foundation and the Raincoast Conservation Society point out that the agreement does not meet the minimum target of 44 per cent protection that the scientific body indicated was required to ensure that biodiversity is maintained.
"Raincoast supports the legislating of the proposed protected areas, but the province should do so with the full knowledge and recognition that lasting protection of the Great Bear Rainforest will require additional steps and commitment from all parties," says Raincoast Conservation Society's executive director, Chris Genovali.
And, as the Globe and Mail article pointed out, if the lifting of the oil and gas moratorium on the BC coast will mean that supertankers loaded with tar sands oil enter the Queen Charlottes basin, then an ecosystem that is inextricably linked with the ocean will be endangered.
"Greenpeace will be watching to see if the British Columbian government follows through on these commitments and takes this opportunity to make the Great Bear Rainforest a global model of forest sustainability," says Amanda Carr, forest campaigner for Greenpeace Canada.
Ecosystem-Based Management Guiding Principles
Ecological Integrity Is Maintained: Biological richness and the ecosystem services provided by natural terrestrial and marine processes are sustained at all scales through time.
Wellbeing Is Promoted: A diversity of economic opportunities is key to healthy communities and sustainable economies.
Cultures, Communities, and Economies Are Sustained within the Context of Healthy Ecosystems: This idea of entrenching a demand for both human wellbeing and ecosystem integrity veers sharply away from thinking in terms of a "trade-off" between people and the environment.
Aboriginal Rights and Title Are Recognized and Accommodated: First Nations assert aboriginal rights and title to the lands and resources within their territories.
The Precautionary Principle Is Applied: the proponent of change in the ecosystem should err on the side of caution, and the onus is on the proponent to show that ecological risk thresholds are not exceeded.
EBM Is Collaborative: Collaborative processes are broadly participatory; respect the diverse values, traditions, and aspirations of local communities, and incorporate the best of existing knowledge (traditional, local, and scientific).
People Have a Fair Share of the Benefits from the Ecosystems in Which They Live: In the past, the burdens imposed on the local communities by externally driven activities have been greater than the benefits the communities have received.
Source: Coast Information Team (2004): Ecosystem-based Management Framework.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.