Conflict to Consensus: British Columbia Protects Great Bear Rainforest

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, February 8, 2006 (ENS) - The British Columbia government has decided to protect a total of 2.1 million hectares (5.1 million acres) of coastal temperate rainforest, including critical Spirit Bear habitat, Premier Gordon Campbell announced Tuesday. The decision protects one third of the Great Bear Rainforest from all logging and will require the use of more sustainable logging practices for the remaining area.

More than 100 new protected areas will be established covering more than 1.2 million hectares, where management will emphasize habitat conservation, maintenance of biodiversity, and preservation of special landscape, recreation and cultural heritage features, the government said.

Existing protected areas cover 600,000 hectares. Another 300,000 hectares will be included in biodiversity areas that will be off-limits to logging, although they might be open to mining in the future.

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Sun sets over a portion of the Central British Columbia coast that will be protected under the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. (Photo courtesy Government of British Columbia)
"The agreement reached on these areas represents an unprecedented collaboration between First Nations, industry, environmentalists, local governments and many other stakeholders in how we manage the vast richness of B.C.'s coast for the benefit of all British Columbians," said Premier Campbell to an audience of invited guests at Vancouver's Pan Pacific Hotel. "It is an example the world can follow."

Campbell called the agreement "a strong marriage that balances the needs of the environment with the need for sustainable jobs and a strong economic future for coastal communities."

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement establishes a system of protected areas and reserves of various sizes to protect ecological and cultural heritage values. The agreement will guide the development of the final Land and Resource Management Plans (LRMPs) for the Central and North Coast of British Columbia.

The agreement is based on recommendations from First Nations, resource industries, environmentalists, local governments and communities in the 400 kilometer (250 mile) stretch of coastal lands covered by the new plans.

"Diverse interests have come together in a unique partnership that will support economic opportunity while preserving some of B.C.'s most spectacular wilderness areas and protecting habitat for a number of species, including the rare Spirit Bear," the premier said.

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The spirit bear or Kermode bear, Ursus americanus kermodei, is a Canadian subspecies of the North American black bear. About one in 10 Kermode bears is white. (Photo courtesy Government of British Columbia)
The protected areas preserve some of the largest intact temperate rainforests in the world and conserve more than 200,000 hectares of the Spirit Bear's habitat, including the 103,000 hectare Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy on Princess Royal Island.

The Great Bear Rainforest agreement does nothing to help the endangered Northern spotted owl, which lives far to the south, but other species at risk of extinction will be protected - the rare white Spirit Bears, also called kermode bears, grizzly bears, northern goshawks, marbled murrellets, and peregrine falcons, salmon species, 1,000 year old red cedar trees, and old growth spruce and fir.

"In short order," Campbell said, "legislation will be introduced around these land use decisions to establish new protected areas and further sustainable logging practices in the region.

The legislation creating these protected areas will come under the British Columbia Park Act, but they will belong to a class of lands to be called conservancies, rather than parks to meet the request of First Nations, who are not comfortable with seeing their traditional lands vanish into park status.

Environmental groups were delighted. Greenpeace called the agreement "a huge victory" reached "after years of pressure."

"It's an incredible conflict to consensus story," said Lisa Matthaus, Coast Campaign coordinator for the Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter. "British Columbians are showing that it is possible to protect the environment and provide the economic foundation for healthy communities. This innovative rainforest agreement provides a real world example of how people and wilderness can prosper together."

The announcement sets the stage for 2009 when sustainable logging practices called Ecosystem Based Management will be used throughout the entire 21 million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement provides greater control for First Nations over their traditional territory and a commitment to a new economy for the region based on conservation.

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One of the hundreds of BC North Coast valleys that will be protected under the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement (Photo courtesy Government of British Columbia)
"This agreement brings an end to the long-standing resource-use conflicts over this land," said KNT First Nations chairman Dallas Smith. "Now our people have a more active role in how and where business is done in our traditional territories, and we can move toward cultural, ecological and economic stability in this region."

"I commend the provincial government for its commitment to this land use planning process," said Heiltsuk Chief Ross Wilson "We're looking forward to finalizing and implementing our land use agreements. Completion of the government-to-government land use agreements will ensure the well-being of the lands, waters and peoples within our Traditional Territories."

Twenty-five First Nations were consulted during the Central Coast and North Coast LRMP planning process and played an integral role in the land use decisions. Eighteen First Nations represented in the LRMP process are expected to sign government-to-government land use agreements with the province. Four First Nations, whose territory covers more than 10 percent of the area, will not join the agreement, saying their land use plans must remain their own.

To date, almost half of a $120 million investment package has been raised by philanthropic donors for conservation and sustainable business ventures in First Nation territories. The BC government has committed $30 million to First Nations for economic development. The Canadian federal government has promised to contribute $30 million.

"These land use decisions are a historic step towards a new level of co-operation in British Columbia's forests," said Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell. "Government, First Nations, environmentalists, resource industries and communities have found common ground, and this continued collaboration will play an important role in our work ahead to fully implement these LRMPs."

The logging companies, which have faced years of protests, demonstrations, boycotts and blockades by environmental groups, say that for them the agreement increases stability and certainty of long term resource use.

Western Forest Products CEO Reynold Hert said, "For the past seven years Canadian Forest Products, Catalyst Paper Corporation, International Forest Products and Western Forest Products have worked with environmental groups, coastal stakeholders, First Nations, the Province and customers to achieve the outcome being announced today. This is a significant step forward, and increases certainty for all involved."

Among issues still unresolved are the costs of compensation to timber companies for lost harvesting rights, lost provincial timber revenues, and the final amount of wood that will be cut on the coast.

Environmental groups say their market campaigns in Europe and the United States to convince wood buyers such as Home Depot not to buy timber from the Great Bear Rainforest are what brought the forest industry companies to the table and into the Great Bear Rainforest agreement.

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Many protests against logging in BC forests have been staged over the past 10 years. (Photo courtesy ForestEthics)
"For more than a decade, all eyes have been on Canada's rainforest," said Amanda Carr, Greenpeace forest campaigner. "If today's promises become reality, we'll have a global model of sustainability, exactly what international customers of BC's wood tell us they want."

The Sierra Club's Matthus said her group was invited to the negotiating table but at first refused to participate, because their previous experience of land use planning in BC was "talk and log - we talk while they log."

"We also had a demand that independent science be brought to bear," Matthus said. "We jointly funded with government and industry an independent science team that developed a handbook that has now been adopted."

"Even flying over Vancouver Island you can see all the clearcuts from coast to summit," Matthus said. "Then when the plane heads up over the mainland to the Great Bear Rainforest, although there has been quite a bit of logging in the southern portion, the northern portion is still a long expanse of green."

The environmental groups say the agreement announced Tuesday is the end of the beginning.

"This agreement represents a revolution in the way we approach B.C.'s rainforests - it's no longer just about logging, but about conservation, new economic ventures and community involvement," said Merran Smith, director of BC Coastal Programs for ForestEthics. "But, we'll be watching to ensure that today's announcement results in real change on the ground."

If all promises are kept, the environmental groups said warily, the agreement will create a global model of sustainability for other rare ecosystems around the world.