Great Bear Rainforest agreement ends 20-year war in the woods

Deal involving the province, First Nations, the forestry industry and environmentalists protects 85% of world’s biggest intact temperate rainforest

Flanked by dancers from the Nanwakolas Tribal Council, Premier Christy Clark announced the Great Bear Rainforest agreement will protect “a global treasure” | Photo: Gordon Hamilton

(This is an update of a previous story that BIV published on January 28, 2016)

A sweeping land-use agreement that protects 85% of the Great Bear Rainforest and ends 20 years of environmental conflict was announced in Vancouver Monday.

At a ceremony held at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the province, First Nations, environmental groups and the forest industry formally ending 20 years of fighting and negotiating over the 6.4 million-hectare rainforest. They described it as the most significant intact temperate rainforest in the world.

The agreement ensures protection for the home of the white Kermode “Spirit Bear,” a global symbol of the region.

The land-use order, to be made law in the upcoming session of the legislature, protects old-growth stands, imposes what environmentalists described as North America’s strictest logging regulations and brings First Nations into the provincial economy by making them partners in future decision-making.

One of the agreement’s first impacts will be an end to the commercial grizzly bear hunt, Premier Christy Clark said in announcing the land-use order and related protocols between the government and the region’s 26 First Nations.

“We have signed a reconciliation protocol that includes a greater stake in the forest sector, and ends the commercial grizzly bear hunt in coastal First Nations traditional territories,” Clark said. “We are the stewards of this magnificent land.”

Forests Minister Steve Thomson later said the decision to end trophy hunting of grizzly bears covers only the 6.4 million hectares of the Great Bear Rainforest.

“Our decision on the balance of the province will continue to be based on science with the principle around conservation – protection of the species – as the first principle,” he said.

While only 15% of the forest will be open to logging, the agreement provides certainty for forest companies to operate, said Rick Jeffery of the industry organization Coast Forest Conservation Initiative. He said it has taken 15 years of shared commitment among the stakeholders to find new approaches to forest conservation and management.

“No speech or press release will ever convey the magnitude of the effort to get to that point,” he said.

As part of the agreement, First Nations will receive forest tenure as well as $15 million in financial assistance from the government to aid them in becoming involved in the region’s economy. This is in addition to a $120 million fund already established jointly by the federal and provincial governments and environmental organizations.

Richard Brooks, forest campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, said 20 years ago, 95% of the rainforest was open to logging. Today it has been restricted to 15%.

“It’s a model of new hope for our planet,” he said.

Valerie Langer, one of the the environmental negotiators over the 15-year period, said she knows of no other place in North America that has such strict commercial logging regulations.

First Nations described the agreement as bringing them into future decision-making as well as protecting the rainforest.

The agreement and protocols “help us to continue down a path towards true respect and reconciliation,” said Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Tribal Council.

He described the agreement as a landmark that made him proud. However, Smith added that he was also “a little upset that it has taken this long for us to find that balance that we have been looking for for the last 20 years.

“Many communities still aren’t better places to live yet. But the relationships that we have built over the last 20 years will ensure that the next 20 years will be full of the economic prosperity and sustainable balance that we need,” Smith said.

Chief Marilyn Slett, president of Coast First Nations, said they are celebrating “the restoration and implementation of responsible land, water and resource management approaches to the Great Bear Rainforest.”

Clark said the related protocols with First Nations will enable them to create economic stability. The province has already signed agreements with First Nations related to liquefied natural gas proposals. Besides a greater involvement in the logging sector, First Nations are investigating green energy, carbon credits and tourism developments within the region.

Clark said that B.C. leads Canada in finding ways for First Nations to participate in the economy, and she warned the rest of Canada about being slow in moving beyond treaties that were signed years ago.

“The rest of the country needs to come to terms with that. Your relationships with First Nations can’t be frozen in time on the basis of a treaty signed 100 years ago.”