"You did it," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, congratulating Indigenous leaders and stakeholders for coming to a landmark agreement protecting 85 per cent of Canada's magnificent Great Bear Rainforest. "It is proof of the strength of what we could do if we decide to find common purpose."

Traditional drumming opened a momentous announcement ceremony at UBC's Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver; it was a standing room-only event filled with media, spectators, and many of the Indigenous, environmental, and timber industry representatives who played critical roles in negotiating the agreements.

"The Great Bear Rainforest is a jewel in the crown of B.C," Clark continued, greeted with applause. "Under this landmark agreement, more old- and second-growth forest will be protected, while still ensuring opportunities for economic development and jobs for local First Nations."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark announcing the historic agreement protecting the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo by A. S. Wright.

According to the new 'Great Bear Rainforest Order,' 3.1 million hectares of coastal temperate rainforest will be off limits to industrial logging — an increase of 20 per cent from the agreements announced in 2006. While the remaining 550,000 hectares of the forest will be open to the timber industry, cutting permits will subject to some of the most stringent legal standards in North America.

Relationship-building was vital to making it all a reality, said Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Tribal Council, who added that the process has had the added benefit of encouraging reconciliation with Indigenous decision-makers:

"This agreement is world class," he told audience members. "We are happy that we have also developed tools like Strategic Engagement Agreements and Reconciliation Protocols to help us continue down a path towards true respect and reconciliation."

Smith said he has also spoken to Indigenous communities across Canada and international Indigenous communities, such as the Maori groups in New Zealand, about their experience negotiating with B.C. government and industry. While he expressed frustration with the length of time it took to reach a meaningful balance between different stakeholder groups, the sentiment was echoed by stakeholders as well:

"The road wasn't smooth," said Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of the Coast Forest Products Association. "The amount of work going on in this file for the last year and a half has been phenomenal. There are people in environmental movement and industry who were moving heaven and earth to make this agreement happen...so our personal thanks to these people."

A "unique area" requires a "unique solution," he explained, and the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest Order certainly fits the bill. The B.C. government will follow up with legislation to support the agreement in spring 2016 and will continue to collaborate in a government-to-government relationship with First Nations to implement it in the future.

Blockades, boycotts spark unprecedented collaboration

Two decades ago, when less than 10 per cent of the rainforest was protected, this kind of agreement among First Nations, timber companies and environmental groups seemed unthinkable. The Great Bear Rainforest was the stage for bitter conflict including blockades, protests and international boycotts over logging in the ancient forests.

Today’s announcement was testament to the catalytic role of conflict when people with vision and courage are willing to seize the moment in search for common ground, said Jody Holmes, a lead environmental negotiator of the deal and director of the Rainforest Solutions Project.

“We never would have been able to do this if there wasn’t a group of people who were able to suspend disbelief and try something new,” she told National Observer. “That’s why it worked — because people have been willing to suspend positionalities about how we thought it was going to happen.”

This experience not only benefits one of Canada’s greatest natural treasures, but provides important lessons for conflict resolution around the world as well. After 20 years, she explained, negotiations between First Nations, timber companies, non-native communities, governments and environmental groups produced a remarkable compromise.

Under the new agreement, logging is being transformed through a process called ecosystem-based management (EBM). Timber harvesting takes place with a much lighter touch and is restricted to just 15 per cent of the forested area with additional restrictions on tree species such as red cedar and western yew.

Bear dens, rivers, swamps, and estuaries are also off limits, and a complex system of eight new land use management zones addresses biodiversity, mining and tourism areas (BMTA). A conservancy has also been added to safeguard King Island, the seventh largest island in B.C. in the heart of Nuxalk territory, roughly 20 kilometres east of Bella Bella.

Great Bear Rainforest footage posted to YouTube by Common Sense Canadian calls citizens across the country to rally against pipeline proposals that could impact the sanctity of its ecosystems.

First Nations in the driver's seat

The conservation gains are historic, but the socio-economic considerations are even more so: the agreements must be carried out in partnership with First Nations, whose forest resources, culture, and livelihood will be preserved and enhanced through its implementation.

“What this means is that we now have some skin in the game,” said Smith, president of Nanwakolas Council, which represents seven of the 26 First Nations that have traditional territory in the rainforest.

“For far too long, people have been developing resources, whether it be energy, aggregate or forest resources, specifically in the Coastal First Nations communities and those communities have not received one benefit from it.”

In addition to enhanced control over the region, the agreements provide a tangible economic boost to First Nations and non-native communities. During the 20-year process, environmental groups were challenged to drop the rhetoric about sustainable economies and raise the capital to finance such a vision. After some false starts, the green groups were able to raise half of a $120 million Coast Opportunity Fund (the remainder matched by federal and provincial coffers).

Young attendee at the ceremony for the announcement of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. Photo by A. S. Wright.

The fund is divided roughly in half between a permanent endowment that provides grants in perpetuity to First Nations communities engaged in conservation management projects, and a second economic development fund that finances diverse, sustainable businesses. Eligible project examples include non-timber forest products, fisheries and cultural ecotourism.

Twenty years ago, solidarity over sustainable economic development and environmental protection for the Great Bear region simply wasn’t imaginable — not between First Nations, environmentalists, the timber industry or the provincial government.

Premier Christy Clark, Nawakolas Council, Dallas Smith, Great Bear Rainforest
Nanwakolas Council president Dallas Smith presents a gift from his community to B.C. Premier Christy Clark for her co-operation and engagement in finalizing the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest agreements on Mon. Feb. 1. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey.

A deal two decades in the making

“I think it was an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” recalled Patrick Armstrong, a timber industry consultant who has been involved in the negotiations since the early days of the ‘War in the Woods.’ “Both parties had their beliefs and they weren’t going to budge from them.”

By 1997, the Great Bear Rainforest was a battleground. First Nations including the Nuxalk were blockading timber companies and environmental groups were targeting wood and paper customers in Europe, Asia and the United States. Green groups called it the Great Bear Rainforest; industry and government called it the Mid Coast Timber Supply Area. First Nations were often furious with both.

“There was an enormous amount of conflict,” Holmes agreed. “At that point in time, I don’t think anybody really knew what they were getting themselves into in the slightest.”

All parties agreed to a cease fire in 1999, but productive discussions were difficult. Years of trench warfare were not easily reversed, and relationships between stakeholders were toxic for years.

Great Bear Rainforest, Great Bear Rainforest protest, Roderick Island protest, 1997, Greenpeace protest
A new kind of 'trench warfare' was waged on loggers in the Great Bear Rainforest during a protest on Roderick Island in 1997. Photo by Patrick Armstrong of Moresby Consulting Ltd.

Despite a myriad of setbacks, a core group of visionaries kept chiseling away, convinced that even if their positions seemed opposed, their interests could be satisfied on the ground if all parties were willing to listen, drop the rhetoric and get practical about what could happen where. Finally in 2006, environmental groups, timber companies, First Nations, and the B.C. government reached a major milestone: they announced the first round of Great Bear Rainforest agreements, built around the concept of ecosystem-based management (EBM).

In 2009 they agreed on a land use plan and EBM implementation strategy, whose socio-economic targets were to be meet by March 2014. They missed the deadline by more than a year, but veteran campaigner Valerie Langer said the new legislation is worth the wait. Conflict, tension, and patience were necessary stepping stones in crafting it, she explained, and its impact will have more global reach than the original conservation campaigns themselves:

“You can look around the world and you won’t find as comprehensive a land use plan as this,” the ForestEthics Solutions BC Forest Campaigns director told National Observer.

“There are bigger protected areas in the world, but this is much more than a protected area.”

Global gains for conflict resolution, conservation

Temperate rainforests cover less than one per cent of the planet’s total land mass and few of these precious ecosystems remain intact today. The Great Bear Rainforest — roughly the twice size of Belgium — is by far the largest unspoiled tract of temperate rainforest left in the world.

The primeval trees and spectacular wildlife are globally significant, and the elusive white Spirit Bear is a creature found nowhere else in the world. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the conflict to protect them captured hearts all over the world, eventually triggering global calls for their preservation:

“I’ve been to the Great Bear Rainforest often [on business] and as a tourist with my family,” said Gregor Andreas Geiger, director of press and public relations for the German Pulp and Paper Association in Bonn, Germany, the site of theatrical Greenpeace protests in the heyday of the rainforest protection campaign.

“It’s really an extraordinary place. I feel at least you should leave big areas where this monument can stay for the future, because this is something you cannot win back once it is destroyed.”

spirit bear, Kermode bear, Great Bear Rainforest
A mother spirit bear is captured on camera in the Great Bear Rainforest as her black-furred cub chows down on salmon in the background. Photo by Andrew S. Wright.

But an environmental grand slam is just part of the legislation’s worldwide benefit, as Langer explained from her Vancouver office: the Great Bear Rainforest agreements are one of the most complex multi-stakeholder conservation deals ever reached and world class model of environmental conflict resolution.

“What we’ve done here is a model for Brazil, the Congo, and other areas that have Indigenous populations,” she said. “We would love to see the whole of the Great Bear become a model of land and marine-interfaced protected areas and management areas.”

In fact, the Great Bear is already being used as a model across Canada and further afield. In Canada’s massive boreal forest, forestry companies and environmental groups hammered out the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement based on similar principles of protection. The agreement is an ongoing process and the largest conservation agreement anywhere in the world.

Chile’s Valdivian rainforest is another example. Environmental groups led by ForestEthics generated pressure among international consumers of wood products and ultimately brokered agreements with logging companies and Mapuche communities. The protection agreements in Chile covered the planet’s second oldest trees, the Alerce and a community of incredible creatures including the world’s smallest deer (the pudu is adorable at only 18 inches tall).

Some look at the Great Bear Rainforest model and wonder if it shouldn’t apply even beyond forest protection and enhancing Indigenous people’s decision-making roles. Patrick Armstrong, who often sat opposite Langer at the negotiating table wondered how other highly-polarized environmental negotiations in Canada could benefit as well.

“I’ve often looked at this in the context of oil sands and the pipelines,” the timber consultant told National Observer. “Would it have been different if people had applied the lessons that were learned in the [Great Bear Rainforest] to what was happening there?”

It may be too late for the tar sands, he added, but it’s not too late for other precious natural sites. Indeed, the world will be watching how the legislation is implemented in collaboration with stakeholder groups, First Nations stewards, and B.C. politicians.

Great Bear Rainforest, Sierra Club BC, old growth forest, cedars, Great Bear Sea, British Columbia, Pacific Coast
The still, pristine waters of the Great Bear Rainforest are a vital part of the B.C. salmon run. Photo by Jens Wieting of Sierra Club BC.


This article is part of a series produced in partnership by National Observer, Tides Canada, Teck, and Vancity to highlight the stories, people, and history behind the Great Bear Rainforest conservation agreements. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to foster integrated solutions for conservation and human well-being. National Observer has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories meet its editorial standards.

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