The ear-splitting snarl of chainsaws at full throttle echoed through the sedate business district of Bonn, Germany. It was a classic clarion call of Greenpeace.
“We had some theatre in front of our office building,” recalled Gregor Andreas Geiger, director of press and public relations for the German Pulp and Paper Association. “These guys came with chainsaws and cut trees right in front of the office.”
The German publishing industry had found itself in the crosshairs of an international markets campaign targeting pulp and timber customers of companies operating in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Throughout the mid-1990s, buyers across Europe came under fire, as did product distributors like U.S. corporations such as The Home Depot.
The German publishers would ultimately play a central role in the complex drama that led to the legislated protection of the Pacific coastal rainforest earlier this week.
“The German industry was very dependent on Canadian pulp at that time,” Geiger explained, speaking with National Observer from his home in Bonn. He had the confident, voice of a veteran German businessman that cut through video interference with surprising clarity.
“The role of Canadian forestry was very important,” he continued, “especially the long fibre, which was necessary to produce magazine papers.”
Today, Bonn is a rather sleepy place for international news. Located roughly 600 kilometres from Berlin, the city is famous for being the birthplace of composer Ludwig van Beethoven and a relaxed destination for tourists.
Yet its business community — at least those involved in paper production — still pays attention to news of the Great Bear Rainforest, and met the Feb. 1 conservation announcement with enthusiasm.
“It is an area, a region, which we have come to love,” Geiger said. “[We have] campaigns against forestry and plantations in South America, we have campaigns against destroying the last old growth forest in Karelia in Russia, we have campaigns about the eucalyptus plantation in Spain, whatever...But nothing has been as successful as the campaign for protecting the Great Bear Rainforest. This forest really is a monument.”
It was 1997 when Geiger first visited the Great Bear Rainforest. The environmental protests had reached their crescendo as activists blocked timber operations in remote logging camps, boarded ships carrying Canadian pulp overseas, hung from banners draped over corporate headquarters, and bought ad space in publications like Der Speigel and The New York Times.
Germany, a Greenpeace stronghold, was the epicentre of the action.
“There was some panic with the publishing companies,” Geiger recalled. “There was the strongest pressure from the environmental non-governmental organizations, so we decided to be part of the process to find a solution.”
Stung by campaign accusations that they were contributing to the destruction of ancient temperate rainforests, the German Pulp and Paper Association partnered with the Association of German Magazine Publishers on a trip to the breathtaking rainforest in B.C.
They invited German journalists and Greenpeace activists along for the ride, and met with Canadian stakeholders including scientists, environmental groups, government and industry officials, as well as representatives of the 27 First Nations that had traditional territory there.
It was an experience Geiger would never forget.
The Great Bear Rainforest stretches 64,000 square kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska. Environmentalists coined the name for good reason: grizzlies and black bears, including the mysterious white Spirit Bear roam freely through its sodden landscape in a true unhindered wildlife paradise.
“It’s a bit shocking at the first view,” said Geiger. “It was very impressive because I think most of us had never seen a forest of that structure at the time, or trees of that size.”
Germany has many protected forests, but it’s a densely-populated country without much real wilderness, he said. It was all so “shocking” that Geiger later brought his family to experience the region as tourists, in addition to the business trips he undertook as part of the German industry’s efforts to catalyze solutions to the logging conflict.
“The most impressive was not with helicopter flights,” he elaborated, “but along the protected areas by boat. It was very impressive. You are not able to go ashore for more than a few metres because it is total wilderness.”
Somewhere between the spawning salmon, hungry grizzly bears, swooping eagles and shiny Vancouver boardrooms, Geiger and his industry decided not to continue with business as usual in this incredible region. They also decided not to take the obvious way out of the conflict by switching to less controversial suppliers operating elsewhere in the world.
Instead, they used their considerable market muscle, worth an estimated $600 million to the B.C. economy annually, to engage the Canadian logging industry in a process of compromise and conservation.
Their role was to “represent the voice of the customers,” he explained, “who were not willing to [accept] forestry practices as they had been done before.”
The Germans’ decision turned out to be a critical ingredient in the process leading to a deal. At the time however, it was widely resented within the Canadian wood products industry, and even today, there is a residual bitterness in the voice of some industry players.
“We were under very big pressure, particularly in Germany,” recalled Bill Dumont, chief forester for Western Forest Products at the time.
Candidly admitting he was doing his best not to swear during the interview, he called the buyers’ approach “completely inappropriate,” even if taken with the best intentions.
“It got to the point where they were telling us how we should be doing our forestry management in B.C.,” he said. “That was completely inappropriate because a lot of raw decisions about forest practices are based on local conditions, local ecosystems, that sort of thing.”
Western Forest Products was one of five timber industry stakeholders that formed the 1999 Coast Forest Conservation Initiative, which set out to design an ecosystem-based management (EBM) plan for the Great Bear Rainforest.
Patrick Armstrong, a conflict resolution consultant who also worked for Western Foreign Products during the 1990s and has been involved in the process ever since, recalled the same kind of pressure. He differed slightly in his account of events however, describing the tone of German buyers as less instructional, and closer to that of parents scolding their children:
“The basic message of the Germans was, ‘There are some things we saw during this trip that we didn’t like that you need to get resolved, and we absolutely believe that some of the accusations Greenpeace is making are accurate. Therefore, we want you folks — all of you — to resolve this, because we can’t resolve it for you and we don’t want this in our marketplace.’”
The potential loss of business was enough to break the logjam between timber companies and environmentalists. By 1999, logging companies and environmental activists had agreed to a ceasefire in the Great Bear Rainforest: no more international markets campaigns in exchange for a logging standstill in 100 of the intact rainforest valleys.
That framework ensured long term discussions would get serious without participants constantly afraid of falling into a “talk and log” process. It could not however, ensure that all sides would share a common perspective.
Participants would have to find ways to bridge different views and different narratives about their common project. Peace was brokered in strained and unusual circumstances, and always, there were outliers in the process.
One of the most infamous examples of this concerned TimberWest, which came under fire last year for ramping up its logging operations in the Great Bear Rainforest, despite ongoing multi-stakeholder negotiation.
Despite the vehement anti-logging protests of environmental activists, it was never as simple as ‘pack up and leave’ for timber companies in the Great Bear Rainforest. Loggers have been present in the region for more than 100 years and, as the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative (CFCI) likes to remind audiences, B.C.’s first wood pulp mill was built there in 1912.
By the 1990s, most of the timber harvesting rights in the Great Bear Rainforest were held by three major logging companies: International Forest Products, MacMillan Bloedel (later purchased by Weyerhaeuser) and Western Forest Products.
TimberWest had license to log in the southernmost two per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest, located on and around northern Vancouver Island. In 2000, when the CFCI partnered up with three environmental groups to design land use solutions for the Great Bear Rainforest, TimberWest stayed out of the mix.
“That really caught everyone’s attention,” said Patrick Armstrong, who spoke with National Observer from his oceanview home in Nanaimo, B.C. Stellar jays picked away at seeds on his balcony as Armstrong chose his words carefully: “A strategic error made by Timber West at least a decade ago, if not longer, was to not become part of the Joint Solutions Project.”
It looked to the world as if the company had turned its back on negotiations, but TimberWest insists this was never the case. Domenico Iannidinardo, the company’s chief forester and vice president of sustainability, said the decision was a reasonable, strategic choice: “We were not able to add significant value to those discussions because our forests were in very different ecosystems,” he explained. “The Joint Solutions Project was formed between industry and environmental groups that focused on the 98 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest that Timber West does not operate in.”
Years of strained deliberation between industry officials, conservationists, the provincial government, and First Nations communities followed this decision. Although not a full participant, TimberWest maintains it participated in good faith through associate membership in the CFCI, providing staff and funding for field trips and scientific research, and continued engagement with First Nations partners.
After many hard years of negotiation, landmark conservation announcements were secured in 2006 and 2009. Stakeholders rejoiced in a newly-anointed plan of ecosystem-based management (EBM) that would not only preserve 70 per cent of the rainforest’s natural variation, but strengthen and enhance the livelihoods of First Nations communities as well.
Around this time, as the full participants were celebrating progress, TimberWest’s headaches truly began. In 2009 the company ramped up its logging efforts and cut more than 4,400 hectares of valuable rainforest.
The logging was fully permitted and legal, but dramatically out-of-step with others in the industry. The media coverage was unrelenting.
“TimberWest is logging in the Great Bear Rainforest like there is no tomorrow,” accused environmental group Sierra Club BC, interviewing in news outlets like The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, and National Observer.
Logging companies had been painted as the villain in the early days of the clever Great Bear Rainforest markets campaign, but the image quickly resurfaced after TimberWest’s actions.
Armstrong used words like “bad guy” and “laggard” to describe public perception of TimberWest when the scandal came to light, and Valerie Langer, director of BC Forest Campaigns for ForestEthics, explained why:
“You have a bunch of words on paper that say, ‘protect 50 per cent of this ecosystem,’ and they were supposed to map where 50 per cent of those ecosystems were and then not log in it,” she insisted from her office in downtown Vancouver.
“They drew the map, and then logged in it anyhow… You would only interpret it that way if you were trying to game the system.”
Members of the Rainforest Solutions Project (ForestEthics, Sierra Club BC, and Greenpeace) said TimberWest violated the “spirit and intent” of conservation deals on the table, and logged a vulnerable part of the rainforest while sensitive negotiations to protect old growth forest were underway. TimberWest however, maintained that it logged well within the agreed limits, met the requirements of sustainable sustainable harvest levels, and would reduce these levels once the agreements were finalized.
Though clearly an outlier in the timber industry’s efforts to come up with a solution to the conflict, Armstrong said the environmentalists’ narrative of TimberWest may have been a bit unfair:
“It’s pretty hard to get one’s heads wrapped about the idea of sustainability in a large consumer economy,” Armstrong explained. “The claims being made by the environmental community were not groundless, but they were not, in their entire full glory, entirely accurate either.”
In an email to The Globe and Mail, a spokesperson with B.C.’s Ministry of Forests backed this position, and said TimberWest had complied with the “legal requirements currently in place,” including the 2009 land-use orders of EBM that unequivocally protected 50 per cent of old-growth forests.
On being cast as the ‘bad guy’ moving forward, Iannidinardo simply said:
“We would obviously prefer that we were more acknowledged for all the changes and revisions in our plans and the evolutions…. These are major, major changes and concessions.
“I believe that those actions speak for themselves and most people will perceive them for what they are, which are very important corporate decisions towards a balance on the landscape.”
When First Nations, government officials and stakeholders celebrated victory on the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement this week they celebrated not only the protection of an enormous amount of old-growth forest in one of North America’s greatest natural treasures, but also the resolution of conflict between parties that 20 years ago, refused to look each other in the eye.
The timber industry may have sacrificed millions of dollars in possible future business to reach a conservation deal, but they maintain that what they gained was much more valuable: relationships with Indigenous people and environmental communities, certainty for their operations, and the freed up time of senior management, which no longer had to deal with a major social licensing problem.
“Foresters, such as those who work for Timber West, other companies or the government,” said Iannidinardo, “are very much content and satisfied to have that clear direction and instruction to balance multiple resources and their ecological integrity, as well as the human well-being components that make management of a resource such as this work.”
Only 15 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest remains open to commercial logging today, but the timber industry now has assurances that as long as they abide by the rules, no one will come after them with torches and pitchforks. The rules — ‘lighter-touch’ logging or EBM — apply to rainforest that is outside a designated protected area, and are designed to protect cultural and ecological values by determining what must be left intact before deciding where and how much to log.
“It’s really focused on the ability of the commercial forestry to contribute to human well-being,” Armstrong explained. “That’s investments in infrastructure, health, and education in those communities.”
From now on, all logging activities in the Great Bear Rainforest must preserve and enhance the forest resources, culture, and livelihood of the Indigenous people who live there. From where Geiger is sitting in Bonn, Germany, the conservation deal looked pretty good:
“The Germans have a very special relation to the forest,” he explained delicately. “Our forests have been managed for 250 years in a sustainable way, but we don’t have primary forests anymore, so these big trees are really a monument.”
He sounded almost wistful reflecting back over the decades of conflict and negotiation, breakdowns and restarts. After all, it had been many, many years since office windows in Bonn were shaking with the vibration of protesters’ chainsaws. Uncomfortable as it may have been, Geiger now appreciates the importance of conflict in catalyzing change:
“The protest of the NGOs,” he said, “… they showed us that there’s something really happening in that extraordinary piece of land there.”
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.