Her diagnosis was cancer. But environmental negotiator Jody Holmes’ first thought was “Oh, thank God.” The Great Bear Rainforest negotiations are now being celebrated as a wondrous gift to the world, but those early decades were so taxing for the participants that when Jody got the doctors’ call, her immediate reaction was relief that she finally had a ticket out.

In her 20 years negotiating the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, Rainforest Solutions Project director Jody had a painful miscarriage that nearly killed her, gave birth to a daughter, raised her as a single mother, survived breast cancer, chemo, radiation and a double mastectomy.

She would return again and again to the negotiating table through life-threatening challenges and emotional trauma, devoted to finding common ground even with others she initially feared and disliked.

Jody's dogged perseverance is credited by those in the know as a crucial reason the agreement — protecting 85 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest from commercial logging — came to fruition on February 1.

Carol Newell, a philanthropic investor who was pivotal to the conservation finance track of the campaign, calls Jody the “unsung hero” of the Great Bear Rainforest initiative, working tirelessly behind the scenes.

Inspiration from a map

Jody was a 24-year-old biologist when she joined the environmental efforts on the promise that it would last no more than a year. It turned out to be two decades of her life, the one constant during years fraught with crises and turbulent changes and joy.

For Jody, initial inspiration came from a simple map of coastal British Columbia showing logging over the years. Clearcut areas were marked in yellow, and pristine forest areas were swathed in green:

“Vancouver Island was entirely yellow, just a blotch of yellow cut with tiny little bits of green here and there, and a little bit for Clayoquot,” she explained. “And then just at the tip of Vancouver Island it went green pretty much.”

The green on that map stretched North all the way to Alaska and its global importance was immediately obvious to Jody. She decided to devote herself to preventing British Columbia’s North and Central coast from turning yellow.

That great tract of green would become known as the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest temperate rainforest left in the world, spanning 21 million acres. It is a vast expanse of wilderness where misty fjords, sparkling waterfalls, mossy mountains and primeval cedars provide shelter to some of the most impressive animals on Earth.

Rainforest Solutions Project director Jody Holmes talks about the pivotal role that conflict played in crafting the Great Bear Rainforest agreement. Interview by Linda Solomon Wood. Film by Bill Weaver.

The Ice Queen, the Negotiator, and the Ingénue

Jody doesn’t remember the date of her first stakeholder meeting, but she remembers the day she first “learned what negotiating was.”

It was around 1998, and the wounds from the War in the Woods were wide open — activists and loggers were locked in vicious trench warfare over protection for the animals and ancient trees of the Great Bear Rainforest.

When Jody, flanked by Karen Mahon (then of Greenpeace) and Merran Smith (representing SierraClub BC), walked into a room to face three experienced and intimidating timber industry representatives, the young women had assigned themselves very particular roles:

“Karen was the ice queen,” Jody described. “Her job was to sit there and just ice them the entire time and look at them as if nothing they said was ever going to be good enough.

“Merran was meant to be the negotiator, and I was meant to be the ingénue, asking all the dumb questions — ‘Oh really, is that how it works? Could you tell me more about that?’”

It seemed like a good strategy at the time, but the forestry representatives had tough tactics and frankly scared them. Patrick Armstrong, a former logger and conflict resolution consultant for the industry, had “CSIS” type files on each of them with intimate details about their families and backgrounds.

They were large, they looked angry and fierce, and they all appeared at least 10 or 20 years older than the three young environmentalists sitting before them.

“They were aliens to us, they were foreign,” recalled Merran. “We didn’t trust them.”

But if they didn’t figure it out, Merran added, nobody else was going to. And so they ploughed on. The women use words like tense, toxic and hostile to describe the early discussions — the situation in the meeting rooms could descend into screaming and even flying coffee cups.

Great Bear Rainforest, Greenpeace protests, B.C. rainforest, timber industry, B.C. forestry, coastal temperate rainforest, spirit bear
Dramatic protest tactics, like the Greenpeace activist seen here strapped to a bulldozer in the Great Bear Rainforest's Roderick Island in 1997, led to a palpable tension between industry representatives and negotiators at the land-use planning table. Photo by Patrick Armstrong of Moresby Consulting Ltd.

A blunt negotiator

Jody turned into a gifted negotiator. She terrified the industry representatives on the other side of the table as much as they terrified her, and she never hesitated to call them “on their bullshit.”

Stark honesty — saying the unsayable — became her hallmark, one that sometimes had surprising, even humorous effects.

An early meeting with First Nations, 26 of which have traditional territory in the Great Bear Rainforest, was not going well. A complete breakdown between environmentalists and First Nations seemed likely. Nanwakolas Council president Dallas Smith was particularly unhappy.

Jody wasn’t even in the room at the time, but conferenced in by phone as the group of environmental representatives got scorched by Indigenous leaders for trying to negotiate land use on unceded First Nations territory.

Smith — who has a prosthetic leg as a result of a motorcycle accident — had been forcibly telling the environmentalists that if he were one of them, he would back right out of the process and let First Nations communities deal with the land that is rightfully theirs. Jody boldly interjected:

“‘If I was a wooden leg I’d take myself off and hit you over the head right now with it, Dallas,’” she fired back over the phone.

Silence hung in the air as stakeholders exchanged horrified looks. Jody, oblivious to their expressions, had made the cardinal error of insulting an Indigenous leader at a meeting intended to build new bridges.

Then the ice broke: Smith howled with laughter. That moment broke the tension and resulted in everyone getting back down to business.

Dallas Smith, Nanwakolas Council, Great Bear Rainforest, First Nations
Nanwakolas Council president Dallas Smith is known to Jody as a pivotal negotiator of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, and a man with a fantastic sense of humour. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey.

“Black and blue” on the hospital bed

Laughter was a rarity in the early years. The process was complex and arduous. Negotiators on all sides wore themselves dangerously thin.

Jody would later reflect that, “The thing about the campaign and the Great Bear Rainforest is that it’s such an eminently good cause, that it’s very, very easy to give yourself away to it.”

By 2003, the years of stress had caught up with her. A difficult pregnancy turned disastrous and she woke up on a hospital bed drugged, disoriented, and viciously bruised from the results of a surgery gone wrong.

It was supposed to be a simple procedure — 15 minutes in and out, doctors said. She would be back to work in no time, she told herself, mapping out no-logging zones in her role as director of the Rainforest Solutions Project.

But that’s not how it happened.

“I started to bleed out on the table and I woke up five hours later black and blue,” said Jody. “There were doctors clustered around me and all of a sudden I could feel it was pretty painful... they told me afterwards that they were kneeling on me trying to save me.”

Jody recovered and returned to the Great Bear process. In 2005, she would give birth to a beautiful baby girl named Rio. Jody raised Rio as a single mother bouncing between feedings and float planes, nappies and negotiations. Rio has grown into a remarkable young woman watching her mother pull off one of history’s great conservation victories.

But in 2010, struggling as a young single mom while stakeholders, Indigenous leaders, and B.C. politicians inched closer towards a conservation deal, Jody was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A “growing up moment”

After more than a decade of painful negotiations, the fighting and arguing was evolving into understanding and finally breakthroughs over the future of the rainforest. Suddenly, none of it mattered.

Jody had recently promised Rick Jeffery, president of the Coast Forest Products Association, that she would be the environmental rep for the duration of the ecosystem-based management implementation plan they had hammered out in 2009.

“‘I don’t know how long I’m going to be out for,” she told him now, “but I just got a breast cancer diagnosis and, sorry, cancer trumps the Great Bear. I need to look after myself.”

It was a “growing up moment” and something of an epiphany where she finally realized that she really had “given herself away” to the Great Bear. She underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatments as well as a double mastectomy and for the first time since Rio’s birth, took an extended period of time off.

She meditated, cooked, and spent many joyous nights with Rio. She rediscovered just how precious life truly is. In fact, she says that in some ways cancer was a blessing.

“Cancer is an amazing focuser,” she explained. “I think I really needed to have a break and to step away from the campaign and to literally just concentrate on myself…”

When Jody returned to the campaign in 2011, it was with a new outlook that made her even more effective:

“I still get mad at people, but the louder their voices get, the more they want to be in conflict with me and the more they want to try and bulldoze, the more I just want to say, ‘I want to just stay right here with you,’” she explained. “‘Tell it all to me, let’s get it all out on the table and then let’s figure out how we’re going to walk this together because it doesn’t work if you take me over, and it doesn’t work if I take you over.”

Great Bear Rainforest, Germany, Greenpeace protests, B.C. rainforest, timber industry, B.C. forestry, coastal temperate rainforest, spirit bear
Fresh perspectives and open-mindedness led to the eventual conservation of 85 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest from commercial logging, announced by B.C. politicians, Indigenous leaders, and stakeholders on Mon. Feb. 1, 2016. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey.

Common humanity in a bottle of whiskey

Personal crisis had given Jody a key insight that all the environmental team would have to learn: that winning doesn’t necessarily require beating your opponent. It was an insight that didn’t always come easily to activists weaned on campaigns against powerful interests opposed to change. The environmentalists involved in the Great Bear negotiations credit creative facilitation methods for coaxing out imaginative solutions.

At certain points “creative facilitation” involved a fair amount of alcohol. In Jody's assessment, a lot of the agreement might have happened without wine, but there were pivotal breakthroughs that would not have happened without whiskey.

Jody tells the story of a meeting in a dank, windowless hotel room in Nanaimo, B.C., trying to work out terms that would satisfy both conservation science and the timber industry. Locked in a bitter back-and-forth, Jody — at this point a single mother — had missed the last ferry home, where Rio was waiting for her.

After 12 hours of fierce negotiation they had gotten nowhere, and the mediator, fed up with their childish behaviour, got up and left.

“‘I’m so angry!’” Jody told the industry representatives at the table, bursting into tears. “‘There’s a lot of smart people in this room, and we’re wasting each other’s time.

“I know we can do better than this and I’m just pissed because I have a little girl who just phoned me, crying her eyes out that I’m not going home and I made a choice to be here with you guys because I really believe in this stuff. So buck up and let’s find a solution.’”

Moments later, room service knocked on the meeting room door and wheeled in a bottle of whiskey sent by the mediator.

“We started drinking whiskey, and within 15 to 20 minutes, Jody Holmes and I got up and we had this flip chart and said, ‘Here’s why we’re so pissed off at you,” recalled Valerie Langer, director of BC Forest Campaigns for ForestEthics Solutions.

“We drew this line across a flip chart and said, ‘There were all these things that we agreed to in the 2009 negotiations, and we spent all of 2010 and part of 2011 just getting you guys to do what you already said you would do.’”

The stakeholders had given themselves until March 2014 — a five-year extension — to accomplish their conservation, social, and economic goals, and the environmental team wanted to work on issues “above the line” they had drawn.

Both sides took turns with the flip chart markers and by 10 p.m., they had settled on the framework that undergirds the current Great Bear Rainforest agreement. It was a ‘eureka’ moment for everyone in the room, facilitated by creative mediation, exhaustion, and a recognition of common humanity: everyone had made sacrifices to be there and everyone had something to gain from solving the problem.

“That’s how we moved into getting a memorandum of agreement announced in 2014,” said Langer. “It was like the whole system — how we got there — was over a bottle of whiskey.”

Creative mediation

As the decades of campaigns and negotiations wore on, creative mediation methods became commonplace between loggers and activists. The primary mediator, whom stakeholders describe as a discrete professional who prefers not to be named by the press, believed that only through authentic relationships would opposing parties work together to find solutions for the rainforest.

He arranged opportunities to break bread together — he was a fan of good Italian food in particular — and always encouraged stakeholders to connect on a deeper, more personal level.

An early land use and resource management meeting in Bella Bella was Jody's first introduction to his methods, and she remembers being shocked by the very suggestion of having dinner with her “enemies” across the negotiating table. It was a simple hotel in the middle of nowhere with unremarkable food, unremarkable wine, and an unremarkable set up of cheap folding tables.

“The mediator was sitting at the head of the table and I remember him starting to ask people questions about their children,” she recalled. “Just simple things like that, like how many kids do you have and where are you from — basic personal information. And up until that point the rule was don’t tell them anything, don’t give them anything to get their hooks into.”

The wine kicked in, and the environmentalists let their guard down to engage in a conversation with the industry planners that was, beyond everything else, profoundly human.

“It had nothing to do with land and resource management planning, it had nothing to do with our values,” Jody explained. “There was a level of trust that started getting built there — it’s discovering that the person across the table from you is just as human as you are, they have most of the same basic concerns that you have, and they’re all really interested in doing the right thing too.”

As trust grew, the mediator would take things well beyond group dinners; at one point he organized a box at an Elton John concert for environmental and industry negotiators. Patrick Armstrong, a timber industry consultant, approached Jody — who had never sat in a box in her life — for a dance.

They had established mutual respect and ultimately grown strangely fond of each other during years sparring at the land use planning table. Jody accepted on the condition that Armstrong would negotiate to protect up to 100 pristine valleys in the Great Bear Rainforest.

“I said, ‘You know what Patrick? I’ll dance with you but, I need four watersheds to go off the table, you guys can’t log in them,” she laughed. “I’ve always had a soft spot for Patrick because he’s a champion and a bulldog for the local communities, and for the common garden variety everyday people who make their living in the forest. He’s totally a champion for that.”

It was admiration she would never have permitted herself at that first meeting, when the ice queen, the negotiator and the ingénue were still bent on beating their industry opponents into submission for the rainforest.

Patrick Armstrong, Howe Sound Pulp and Paper, Moresby Consulting, Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. forestry
Patrick Armstrong, one of the original "frightening" industry representatives whom Jody faced at the negotiating table, would years later turn into a close friend and ally. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey.

Decades of stakeholder process and personal transformation

There were many milestones on the Great Bear journey: the Joint Solutions Project in 2000, the guidelines for ecosystem-based management (EBM) in 2004, the initial Great Bear Rainforest agreements in 2006; the $120-million Coast Opportunity Fund in 2008, the Ecosystem Based Management (lighter-touch logging) implementation in 2009, and finally the landmark agreement on February 1.

But the human stories behind the press releases are stories of personal transformation on all sides.

“I had to spend a lot of time persuading my colleagues in the industry that this wasn’t about defeating the environmentalists, it was about resolving the conflict, finding some middle ground, and developing consensus,” Armstrong, who has represented timber companies since the mid-1990s, recalled.

Langer added that holding to positions rather than satisfying interests has been costly:

“There’s a point where you can be a purist and say you’re not giving in until you get everything you want,” she explained, “but when you lose the things you want while you’re talking, it doesn’t feel so pure anymore.”

“In the end,” said Jody, “this entire campaign — the times when things have moved forward — it’s always about personal relationships. It’s always someone across the table and you having some kind of personal relationship that supersedes the interests that you come to the table with.”

According to Patrick Armstrong, some of the friendships will last forever. “A bunch of these folks are still on my Christmas card list. That is truly part of this — you develop relationships with people you would not have ever considered having a relationship with.”

For Jody Holmes those relationships were cemented through two decades of personal struggle and transformation. The legislation announced in Vancouver was a gift to the world but it was given with great sacrifice from those most closely involved.

With files from Linda Solomon Wood

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.

Keep reading