First Nations, environmentalists, industry and governments are all celebrating the recent announcement of the 2016 Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. This sweeping, globally-significant agreement marks more than 20 years of efforts to redefine land-use in the 3.6-million-hectare Great Bear Rainforest that encompasses the BC coast, from Campbell River to Stewart.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada congratulates all those involved who worked for years to achieve this success. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was negotiated by such a diverse group of interests, at times consensus seemed all but impossible. But the fact that land-use decisions in the agreement were rooted in independent conservation science played a key role in bringing these seemingly incompatible interests to the same table. The science helped them find common ground when discussing how to manage and relate to this very special place.

The road to consensus was a long one. In 2002, after years of fractious environmental campaigns, international boycotts and an inability to find a starting point for negotiation, an independent multidisciplinary advisory group was established. The Coast Information Team (CIT) was tasked with providing independent information on the central and north coasts of British Columbia and Haida Gwaii, including the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada, along with internationally-renowned conservation biologist Reed Noss, were entrusted by the Provincial Government of British Columbia, First Nations, environmental groups, the forest industry and communities to lead the project team. NCC was recognized as a neutral and honest broker of information that could produce credible science.

NCC’s science staff, along with experts from other organizations, governments and First Nations, spent 18 months coordinating the massive undertaking. We had access to any government and industry data that we needed, allowing the team to incorporate the best available scientific, technical, traditional and local knowledge on the Great Bear Rainforest. The goal was to illuminate – objectively – the ecological, cultural and economic landscape of this coastal region.

When the CIT published its reports, the team’s ecosystem modelling and analysis suggested that at least 70 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest would need to be protected in order to retain the integrity of the overall system. At the time, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature was calling for the protection of 12 percent of the world’s various ecosystems. Seventy percent was seen as an outrageous number, but the CIT stuck by its recommendation; and now, we are celebrating the protection of 85% if the Great Bear Rainforest.

The CIT also developed an approach to ecosystem-based management that incorporated both ecosystem information and human well-being. The group published a guidebook that continues to guide the implementation of ecosystem-based management on the BC coast.

The CIT’s maps, analysis and recommendations were also spread across the negotiating tables as multi-stakeholder planning groups developed practical solutions for land use and natural resource management issues -- the crown jewel of solutions being the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements. The team’s analyses helped to define the boundaries of the Great Bear conservancies that were established in 2006, and underpinned the current agreement that is being celebrated by people on all sides of the land-use issue.

The pioneering work done by the CIT laid the foundation for what has now been achieved in the Great Bear Rainforest – a world-class solution to land-use that brought together environmentalists, industry, First Nations and governments. Without the scientific and cultural research undertaken by the CIT, we could today be thinking that protecting only 30 percent of the Great Bear would be sufficient. But looking clearly, closely and independently at the realities on the ground open everyone’s eyes to what was required to keep the Great Bear great.

Linda Hannah is the British Columbia Regional Vice President for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The organization’s most recent conservation project in the Great Bear Rainforest was the protection of the culturally and ecologically significant Gullchucks Estuary on Denny Island, near Bella Bella.

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