There are new measures to better protect bear and fish habitat in the globe’s largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest, thanks to First Nations’ increasing role in stewarding the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR).

The new protections resulted from the latest five-year review of an agreement between the B.C. Ministry of Forests and two First Nations alliances — Coastal First Nations and Nanwakolas Council — which represent 11 of the 26 Nations with territory in the rainforest.

The Great Bear Rainforest covers 6.4 million hectares, an area equivalent to Ireland, along B.C.’s wild West Coast and is home to the iconic “spirit bear” — black bears that have a creamy white coat as a result of rare genetic mutation.

While the GBR was being developed in 2000, coastal First Nations in B.C. formed coalitions to collaboratively address the extensive environmental harms resource extraction was having on their territories, push for the ecological and equitable use of forest resources, and gain decision-making power around land use decisions and how forestry or other industry would operate in the region.

The original land use agreement signed in 2007 by the province and First Nations has been revamped several times since to improve protections for old- and second-growth forests and boost economic development opportunities for local First Nations, said Dallas Smith, Nanwakolas board president.

The latest review, which started in 2021, resulted in a new land use order that goes further in strengthening First Nations’ oversight of logging operations and ensuring a role in forest planning, as well as better protections for biodiversity and Indigenous forest values, Smith told Canada's National Observer.

Dallas Smith, Nanwakolas board president, says the latest amendments to the Great Bear Rainforest land use order brought First Nations to the table in a meaningful way. Photo by Rochelle Baker / Canada's National Observer

“Joint decision-making is the closest I’ve ever seen it,” Smith said. “This review of the land use order has really brought us to the table in a meaningful way.”

There are new measures to better protect bear and fish habitat in the globe’s largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest, thanks to First Nations’ increasing role in stewarding the Great Bear Rainforest.

Building on the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, First Nations along the coast and the federal and provincial governments formally agreed in February to co-develop and steward a vast network of marine protected areas along the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest to establish holistic ecosystem protections for both land and sea.

It’s been an evolutionary process since First Nations along the length of the coast united to compel the province to establish the first landmark agreement involving Indigenous people in the protection of ecosystems and giving them a say on forestry operations in their territories, Smith said.

Eighteen regional monitoring and Indigenous Guardian programs now operate across seven million hectares of land and sea in the GBR ecosystem and First Nations territories.

“In the beginning, a map was handed to us, and we agreed to it, but we didn’t have stewardship officers and forest technicians,” Smith said.

“As our stewardship capabilities have grown, our role in the implementation of the land use orders has grown greatly, and this latest one really has more First Nations input.”

Some safeguards for cultural cedars, bear dens

Building on previous work by Nanwakolas to protect cultural cedars from logging, there are improved protections for Indigenous cultural heritage sites and massive trees for ceremonial use and other forest values important to First Nations, Smith said.

In the new GBR land use order, forestry companies must now take steps to protect dens and habitat for grizzly, black and Kermode bears. There are also enhanced watershed and aquatic measures to better protect salmon-bearing rivers and streams, lakes and wetlands important to other fish and wildlife from logging operations, he added.

The new aquatic protections will bolster extensive efforts by First Nations working to restore watersheds to stem the loss of endangered Pacific salmon populations.

First Nations have also been pushing forestry companies to map and protect ecosystem features like bear dens for some time without success, Smith said.

“They weren’t logistically bound to do it, so it was a voluntary thing,” he said.

“Now it’s hardwired [in the land use order] for First Nations to determine the protections of dens or cultural cedar trees.”

However, language in the new land use order does allow for timber harvesting, despite new protection measures for bear dens and habitat or for Indigenous forest values or cultural cedars, if logging “is required for road access, other infrastructure, or to address a safety concern where there is no practicable alternative.”

Though there are exceptions in many of the new measures, logging companies must inform First Nations and engage them in developing appropriate mitigation measures for the harvesting to take place.

The new land use agreement will support carbon sequestration and the ongoing production of carbon offsets, the province said in a press release.

More 9.4 million tonnes of verified greenhouse gas emissions have been sequestered since the implementation of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement and sold as carbon offsets by First Nations to support their communities’ conservation objectives or economic and social development priorities.

Logging continues but with more First Nations input

The province also announced a new monitoring strategy using highly detailed landscape mapping data that will be set up within two years.

The goal is to strengthen the province and First Nations’ ability to track compliance with the new measures to ensure shared ecological and economic objectives are being met in the GBR.

The new land-use order continues to allow logging in 550,000 hectares of forest and an allowable annual cut of 2.5 million cubic metres of timber until Dec. 31, 2026. By that date, another legislated review is expected to be complete and a new land-use order put in place.

“There is still some logging opportunities, although we’re trying to make them as sustainable as possible,” Smith said.

“That said, the majority of the nations are trying to find ways to further reduce the annual allowable cuts in the Great Bear Rainforest. That’s still a work in progress.”

Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said the new measures reflect the power of collaboration and continuous work to improve the ecosystem-based management model.

The GBR improvements and framework will act as a blueprint for the province's newly proposed regional forest landscape planning (FLP) tables to be set up across B.C., Ralston said.

Moving forward, rather than industry driving the development of logging plans, First Nations and the province will sit down at the eight regional FLP tables to devise plans and co-manage forestry activity with public and community input while prioritizing protections for old-growth, ecosystems and Indigenous forest values in the areas where they live.

Environmental groups applaud First Nations protection priorities

A number of environmental groups reacted positively to the improved GBR protections.

“The changes are part of an important process of continually reviewing and strengthening the Great Bear Rainforest agreements,” Sierra Club BC and Stand.earth said in a statement Friday.

Anything that increases First Nations’ decision-making power and sovereignty is always a good thing, said Tegan Hansen, forest campaigner for Stand.earth.

It’s also good news that detailed mapping is getting underway to allow for better monitoring of what’s actually being protected or lost in the GBR and to improve transparency around forestry operations, she said.

But environmental groups are looking forward to the next major review in 2026, which will also examine wider community and public concerns in addition to First Nations’ management priorities, she said.

The latest GBR land use revisions still don’t include findings from the province’s old-growth strategic review process that identified the most rare, at-risk old-growth areas that need urgent logging deferrals and protection.

Hopefully, in three years, the promised data and monitoring strategies will be in place to make informed decisions and limit logging so it poses the least danger to those endangered ecosystems, Hansen added.

Preserving what old-growth remains in B.C. and adequately recruiting good-quality and biodiverse mature forests to eventually supplement those dwindling stands are critical for climate resiliency, she said.

“We need to maintain resilience for people, wildlife and ecosystem values,” Hansen said.

“That’s the whole purpose of the Great Bear Rainforest.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer