Column: Great Bear Rainforest agreement is a huge win

From years of bitter conflict to a multi-level collaboration to protect one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth, the announcement of the Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Order on Monday by Premier Christy Clark is, in itself, stunning.

The agreement has been some 15 years in the making and spans a region that is 6.4 million hectares (15 million acres) stretching from Discovery Islands north to the Tongass Rainforest of Alaska. Under the terms of the agreement, 85 per cent of the forested area will be completely and permanently protected from industrial logging. The balance of 15 per cent that will be accessible to forest companies will be subject to the most stringent commercial logging legal standards in North America.

The region is home to hundreds of species of plants as well as animal species including grizzly bears, the white “spirit” bear (a colour phase of the black bear), wolves, cougars, orcas, and salmon. Twenty-six First Nations have made the region home for thousands of years. With this agreement, it is now among the largest tracts of intact temperate rainforest in the world.

And it didn’t come about easily.

Remember those “war in the woods” days in the early 1990s? Logging was becoming controversial in the late 1980s. But it soon erupted in a head-on battle as environmentalists tried to protect old growth forest ecosystems where the very trees the forest industry wanted – those of great size, quality, and durability – grew in abundance.

In the stakeholder line up was the provincial government that, despite its efforts at strategic land use planning processes, failed to bring groups together. Then there were First Nations and other communities.  The tree huggers got smart. Battling the logging companies was one thing but then they took aim at the end user distributors and targeted the likes of Ikea and Home Depot who, not wanting to lose customers opposed to buying products stapled to protesters, agreed to stop buying the controversial wood products.

But attitudes changed.

Alliances formed. Partnerships grew. Weary of spatting at each other, the groups became more conciliatory and engaged in debate. From that shift in direction in 2000, the forest companies’ Coast Forest Conservation Initiative was formed while the environmental groups formed the Rainforest Solutions Project. Together, both alliances formed the Joint Solutions Project (JSP).

The following year logging and boycott campaigns were suspended while talks got up to speed between government officials and First Nations. Native people had long been disenfranchised and overlooked in the economic benefits of logging operations.

Reconciliation slowly became the word of the day and shared decision-making became the new order. Scientific studies of the region resulted in an Ecosystem-Based Management handbook focusing on ecological patterns and levels of risk, aboriginal rights, title, and interests, engagement of local communities and other stakeholders, and protection of heritage values.

An agreement to protect the forest was announced in 2006 but arriving at it wasn’t easy. There were lots of stops and re-starts. And it would take another 10 years of discussions and negotiations before the final Land Use Order was ready to be announced on Monday with all the legal and policy agreements in place to make the package binding.

The agreement is a plus for mitigating climate change. The complex old growth rainforest has stored huge amounts of carbon for thousands of years. Its preservation will reduce carbon losses from future widespread logging.

The agreement is a massive collective win not only for the region but for all those folks who, hitherto, were bitterly opposed to each other’s point of view. Somehow foresters, aboriginals, environmentalists, and bureaucrats have joined in a shared vision that will benefit many future generations.

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