Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


After an endless hibernation, Great Bear deal is stirring

February 6, 2006

(Vancouver, BC) – When the provincial government announces a final agreement on the fate of the Great Bear Rainforest – an event that’s been long anticipated and may happen this week – few people will be watching with more interest than Michael Uehara.

Mr. Uehara is president of King Pacific Lodge, a floating resort with a burnished wood decor and slate-lined bathrooms that bills itself as “the most luxurious wilderness lodge ever built.”

And at $3,000 a night for a suite, it shows just how much people are prepared to pay to experience British Columbia’s wilderness without roughing it.

From his vantage point, on Princess Royal Island at the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, Mr. Uehara is witnessing a remarkable shift in B.C.‘s economy.

After years of negotiation, the government is preparing to announce a deal that will set aside a vast wilderness area involving millions of hectares.

In the process, it will push the economy on the central coast away from rough-hewn resource industries like logging and mining and toward softer, more sustainable activities, such as bear-watching and “sustainable forestry,” a kind of light-touch logging that often only removes 2 per cent of the timber in a given area.

“It’s a remarkable transformation,” said Mr. Uehara, whose lodge is at the forefront of the new wilderness economy.

The Great Bear Rainforest is located on B.C.‘s north and central coast. Covering more than six million hectares, it is one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests. The largely roadless area is laced with salmon rivers and has large populations of grizzly bears and white “spirit” bears, which are a rare genetic variation of black bears.

King Pacific attracts clients from all over the world and has grown increasingly popular, but ever since Mr. Uehara arrived at the lodge in 1997, he has been worried about the millions of dollars invested in the resort. He hasn’t been concerned that people would grow tired of the wilderness, but rather that the wilderness backdrop, which is such a vital part of his business, may be ruined by clear cuts.

“There was a great deal of uncertainty,” he said. But he is resting easier now, knowing that the B.C. government, aboriginals, environmental groups and the forest industry have made peace.

The coming deal will set out how the 6.4 million hectares that make up the Great Bear Rainforest will be managed. “There’s a lot of talk about an agreement that’s coming down soon,” Mr. Uehara said. And word is that it is heavy on sustainable industry.

“That’s kind of shorthand for what represents, I think, a fundamental change in the way that whole area is going to view resources,” Mr. Uehara said.

“A great deal of emphasis is being placed on, you might say, a new way of doing business. And for the most part, they are looking to sustainable businesses. For us at King Pacific Lodge, we’re kind of founded on a notion of sustainability, so it’s really welcome to see that this is going to be the watchword for everyone from now on.”

Years of negotiations have surrounded the issue, and the tension in those talks has been fuelled by an international boycott of old-growth forest products, led by Greenpeace, threats of lawsuits by aboriginals, and international media attention attracted by the area’s unique white bears.

The Great Bear Rainforest agreement won’t allow massive, industrial logging, and won’t allow mining in many areas, Mr. Uehara predicted. But it won’t shut down logging completely.

“I think what has been done is, they are saying, we’re not going to stop timber-[cutting]; we are going to go into ecosystem-based timber-harvesting, and that’s going to be a different kind of harvest. It’s going to be sustainable. It’s going to incorporate the interests of all the other stakeholders.”

Mr. Uehara said he is looking forward to seeing the details of the final package.

But from everything he’s heard, he’s deeply encouraged. “You have to take a leap of faith on some things, I guess, but I am feeling very positive about this,” he said. Ric Careless, who sat at the negotiating table for the Wilderness Tourism Association, said he thinks many will see the Great Bear Rainforest dealas a major achievement.

“You can never please everyone,” he said. “But I really think this is going to be a significant development. “Premier Gordon Campbell took a personal interest in this issue for years; he really pushed it along, and I think in the future this will be looked on as one of the great achievements of his tenure.”

Mr. Careless said years of negotiations have gone into the agreement. “You know the forest industry has been having trying times on the central coast [because of the old-growth forest product boycott], and this agreement could be an important contribution to an evolving economy. The nature tourism industry in B.C. is worth $2-billion [annually], and this will only help,” he said.