Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Canadian loggers and foes end a long battle

February 4, 2006

(Hartley Bay, BC) – In this sodden land of glacier-cut fiords and giant moss-draped cedars, a myth is told by the Gitga’at Natives to explain the presence of black bears with a rare recessive gene that makes them white as snow.

The Raven deity swooped down on the land at the end of an ice age and decided that one out of every 10 black bears born from that moment on would be bleached as “Spirit bears.” It was to be a reminder to future generations that the world must be kept pristine.

The Raven might well be smiling on Tuesday. An improbable assemblage of officials from the provincial government, coastal Native Canadian nations, logging companies and environmental groups will announce an agreement to preserve the home of the Spirit bear, which is also the largest remaining temperate coastal rain forest.

A huge wilderness in what is commonly called the Great Bear Rain Forest or the Amazon of the North will be kept off-limits to loggers in an agreement that environmentalists, Native Canadians and lumber officials call a crossroads in their relations.

The agreement puts to an end to more than a decade of talks, strident international boycott campaigns against Great Bear wood products, and protests in the forests marked by sit-ins by Native Canadians and environmentalists chaining themselves to logging equipment.

The negotiation process already inspired similar efforts by environmentalists, Native Canadians, and oil and timber industries to save the Canadian boreal forest, and some hope that Tuesday’s agreement will become a model for future preservation in the Amazon and other threatened old forests.

Scientists say the agreement should preserve not only the few hundred Spirit bears, but also one of the most highly concentrated grizzly bear populations surviving in North America, as well as unique subspecies of goshawks, coastal wolves, sitka deer and mountain goats.

“It’s like a revolution,” said Merran Smith, director of the British Columbia Coastal Program of Forest Ethics, an environmental group. “It’s a new way of thinking about how you do forestry. It’s about approaching business with a conservation motive up front, instead of an industrial approach to the forest.”

Loggers gain certainty that they will still be able to work in the forest, a fact that some environmentalists criticize. But in the 10 million acres, or four million hectares, where logging will still be permitted, lumber companies will be obliged to cut selectively – away from critical watersheds, bear dens and fish spawning grounds.

As a sign of new Native power gained in recent court cases, many of the areas that will be preserved or selectively logged have been selected because of oral tradition and the opinions expressed by Native elders. Off-limits will be lands that have cultural significance – such as ancient cemeteries, or areas that contain medicinal herbs or cedars big enough to make totem polls, canoes and longhouses.

If the federal government agrees, a fund of over $100 million will also be raised by governments and foundations to start ecotourism lodges, shellfish aquaculture and other sustainable economic activities for the more than 5,000 people who live in the region.

“Now we can manage our destiny,” said Ross Wilson, chairman of the tribal council of the Heiltsuk, one of the native nations that negotiated the accord. “Without this agreement, we would be going to court forever and we would have to put our children and old ladies dressed in button blankets in the way of the chain saws.”

Among the supporters of the agreement are some of the biggest players in the Canadian lumber and paper industries, including Western Forest Products, Interfor and Canfor.

“It’s a cultural shift,” said Shawn Kenmuir, an area manager for Triumph Timber, a company that has already forsaken old clear-cut practices and begun consulting with the Gitga’at before cutting on their traditional lands. “We’ve started the transition from entitlement to collaboration.” The forest represents a quarter of the coastal temperate rain forests left in the world.

Because 15 feet, or 4.6 meters, of rain can fall on this forest in a year, the Great Bear has never suffered a major forest fire. That has allowed some of the tallest and oldest trees on earth to thrive, including cedars more than a thousand years old.

An estimated 20 percent of the world’s remaining wild salmon swim through the forest’s fiords, including coho and sockeye whose spawning grounds were threatened by erosion caused by past logging. Largely intact because of its remoteness, the forest contains an abundance of wolverines, bats, peregrine falcons, marbled murrelets and coastal tailed frogs.

The ecological richness of the area is immediately apparent to the few people who visit it. Within minutes of a recent helicopter visit to Princess Royal Island in the heart of the rain forest the other day, a group of visitors saw a pack of six gray and black wolves, a seal and numerous bald eagles and swans.

“Look at the forest move,” said Marven Robinson, 36, a Gitga’at guide, as eagles glided through the air and the wolf pack played hide and seek with the visitors along a channel of diaphanous water. “As long as there is a Spirit bear, we’re going the right way.”

The efforts to save the rain forest began a decade ago, as lumber companies that had already cut most of the old-growth forest around British Columbia, by far Canada’s richest forestry province, began moving into the Great Bear.

A deluge of postcards and demonstrations by groups like Sierra Club and Greenpeace at shareholders’ meetings and retail outlets forced American, Japanese and European hardware chains to shift their buying.

By 1999, when Home Depot announced it would phase out sales of wood from the Great Bear and other endangered old forests, the lumber companies decided they needed to work with the environmentalists.

In the meantime, there was the beginning of a shift in thinking by some in the lumber industry. MacMillan Bloedel, before it was acquired by Weyerhaeuser, broke ranks with the industry and promised in 1998 to phase out clear cutting on the British Columbia coast.

Other companies gradually fell into line. “The customer doesn’t want products with protesters chained to it,” said Patrick Armstrong, a consultant who served as a negotiator for the lumber companies.

“This needs to be celebrated; it’s a big, big deal,” he said. “Everyone had a greater interest in resolving the problems than continuing the conflict.”