Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Enviros and Industry ring alarm over Great Bear Project

April 28, 2005

They fear government delay risks B.C.’s reputation and a $100 million investment in a complex Central Coast preservation initiative.

Key environmental movement leaders are speaking out about delays in establishing a comprehensive strategy for preservation, logging and development in the so-called “Great Bear Rainforest,” after five years of quiet backroom negotiation.

Environmentalists, native groups, forestry companies and the government have been working toward a comprehensive plan for the region on the central coast of British Columbia. At stake, according to Merran Smith of ForestEthics, an international group that lobbies for both preservation and more sensitive logging, is a plan that would preserve 1.8 million hectares that includes between 50 and 75 watersheds, improve forestry practices, and create sustainable economic development in the region.

Smith, director of ForestEthics B.C. coastal program, said about $100 million in investment from foundations and private business is at risk because of the delay. She said it’s hard to raise money for investment in the Central Coast, an isolated and economically depressed part of the province. And she fears other elements of the initiative may also unravel. “You can only hold a consensus agreement together for so long.”

And in an April 12 letter to Premier Gordon Campbell, NorskeCanada president and CEO Russell Horner urged the government to move forward before the election, stating that the failure to do so might damage the forest industry in B.C. “I am writing to add the voice of our company to those you have already heard from to urge you to move forward … prior to the upcoming Provincial Election,” Horner wrote, in a letter obtained by The Tyee. Horner’s letter described NorskeCanada as the province’s biggest forest products customer, and the company is a key player in the Central Coast initiative.

Catherine Stewart, Greenpeace Canada forest campaigner and a key player in the process, said all the pieces were in place for a formal announcement on the Central Coast initiative. She expected that announcement earlier this month. “That’s what we were told by people within government. We weren’t being given guarantees, but we were being given assurances.”

‘Leadership’ questioned

Last July, the government announced that it would move forward on the initiative, which began under the NDP. “I would hope we’d find a resolution in three to four months,” Premier Gordon Campbell said at the time.

Stewart noted that the Liberal platform commits it to preserving habitat for the rare kermode “spirit bear” (which is being touted as a potential mascot for the 2010 Olympics). “It’s the third time they’ve announced this. No conservancy, mind you. But they keep announcing it. It’s very worrying that they’re only talking about this one small aspect of the initiative.”

Stewart said she is confounded by the delay. “We were all working to government-imposed timelines. We all worked insane hours … with the expectation that if we met the deadlines the government would act.”

Smith said the complex, community-driven initiative represents a real breakthrough on land-use planning that brings together industry, First Nations and other interests. “I believe the government has failed to act because they’re afraid of change.” However, Smith wouldn’t criticize Sustainable Resource Management Minister George Abbott, a key figure in the process who was recently endorsed for re-election by the Conservation Voters of B.C., along with Green party leader Adriane Carr and three NDP candidates. “This is a lack of leadership.”

Stewart said the Liberal government’s decision to roll back a consensus reached on preserving wilderness in the South Chilcotin after the last election leaves her worrying about the potential for a similar rollback should the Liberals win the May 17 election.

Forest companies want action

“All of the stakeholders who participated in the planning process are on board,” she said, including native groups and key forestry companies, such as Interfor, Weyerhauser, and Western Forest Products. She allows that there are outstanding issues — three native bands have unresolved concerns, and the exact nature of the protection areas has not been finalized — but she said there will always be outstanding issues in a process as complex and comprehensive as this one.

Stewart told The Tyee that in terms of conservation initiatives this process ranks at the top of the heap in B.C. “[Temperate rainforests] are the rarest forest ecosystem on the planet,” she said. “It’s not just important for British Columbia; it’s important in a global context.” Smith noted that in Clayoquot Sound just six intact watersheds were preserved.

Stewart said the $100 million in money raised and pledged for economic development comes from private companies, philanthropic foundations, and socially responsible investment funds. “We’ve been raising that money for some time. They can’t act until the government acts,” she said, explaining that at some point that money will be directed to other projects. She added that there is a tentative commitment of an additional $30 million from the province, and she hopes the federal government will match that amount.

A coalition of Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club of Canada and ForestEthics has been relatively silent about the issue until today, when they released a “report card” critical of the B.C. government. “We committed to a peace accord — no blockades, no markets campaign.” In return the groups won a moratorium on logging in key areas being considered for preservation.

Markets will be informed

Now, however, that accord is fragile. Will the groups take aggressive action? “Not yet,” said Stewart. But she added they intend to notify businesses that purchase B.C. forest products, such Home Depot, of the lack of progress.

The report card also said new logging protocols that the forestry companies have committed to aren’t being employed in Central Coast forests currently being logged.

Bill Bourgeois, project manager for the Coastal Forest Conservation Initiative, which represents five forestry companies with economic interests on the Central Coast, says the industry is working to address those concerns. “Some areas have been approved under what you’d call the old system,” he said, arguing there are always people who want things to change more quickly than is practical.

However, he acknowledged the industry’s own frustration with the government’s inaction. “We would like to see things move forward quicker than they have,” Bourgeuis said. “We had worked with others to encourage government to make an announcement.”

Government has ‘own issues’

However, he said government has its “own issues.” He said these include negotiations with First Nations and greater clarity regarding “ecosystem-based management.” “This is a complex issue. This is quite a change.”

Bourgeois said he doesn’t object to the environmental groups informing the forest-products marketplace of the lack of progress, but adds that he doesn’t believe the Great Bear Rainforest process itself is in peril. “Government has indicated to us that they will be able to make a formal decision by August or September.”

Stewart said that while three bands do have concerns, they would support an announcement if they have a letter of agreement on the process for dealing with those concerns. She said any initiative as complex as this requires that those involved commit to a process for resolving details, and that agreement would be impossible otherwise.

Smith and Stewart insist their public criticism of the government is not mere electioneering in favour of Liberal opponents. Both carefully state that the environmental groups are trying to extract a commitment to respectfully complete the Central Coast initiative from all political parties. And while Stewart says doubts about the Liberals’ good faith are mounting, she remains committed to the process.

Art Sterrit, a representative of the First Nations of Turning Point initiative that represents native groups on the Central Coast, could not be reached for comment. Ministry of Sustainable Development communications director Mike Long declined to comment, saying that would be inappropriate during an election. Representatives of the BC Liberal party did not return calls regarding the issue by deadline.