Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Great Bear Compromise sets stage for Wilderness Future

February 10, 2006

This week’s historic agreement to protect British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest—the world’s largest remaining swath of coastal temperate rainforest, an area twice the size of Yellowstone—marks the culmination of 10 years of haggling, negotiating, and compromising among divergent agendas. It also marks what might be the future of wilderness preservation. The plan, which places four and a half million acres off limits to logging and regulates logging practices on the remaining 10 million acres, is backed by environmentalists, industry, native people, and the provincial government.

As recently as September, it seemed as though the land preservation agreement might fall apart, when the deadline for the government to sign it passed. But on Tuesday the deal finally went through—and was deemed important enough to warrant coverage in both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times called the coalition of parties that mapped out the agreement an “improbable assemblage? and the agreement itself a “crossroads in their relations?

Over the years, there was no shortage of good cop-bad cop tactics, as some environmentalists, and native groups, chained themselves to bulldozers and staged forest sit-ins, while others worked behind the scenes negotiating with corporations that sell wood products. Industry cooperation was crucial: once retailers like Home Depot and IKEA announced plans to stop selling old-growth wood products, and wood from the Great Bear in particular, logging companies began to come around to conservationists’ goals.

The Great Bear Rainforest is a picture-perfect poster child for this kind of conservation agreement, both because of its majestic thousand-year-old trees and its prevalence of charismatic megafauna—including wolves, wolverines, several endangered birds of pretty, and the rare white “spirit bear” a genetic variation of the black bear, which holds particular mythic significance to native tribes. The success of the preservation deal bodes well for this type of agreement in the future, and brings to mind Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill, perhaps the closest parallel in the Rocky Mountain West. That project, for which Congress will likely consider legislation later this year, also has a long and drawn-out history of collaboration forged between strange bedfellows.

Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League, the Boise-based group that’s been a ringleader in the effort to designate a wilderness area in the Sawtooth and Challis National Forests, told me recently that he believes wilderness is a “core value” among Idahoans—a bold pronouncement in an increasingly conservative red state. The wilderness bill represents a controversial compromise between the disparate agendas of environmentalists, motorized recreation groups, rural development advocates, and many others, and has earned both praise and vitriol from all sides. “I think we reflect Idaho values,” Johnson said of the group’s decision, from the outset, to forge alliances outside the conservation community. “But you can’t be an advocate for these values if the public hates your guts?

This echoes the sentiment of Patrick Armstrong, a negotiator for the lumber companies in the Great Bear agreement, who, according to the New York Times, now works closely with the environmentalists. “This needs to be celebrated — it’s a big, big deal,” Armstrong told the Times. “Everyone had a greater interest in resolving the problems than continuing the conflict.”

Of course, depending on where you stand, compromise is either the key to the future of conservation or a dangerously slippery slope of copping out. In Idaho, groups on both sides—die-hard enviros and motorized recreation associations, for instance—have come out against the Boulder-White Clouds plan. People on both sides of the political spectrum worry that such compromises do little more than reduce the chances of successfully achieving their true goals later on. Still, compromise does seem to be the only way any wilderness conservation plans are gaining traction of late. In Idaho, Boulder-White Clouds, if the designation effort succeeds, would be the first official wilderness designation in Idaho in a quarter century. A representative from the conservation group Forest Ethics, which was instrumental in the Great Bear agreement, told the Washington Post that the Canadian compromise resulted in a “revolution”: “The revolution is looking at a standing forest not as a commodity, but as an economic model based on conservation,” the Forest Ethics representative, Merran Smith, told the paper.