Rainforest Solutions Project

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


‘Great Bear’ Economy Goes after $200 Million

November 26, 2004

Private donors will kick in $60 million, pending government matches, for sustainable coastal push.

Grilled scallops. Raw oysters. Steamed mussels. These may seem like exotic menu items to some, but to people on the coast they are the everyday food of home.

With rising global demand for seafood, First Nations on the north and central coast of British Columbia are looking to shellfish aquaculture as a viable and environmentally sustainable way to initiate some much needed economic activity in their communities.

Due in part to the work of environmental organizations, a progressive group of philanthropists and conservation investors, along with the provincial and federal governments, are looking at raising up to $200 million for exactly this type of venture. Their motives? B.C.‘s temperate rainforests — not logging large tracts of them, but, instead, investing to keep them standing.

Conservation investment is, as the name implies, money to support protection of wilderness – in this case, B.C.‘s globally-significant temperate rainforests of the Central and North coast.

Great Bear economics

The wild and rugged coast between Knight Inlet and southeast Alaska has been dubbed the Great Bear Rainforest. The people who live there have their own names. Art Sterritt, Executive Director of Turning Point, a coalition of coastal First Nations, calls his home Txalgiu (Hartley Bay) and he along with others in Turning Point have been at the forefront pressing for innovative land-use plans and economic initiatives for First Nations in places like Waglisla (Bella Bella) and C’moosta (Kitimaat Village).

Environmentalists have played a huge role in the region as well. In the 1990s, weary of fighting watershed-by-watershed battles on Vancouver Island, environmentalists realized there was a huge area of relatively intact wilderness on the north and central coast. With a tiny population, little road access and no major industries, the spectacular coastal old-growth forests, home to the rare white Kermode Bear, an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s salmon and a multitude of grizzly bears became the next conservation campaign.

This was a campaign like no others. Rather than stage protests and fight in the public eye, intense negotiations between environmental groups, government, industry and First Nations took place behind closed doors. In April 2001, this culminated in a Phase 1 proposal of protection for 20 intact valleys, deferred logging in another 68 and a promise to use eco-system management, based on sound scientific principles, in further land-use planning. After more years of lengthy negotiations, the multi-stakeholder Land and Resource Management Plans on the north and central coasts have all but wrapped up. Parties at the table, including the general public, tourism operators, logging and mining spokespeople, finally agreed to some tough numbers — 35 per cent no logging areas in the north and 33 per cent on the central coast. These recommendations are now in the hands of the province and First Nations governments who are slated to wrap up decisions on land use by Dec 31, 2004.

“In the south, we witnessed logging at rates that were too fast, along with unsustainable practices. It resulted in small towns on Vancouver Island devastated because there’s no more wood left,” says Merran Smith, director of the BC Coast Program with ForestEthics, an environmental organization based in Smithers, Vancouver and San Francisco.

“Now we have a chance to do what is right for the environment and the communities. And this is where conservation financing comes into play.”

First Nations challenged enviros

Smith says Canadians sell themselves short, believing all we have to offer are rocks, trees, oil and water.

“We have a wildness and a rich diversity of plants and animals that don’t exist anywhere else in the abundance we have in Canada. The world is interested in and values that wildness.”

During the campaign, which drew international attention to the region, Smith says local First Nations challenged the conservation sector to put their money where their mouth was.

“They said, ‘If it’s true that you can create a new economy based on conservation, we challenge you to actually work with us to do that.’”

So for the last four years, Smith and her colleagues have gone back and forth between negotiating with government and industry and meeting with First Nations to wooing conservation investors. They’ve found private investors and philanthropic foundations who are ready to build the $60 million of private donations, which must be matched by provincial and federal government dollars.

This money is intended to help First Nations implement the land-use plans in their territories, Smith says. Some will be seed capital for business ventures and some will be set aside to help First Nations go about the physical task of managing and monitoring the streams, forest and ocean. She sees it as one way to help First Nations build capacity and control in their territories.

An additional $80 million in socially responsible investment dollars may be available to larger communities like Prince Rupert for sound business projects.

High end on Haida Gwaii

Sterritt says rather than leave land management to industry, as the provincial government is now doing, First Nations need to ensure new business ventures really are low impact by doing the monitoring themselves. Turning Point already has a number of pilot projects and studies on the go in shellfish aquaculture, tourism, non-timber forest products and logging.

“[Conservation financing] is absolutely essential for making everything that we’ve got coming on line work,” says Sterritt.

“That’s why the shellfish thing is so important, because we do have equity in vessels. There is knowledge of working on the sea. And if we move toward those things that we have equity in, knowledge in, then chances of success are greater.”

Michael Uehara, president of King Pacific Lodge, an exclusive high-end accommodation anchored off Princess Royal Island, underlines the significance of the negotiations that took place on the coast.

“What we’ve crafted is a system where industries like forestry are accommodated and working with environmentalists and First Nations.”

His lodge, which provides unique wilderness experiences for a maximum of 30 guests, was one of the first private companies on the coast to enter into a protocol agreement with First Nations recognizing their rights and title.

According to a feasibility study his company has prepared for Turning Point, there is market enough for three more high-end lodges like King Pacific in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii.

‘It’s about sharing culture’

Potential sites have been chosen and Uehara has been working with the group to develop a unique corporate structure that would see the lodges owned by all First Nations in the area.

Packages start at $3,600 for three nights at the luxurious King Pacific Lodge and according to Uehara, this is the most environmentally and economically sustainable model for tourism in the area.

“Do you want thousands of people coming and spending very little money or would you prefer a lesser number spending a greater deal. That is a choice communities make.”

His staff earns on average $40,000 per season and he employs 45 people, not including the many external guides he uses in communities.

“It is very easy to go from high end and see how middle tourism or rubber traffic tourism can develop from that, but it is very difficult to go the other way,” he says.

As for the suggestion that tourism is exploiting local First Nation culture for the experience-hungry, wealthy baby boomers he caters to, Uehara doesn’t see it that way.

“It is about sharing the culture, not selling it. Good places get known because they deliver quality, not just for the tourists, but for those delivering it too.”

Need for skills investment seen

Tom Olsen, chief executive officer of Triumph Timber, a north coast logging company, is also taking a proactive approach to working with communities along the coast.

But he worries conservation investment money won’t address or provide for social issues such as skills training and employment over the long-term.

His triple-bottom line philosophy, success on social, economic and environmental levels, seems a perfect model for conservation investors, but for him, it has been a matter of sound long-term business planning.

“If First Nations concerns are not addressed, it will lead to more pressure. My outlook is to work in a co-operative manner,” he says.

Olsen, who took over West Fraser’s north coast license in 2000, is in regular contact with people in Lax Kw’Alaams, Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Kitkatla, Kincolith and Haisla territory to ensure he understands their concerns about logging.

One of things he tried to address was that people who have called the coast home from time immemorial continually see resources extracted from their territories while receiving no monetary or employment benefits.

To that end, Olsen targets 25 per cent First Nation employment in every application of his operations, from planning, to harvesting, to transportation, and work at the dry land sort. He also holds job fairs and consults with communities about their interest levels and skill sets.

‘Path for others’

On the environmental side, he has worked to reduce the amount of bark left in the ocean by loading logs straight from land onto a barge, eliminating the need for a log dump in small coves. This innovation also means he can address First Nations concerns about cutting too much too fast. He is able to cut smaller blocks in a watershed, and then leave it for 10 years, because he hasn’t had to invest in the log boom infrastructure in the inlets.

At this point, Olsen says, even with the extra work, he is still pulling in a profit, in fact some of his new measures have reduced his overall costs while at the same time meeting environmental or social goals.

“I like to think we are creating a path for others to follow,” he says.

December deadline

Olsen acknowledges that local First Nations’ positions on land claims and treaties gave him no alternative but to move beyond the status quo. He hopes other companies will do the same.

Smith says a recent socio-economic and environmental assessment report prepared for the North Coast LRMP gave those who have been working long and hard on the coast conservation economy a boost.

“It was absolutely earth shattering.”

The report, which factored in the concept of conservation financing, said that from a jobs perspective, conservation would be the best solution for the north coast.

So Smith and a lot of others on the coast are holding their breath until December 31, the deadline set for the end of government-to-government negotiations.

“The opportunity exists now. If they fail to come to a resolution or if the government waffles over more time, then the international investment community is going to lose interest and our opportunity to attract investment to stimulate a new economy and strengthen communities in the region could be lost,” she says.