Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Heiltsuk unveil plan for Great Bear

September 20, 2005

(Vancouver, BC) – A vast stretch of wilderness on British Columbia’s central coast, known increasingly by its romantic name, the Great Bear Rainforest, is the focus of an immense land-use debate that appears on the verge of resolution.

For seven years, the provincial government has been struggling to come up with a comprehensive land-use plan for the area that would somehow satisfy native bands, environmentalists and resource industries.

Now, with an announcement on that plan expected in the near future, perhaps by Sept. 30, the Heiltsuk First Nation has stepped in to release its vision.

Calling it a “historic land-use plan” the Heiltsuk Tribal Council called yesterday for 49 per cent of the land base — or about 8,000 square kilometres — to be protected as natural and cultural areas.

The Heiltsuk, just one of several native bands on the central coast, also expressed their opposition to salmon aquaculture in the area and to offshore oil and gas development. And they called for more environmentally sensitive logging practices, with a particular view to reducing the cut of old-growth cedar, a tree that is culturally important to coastal Indians.

While the document was in part a declaration of environmental and cultural values, it was also a political statement by the Heiltsuk, who are positioning themselves for future negotiations with the province over management of the area.

“The Heiltsuk land-use plan represents our vision of management for our territory. It will help us govern our territory as rightful landowners,”
said Ross Wilson, the tribal council’s chief councillor. “We have never ceded title and rights to our land, and we expect the province of British Columbia to respect this in their upcoming decision on wilderness protection and economic development in our territory.”

Mr. Wilson said the land-use plan “can be the foundation of a new relationship [with the B.C. government] which would recognize us as the original stewards of the land and resources and key to economic development.”

He said the plan “could be a model for how first nations, government, industry and environmental groups work together to balance human needs and environmental protection.”

But various stakeholders on the central coast have been working for some time to come up with a land-use plan. The federal and provincial governments, five native bands, local governments and representatives from the forestry, mining and recreational sectors completed a detailed proposal last year outlining what areas should be protected and what forms of development should be allowed in other regions.

Port Alice Mayor Larry Pepper was one of those on the planning process team.

“We sent it to Victoria, and we’re still waiting to hear what they plan to do,” he said yesterday.

He said while the land-use planning process was under way, the natives that were participating made it clear they were going to develop their own plans for the region.

“There were a lot of first nations at the table, including the Heiltsuk, and they all had parallel processes under way.”

He said he expects other bands to follow the Heiltsuk in laying out their visions.

“I would think we’ll see more plans, and that means it’s going to get more complicated.”

Environmentalists dubbed the area the Great Bear Rainforest several years ago to highlight the central and north coast’s remarkable ecology.

Not only does the area have some of the last great rain-forest ecosystems left untouched in the world, it features a unique population of white black bears, which has helped draw global attention to the region.

Lisa Matthaus, coast campaign co-ordinator for the Sierra Club of British Columbia, said there is remarkable international interest in what happens to the Great Bear Rainforest because “this is a globally significant ecological treasure.”

To support a transition from a resource economy to one that is environmentally sustainable, philanthropic donors from around the world have promised $60-million, with the government set to match that amount. Another $80-million has been promised by government and private sources for a fund to provide loans to sustainable businesses.

“The private funding is tied to a land-use plan being completed,” Ms. Matthaus said. “Now we’re at this last step where we just need the government to act.”

She said the province is in the final stages of negotiating with the various native bands on the coast, and she is hopeful an announcement will be made soon, outlining plans for the area that all stakeholders agree to.