Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Native band bids for control of coast forest

September 19, 2005

Heiltsuk nation wants ban on ‘destructive’ logging, fish farms, exploration

The Heiltsuk First Nation is to release a landmark resource-use plan today, declaring their intention to manage 16,770 square kilometres of forests in the heart of British Columbia’s central coast.

The Heiltsuk, who live in the community of Bella Bella, say they want 49 per cent of their territory to be protected. They also lay claim to 19,000 square kilometres of the surrounding ocean and waterways.

High on the list of banned activities under the plan is salmon farming, oil and gas exploration and destructive logging practices. The Heiltsuk are also calling for the protection of old-growth cedar, which they say cannot continue to be harvested at the current rate.

A year ago, the provincial government completed its discussions with stakeholder groups — such as environmentalists, forestry and mining — on how they think resources on the central coast should be used. Discussions with first nations are the next step in that process.

The Heiltsuk’s chief councillor, Ross Wilson, said the province and the Heiltsuk agree on many issues, but there are some key disagreements — notably around oil and gas exploration and what share of the land should be protected.

“For the past year or so we’ve been sitting in government-to-government discussions and both our plans are on the table and now we’re negotiating a compromise land-use plan,” he said.

And while negotiations continue, Wilson acknowledged that the ultimate decision about how the land will be used rests with the province. “What this government-to-government discussions are supposed to do is to give us a level playing field — but no minister will give up [his/her] veto,” he said.

Gordon Goodman, who is overseeing the land-use process for the province, said the Heiltsuk’s plan is an important step in the provincial government’s new relationship with aboriginal people. “It’s really historic that they’ve engaged in this process at a government-to-government level and clearly articulated their land-use vision and resource vision,” he said. “For us, it’s a very positive step so we can understand what we need to do in our planning process.”

A final decision on land use in the region is expected to be made by cabinet later this year.

The Heiltsuk plan clearly defines what they expect from government and industry in the way of consultation before any development takes place in their territory. Industry has often considered consultation to be casual meetings that take place at airports, said Wilson. From now on, the Heiltsuk want formal written submissions to initiate consultations.

The Heiltsuk plan has been five years in the making, and the 2,200 members of the band, 1,200 of whom live in and around Bella Bella, want to know what their council is committing to do, Wilson said.

He said the plan contains sensational elements, such as the ban on oil and gas exploration and salmon farming, but the main message the Heiltsuk want to get out is that they expect to be part of any resource management use within their territory

The province has its own land and resource use plan for the region but has held off declaring it until talks with the region’s first nations are completed.

Premier Gordon Campbell set the end of summer, which is Tuesday, to complete those talks.

Merran Smith, of the environmental group ForestEthics, called the Heiltsuk plan “enormously significant,” not just for band members but for all British Columbians. “It’s going to help move forward dialogue about land use and conservation on B.C.‘s central coast. And that’s a good thing.”

Issues such as salmon farming and off-shore exploration will be the acid-test of the new relationships being forged between the province and first nations, Smith said. “It will be interesting to see how the government responds when the community says ‘No, we don’t want this.’ “

The Heiltsuk plan was developed through consultation with band members over what they want to see happen in their territories.

The protected area does not necessarily preclude all development for all time, said Wilson, describing the plan as a living document that can change.

The plan does not specifically call for an end to clear-cut logging, Wilson said, noting that it calls instead for eco-system-based management principles to be followed, meaning logging must leave behind fully functioning eco-systems and prosperous human communities. That would seem to rule out clear-cutting, but Wilson said precise details of harvesting systems are still being worked out.

The province, which harvests a significant amount of timber in the region under its B.C. Timber Sales Program, forest companies, and the Heiltsuk’s own logging company have until 2009 to switch to the new practices.