Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Ottawa vows $30-million to protect Great Bear

March 15, 2007

Environmentalists and native leaders hail long-awaited money for forest, jobs

(Vancouver, BC) – If you wait long enough, people may really pay attention when you do something.

That certainly seemed to be the case yesterday, as environmental groups and native leaders heaped praise on the federal Conservatives for promising to cough up $30-million toward a unique, ambitious fund to create employment as well as protect the hallowed Great Bear Rainforest.

They had been waiting nearly a year for the federal commitment, after private environmental foundations raised an astonishing $60-million and British Columbia pledged $30-million of its own for the fund.

The long-anticipated program was contingent on a matching $30-million grant from Ottawa.

“The hardest part of this project was for us to say yes,” federal Environment Minister John Baird confessed, making his fourth appearance in the province since assuming his cabinet post a little more than two weeks ago.

But after being pressed by environmentalists on the issue during an earlier meeting, Mr. Baird said he became concerned some of the private money might disappear if more time elapsed. “There was a chance we could lose some of it. We didn’t want to see that happen,” he said.

Groups that had long been lobbying for the federal money were told only within the past few days that a promise was finally forthcoming.

The announcement, in a room packed with native leaders and rain forest activists, was the latest in a flurry of green policies pledged by the minority Conservative government since Mr. Baird took over his post from beleaguered predecessor Rona Ambrose.

“People want to see a commitment to the environment from the new government, and this is a clear example that in two short weeks we are coming to the table and we want to be part of this exciting initiative,” Mr. Baird said.

The Great Bear Rainforest, home of a rare, white species of black bear known as the spirit bear, covers a vast area of lush, mostly unlogged vegetation along the province’s north and central coasts.

Considered the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world, the area was the target of a lengthy, emotional battle by conservationists and local native groups to protect it from logging and other resource development. The struggle drew worldwide attention, leading to a marketplace boycott of B.C.-cut lumber in some quarters.

A year ago, the formerly fractious parties agreed to a plan that will protect more than 1.8 million hectares from logging, an area three times the size of Prince Edward Island. A $120-million fund, known as the Conservation Investments and Incentives Initiatives, was to be established to provide jobs and economic opportunities for the region’s many native communities.

What sets the fund apart is the $60-million commitment from private eco-friendly foundations, an unprecedented non-governmental contribution that proponents are hailing as a model for resolving environmental conflicts around the world. The private money will support conservation management and stewardship jobs for resident natives, while government funds will be invested in ecologically sustainable businesses.

“We believed there was a business case to be made. We couldn’t separate conservation from the people who live there,” said Merran Smith of ForestEthics. “We are generating money by protecting forests.”

She said the fund is the largest, integrated conservation investment in the history of North America. “We thank the government for entering into this unknown territory.”

Ms. Smith couldn’t resist a further political pitch, calling for the Conservatives to show leadership “and take bold action on climate change, endangered species and protecting the boreal forest.”

Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, said the money will allow natives to help preserve the rain forest “as equal partners, not as beggars, not as paupers.

“This is a new way of doing things, a recognition that you have to have a sustainable economy, as well as a sustainable environment,” Mr. Sterritt said.

Not everyone was impressed.

While supporting the decision, Liberal MP Stephen Owen charged that it was simply part of a Tory “charade . . . of rehashing Liberal programs they once denounced.

Their “newfound enthusiasm doesn’t mask the fact that [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] didn’t move an inch on this project until the polls got to him,” Mr. Owen said.

Ian McAllister of the Raincoast Conservation Society noted that money for the fund has now been announced three times.

“It’s an old pot of money that’s been celebrated a number of times before. Meanwhile, nothing is changing on the ground,” he said.