The finalization of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements is more than just good news for this spectacular region and its inhabitants.
The agreements by the region’s First Nations and the provincial government, with the support of Sierra Club B.C., Greenpeace, ForestEthics Solutions and a group of forestry companies, also provide guidance on how to address similar unresolved conflicts using evidence, respecting First Nations rights and seeking collaboration.
With new protected areas and stricter logging regulations announced in February, and the Great Bear Rainforest Act in March, the final steps of the agreements are in place. The fact that this region is larger than Switzerland, holds the world’s largest tracts of intact coastal temperate rainforest and has been the home to First Nations for thousands of years, underscores how significant the agreements are.
Although governments and stakeholders agreed early on to the goals of safeguarding the ecological integrity and ensuring human well-being in the region, a multitude of conflicting interests and expectations regarding conservation, land use and governance had to be addressed.
Over the past 10 years, some important steps have been taken that will strengthen First Nations oversight of their lands through government-to-government agreements and new economic opportunities, such as the $120-million Coastfunds. Similarly, conservation levels have been increased over the course of a decade of land-use planning and talks, with the result that 85 per cent of the region’s coastal temperate rainforests (3.1 million hectares — the size of Vancouver Island) are now off-limits to industrial logging.
Protected areas cover 38 per cent of the land and include 42 per cent of the region’s rainforest. More forest, habitat and First Nations cultural values are being set aside under the logging rules based on ecosystem-based management.
Combined, protected areas and forestry regulations ensure that enough rainforest will be protected from logging to ensure healthy, diverse ecosystems (in contrast to protection measures elsewhere in the province, which leave out almost all of the productive forest). For the first time, logging companies are legally required to develop reserve designs for the areas that must be set aside.
Logging will be limited to 15 per cent of the forest under a new legal designation called “managed forest” (550,000 hectares), subject to the most stringent commercial logging legal standards in North America. The new rules translate to a cap for old-growth still available for logging and will lead to a full transition to second-growth harvest. It will be critical to ensure provincial and First Nations capacity for monitoring and implementation of all parts of the agreements.
There has been both praise and criticism regarding the conservation outcome. While some lament that logging companies will face competition from countries such as Indonesia, with less regard for conservation, others argue that too much old-growth forest is still available for logging.
However, both sides should consider that the conditions of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements meet the science-based recommendations of ecosystem-based management, developed to maintain the ecological integrity of B.C.’s coastal temperate rainforest.
Taking responsibility for this globally significant rainforest seriously required meeting this bar. At the same time, the agreements allow for long-term forestry and greater benefits for First Nations that have entered into new forestry agreements with companies and the B.C. government. This was an important interest of communities and companies with logging rights.
It is important to note the agreements do not address all environmental risks facing the region and only apply to part of the province. The shocking trophy hunting of grizzly bears continues, and still no law prohibits new oil pipelines and tanker proposals through the region. Urgent action is needed to slow the pace of human-caused global warming that threatens both ecosystems and communities.
South of the Great Bear Rainforest, on Vancouver Island, very little productive old-growth rainforest remains, and less than 10 per cent is protected. Some of the last intact areas such as the Walbran Valley on the southern island and East Creek in the northern island are being logged, despite their importance for connectivity between intact areas in the Great Bear Rainforest, Clayoqout Sound and the Olympic Peninsula for rainforest species like the Marbled Murrelet.
What has been accomplished in the Great Bear Rainforest offers us a compass to guide us toward solving these conflicts: science-based decision-making, aligning with nature’s limits, respecting indigenous rights and collaboration between governments and stakeholders.
From grizzly bears to endangered old growth on Vancouver Island to our overheated atmosphere — this is the approach we should take everywhere and with urgency, to save the life-support system of our planet, the web of life, ourselves and future generations.
Jens Wieting is forest and climate campaigner for Sierra Club B.C.