Les Leyne: Accord expands Great Bear protection

Les Leyne mugshot genericOne week shy of 10 years after it was first unveiled, the final version of the Great Bear Rainforest management plan was signed Monday.

It’s an overwhelming victory for preservationists that dramatically hikes the amount of wilderness originally protected from logging. It’s one of those hundred-year decisions, where you have to imagine what the consensus view will be a century from now. It’s likely to be overwhelmingly positive.

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Most people appreciate that remote stretch of the coast now more by coffee table books and videos than in real life. But more and more people will eventually get a first-hand taste of the magnificence, and they’ll all be thankful for the outcome of the long, arduous argument revealed on Monday.

When the initial outline of a management plan for the six million hectares was first announced in 2006, much was made of the fact that 1.8 million hectares were to be protected, almost one-third.

After 10 frustrating years of negotiations among First Nations, environmental groups and the provincial government, the final version puts 70 per cent of the land base (85 per cent of the actual forest) in the region off-limits to logging. The increase in the preservation theme was a function of the long negotiations over the years. After initially announcing one-third of the forest would be protected, by 2009 the government adopted a target of protecting 50 per cent of old-growth forest and set a deadline of 2014 to make it law.

The parties are two years late with Monday’s announcement, but the level of protection has increased markedly. The plan will be formalized with legislation expected this spring that will likely be passed unanimously. The NDP said Monday’s news was “tremendous.”

The following plan will be legally enshrined:

• The entire region will be governed by “ecosystem-based management,” which requires the highest level of ecological integrity. As well as the huge swath preserved through planning, eight new special management areas (295,000 hectares) will be off-limits to logging.

• The land-use order also addresses First Nations cultural heritage resources, freshwater ecosystems and wildlife habitat. It bars the “commercial grizzly bear hunt” in First Nations’ traditional territories.

• Commercial logging will be restricted to about 550,000 hectares, and some of the most stringent standards in the world will apply. Western Forest Products, Timberwest, B.C. Timber Sales and Interfor are the main companies operating there, along with some First Nations enterprises.

• The plan includes a number of legal designations for the land. Some of it is park or protected area, some parts are in conservancies and some are in biodiversity, mining and tourism areas, where some development, but not commercial logging, is allowed. Another zone allows for environmentally sensitive hydroelectric generation.

• Much of the negotiation was done on a government-to-government basis with First Nations, who get dealt in on a lot of the management decisions still to come, related to logging and new protection areas. First Nations will get $15 million over five years to inform those decisions, and get a revenue-sharing deal on any carbon-offset credits that arise.

The forest industry calculates that the 550,000 hectares left open to logging will sustain a harvest of about 2.5 million cubic metres of timber a year.

A lot of costs are attached to the decision, none of them outlined to any great degree. B.C. is surrendering some potential carbon credits and paying millions to First Nations in reconciliation costs. The forgone value of timber harvesting is almost incalculable. But those are costs the present generation will incur to the benefit of generations to come.

Despite all the lost opportunity, the industry is still counting the deal as a win. It takes the heat off them from international customers worried about environmental practices. That was the initial pressure point used so successfully by the preservation campaign in the 1990s. And it provides what they view as certainty when it comes to guaranteed access to the tracts left open for harvesting.

Environmental concerns have shifted over the years, and pipelines are getting all the attention now. You have to wonder if the Great Bear process could solve some of the impasses now in play on those fronts.

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