First Nations

Historic agreement reached for 6.4 million hectares of the Great Bear Rainforest

'Commerical hunt' over but grizzly bears still hunted under new agreement

It has been 20 years in the making and a deal has finally been reached to protect 6.4 million hectares of the largest coastal temperate rainforest on the planet, known worldwide as the Great Bear Rainforest.

Representatives from the province, First Nations, environmentalists, and forest companies announced the deal in Bella Bella last Monday. It will be enshrined in legislation this spring, and promises to completely protect 85 percent of the area’s old-growth forests from industrial logging. The remaining 15 per cent will be logged, but only under the strictest commercial logging standards in Canada.

The level of cooperation in the creation of the deal was unprecedented. First Nations, environmentalists, forestry companies and the B.C. government negotiated for nearly two decades to achieve what is being called a “globally significant landmark.”

“The Great Bear Rainforest is a global treasure, and all British Columbians have a stake in protecting it,” said Premier Christy Clark. “Under this landmark agreement, more old and second-growth forest will be protected, while still ensuring opportunities for economic development and jobs for local First Nations.”

Perhaps the most powerful accomplishment of the agreement was the recognition of aboriginal rights to shared decision making and co-management of the land. The 26 government-to-government agreements that B.C. signed with the resident First Nations spell out how the agreement will be managed. It is the first time negotiations have been completed through a mutually agreed upon framework.

The Great Bear Rainforest overlaps with the territories of more than 20 separate First Nations,  all of whom were involved in negotiations. In Bella Coola, the boundaries of the Great Bear Rainforest encompass the entire Valley and the outer coast. The total area is twice the size of Belgium and stretches from the north of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle.

“There was a day when First Nations did not have a say in the activities that happened in their traditional homelands. Today we signed as First Nations governments bringing the values from our communities and the knowledge from our elders,” said Kitasoo/Xaixais Chief Councillor Douglas Neasloss. “Today is proof that First Nations, the province, environmentalists and stake holders can work together for a sustainable future. In this agreement some key water sheds are now protected, trophy hunting is on the decline, greater economic certainty for local communities, and a better working relationship with the province.”

“It’s a testament to the hard work they have done, and the perseverance they have put into these agreements,” said Richard Brooks, the forest campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Canada. “It’s quite unique… the provincial governments have negotiated and agreed with First Nations governments as governments.”

The deal is not only intended to protect the precious coastal resources: there are clear expectations for lifting remote coastal communities, often with little opportunity for work, out of their economic hardships. First Nations now have a greater share of the timber rights and $15 million from the province, but for them balance is still the key.

Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, said her community was drawn into the conflict early on, but their views were not always part of the debate. “That’s the milestone – the collaboration,” she said in an interview. “As Heiltsuk people, as Coastal Nations, we aligned around common values of protecting the land.” But her people want jobs too. “Our nation clearly and consistently said, there must be balance.”

20 years ago the newly minted “Great Bear Rainforest” soon became the tipping point for products made from one of the last remaining old-growth forests in B.C.

Efforts from Greenpeace, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club persuaded more that 80 companies, including giants like Home Depot, Staples and Ikea, to stop selling products made from old-growth timber.

Continued market pressure eventually brought industry into the fold, and differences were hammered out in 2001’s “Joint Solutions Project,” created from an alliance of forest companies and environmental organizations, which saw logging companies agree to cease their operations in 100 pristine valleys in exchange for a ceasefire on the marketing assault against B.C. forest products.

Fast-forward 10 years and you’ll find then-premier Gordon Campbell announcing the first efforts towards true collaboration in a tentative pact between government, forestry companies, aboriginal leaders and environmental activities. The implementation was take another 10 years of hard work. The logging continued and environmental standards weren’t being met, First Nations communities continued to suffer as their own territories were managed from afar. Criticism abounded and negotiations evolved to another level.

“We always thought this was about stopping logging,” said Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council which represents six of the First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest. “But it morphed into something else, about saving this globally significant area that was unique because of its untouched wilderness, but with the understanding that there are indigenous people who are interwoven into the fabric.”

While much of the fanfare is certainly deserved, the deal has attracted some notable criticism. Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild, an environmental organization based in Bella Bella, says that the agreement also represents a shift in the traditional approach from environmental organizations, suggesting that perhaps this type of compromise isn’t the right direction.

“There is no skirting the issue: This agreement proposes to log 2.5 million cubic metres of old-growth forests every year for the next 10 years,” McAllister said in an interview. “The campaign was to stop ancient-forest logging. Unfortunately this agreement enshrines the idea that ancient-forest logging is part of doing business in the Great Bear Rainforest. That’s been a significant change in the conservation movement.”

And the contentious issue of grizzly bear hunting in the region is far from over. While Premier Christy Clark was quick to announce that the deal “represents an end to commercial trophy hunting of grizzly bears by guide outfitters within the traditional territories of members of the Coastal First Nations”, this doesn’t mean trophy hunting of the animals will stop.

While the Coastal First Nations enacted a ban on trophy hunting in the area in 2012, Clark’s compromise will do little to stop the activity. B.C. resident hunters kill the most grizzly bears per year by far,  and this will continue. However, the province commits that commercial grizzly quotas won’t be transferred to residents as First Nations purchase remaining commercial quotas on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis.

This shifts the onus to the First Nations to come up with the millions of dollars that will most likely be required to purchase the hunting tenures currently owned by the guide operators, and that’s if they are willing to sell.

“Canadian residents can still shoot bears for sport,” said Neasloss.  “We still have work to do but today was a huge step in the right direction.”

Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson said the province continues to believe the grizzly trophy hunt is sustainable and scientifically justified.