For almost two decades, environmentalist and First Nations have gone through conflicts after conflicts with the government in order to protect the Great Bear Rainforest. The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, spanning 21 million acres. It’s home to many ancient cedar trees, grizzly bears, cougar, salmon, wolves, and the rare white kermode, or more commonly known as the ‘spirit’ bear. In February 2016, an agreement was reached to protect 85% of the rainforest from industrial logging. But what lead to this agreement and why is the rainforest so important?
For centuries, First Nations have lived on the lands of the Great Bear Rainforest. Today, the region still remains home to First Nations people whose histories, identities and spirituality are linked to the lands and waters of the rainforest. They continue to protect and assert their rights and title throughout the Great Bear Rainforest. After all, it is unceded territory of the Coastal First Nations.
During the mid-1990s, the rainforest was highly threatened by industrial logging and mining. Habitat for bears, eagles, and salmon was being destroyed in the unceded traditional territories of many First Nations, as their leadership and governments had no say over decisions impacting their communities and their territories. Environmentalist and First Nations combined forces and did everything they could to stop the logging operations. The environmental protests had reached their fullest as activists tried to block timber operations in remote logging camps, board ships carrying Canadian pulp overseas, hang from banners draped over corporate headquarters, and bought ad space in publications, such as The New York Times. By 1999, logging companies and environmental activists had agreed to a ceasefire in the Great Bear Rainforest, which meant no more international markets campaigns in exchange for a logging standstill in 100 of the intact rainforest valleys.
Despite the anti-logging protests of environmental activists, it was never as simple as ‘pack up and leave’ for timber companies in the Great Bear Rainforest. Loggers have been in the region for more than 100 years. By the 1990s, most of the timber harvesting rights in the Great Bear Rainforest were held by three major logging companies: International Forest Products, MacMillan Bloedel and Western Forest Products. TimberWest (logging company) had a license to log in the southernmost 2% of the Great Bear Rainforest, located on and around northern Vancouver Island. In 2000, when the CFCI (Coast Forest Conservation Initiative) partnered up with three environmental groups to design land use solutions for the Great Bear Rainforest, TimberWest stayed out of the mix.
After many hard years of negotiation, landmark conservation announcements were secured in 2006 and 2009. Stakeholders rejoiced in a new plan of ecosystem-based management that would not only preserve 70% of the rainforest natural variation, but strengthen and enhance the livelihoods of First Nations communities as well. On February 1, 2016, Premier Christy Clark announced an agreement that had been reached between the province of British Columbia, First Nations, environmentalists and the forestry industry to protect 85% of the 6.4 million hectare Great Bear Rainforest from industrial logging. Reaching the goal to protect the rainforest. Today, only 15% of the Great Bear Rainforest remains open to commercial logging, but the timber industry now has assurances that as long as they abide by the rules, no one will come after them with torches and pitchforks.
When First Nations, government officials and stakeholders celebrated victory on the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement this week, they celebrated not only the protection of an enormous amount of old-growth forest in one of North America’s greatest natural treasures, but also the resolution of conflict between parties that 20 years ago, that refused to look each other in the eye.