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February 08, 2006

Canada's Great Bear Park? Not Exactly.

The world is celebrating an announcement in Vancouver on Tuesday that the government of British Columbia finally signed on to a new vision for a region of the province nicknamed the Great Bear Rainforest--a vast, nearly roadless forest of cedar and hemlock stretching along the coast from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

A Google News search that night turned up 137 stories published around the world about the announcement, including a front-page piece in the Washington Post (Huge Canadian Park Is Born of Compromise), and an AP story (Canada Unveils Park to Protect Grizzlies), which was reprinted nearly everywhere from Seattle to Fort Worth.

This new phase of land-use planning is about a lot more than a big park for bears. The media who reported it as such should be corrected.

The agreement announced by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell -- and built by First Nations who live in this area­­, environmentalists and logging company representatives,--is being called "A New Vision for Coastal B.C." That's not just P.R.--it really is a vision, a new way of thinking about and creating conservation that was a decade in the making.

In fact, contrary to some of the more romantic news reports, environmentalists and native leaders working on the Great Bear haven’t seen a U-Lock, or even a bullhorn, in at least half a decade. Instead, they’ve logged thousands of hours under fluorescent lights in stale meetings rooms at airport hotels and YMCAs, far from the tall trees and leaping salmon. They got to know people they didn't necessary like at first--mid-level bureaucrats, loggers, big-box retail executives. In doing so, everyone involved changed their thinking about the forest, their communities and the coastal economy.

Listen to CBC News for some good interviews with key negotiators (see the bottom of this page), or reporter Clifford Krauss' audio commentary on the New York Times' web site for a clearer picture of what happened.

At the core of the new accord is a vision of sustainability that fosters stong communities and healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in this unique place. This is not a traditional park.

The entire region will be "zoned" into three tiers of special management areas. More than a third of the region—the "Protected Areas" and "Biodiversity Areas"--will see no commercial logging. However, mining is allowed in the Biodiversity Areas. Tourism is OK too.

The final two-thirds of the region will be open to logging under another plan, called ecosystem-based management, which is still being hammered out by the stakeholders for implementation in 2009. (It's not over.)

What's more, some 25 First Nations living in this region, in communities like Hartley Bay, Klemtu and Bella Bella, will share management authority with the province. They'll have access to the Protected Areas for traditional and cultural use--that's not the case with parkland. They can fish, harvest cedar for carving totems or other cultural activities, and worship at their sacred sites, for instance. It's a way of thinking about people and place with a long-term vision for sustaining both.

Not everyone is pleased with the new Great Bear Agreement. Many B.C. environmentalists have criticized the environmental groups who negotiated the deal for remaining involved in the negotiations after the planning tables rejected the recommendations of a blue-ribbon team of conservation biologists. These scientists, who conducted their studies as part of the planning process, concluded that upwards of 70% of the region should remain free from industrial development to maintain healthy populations of large carnivores like grizzlies and coastal wolf packs. The end result was much less, and some say sufficient wildlife corridors are lacking.

Of course, what logging will look like under the esoteric term "ecosystem-based management" remains to be seen.

The key to the deal still rests on a gamble. The environmentalists' winning strategy was a huge $120 million "conservation financing" campaign. In less than five years, they managed to raise $30 million, with the assistance of private foundations, to fund budding entrepreneurs in native communities that agree to embrace sustainability- micro-businesses like eco-tourism, certified forest products and shellfish aquaculture. They double-dared both the province and the feds to match that number. The B.C. Liberals agreed to do so yesterday.

The newest complication is the recent federal election. Canada now has a Conservative prime minister from the oil fields of Alberta--not exactly a man envisioning sustainability. The immediate step forward is brokering a commitment from Ottawa.

Well, most British Columbians would never believe that a premier of this province would ever thank Greenpeace--known widely as the "Enemies of B.C." in the 1990s. He did this week. Perhaps Stephen Harper is next.

(Full disclosure:  Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck worked on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign from 2001-2003. She's now Tidepool's editor.)

Posted by Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Permalink


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An overarching issue is whether land that people live on can be used. Some environmental groups say "no", hence the sour grapes and criticism, as Kristin points out.

Politics and people are part of the woods, too, and until we work out the difficulties in this issue, we are going to have what some consider to be watered-down compromises.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Feb 8, 2006 6:08:11 PM

As an ecologist who has done research and written reports on the land needed to conserve bears and salmon in the Central and North coast I am astonished at the naive enthusiasm of folks.
We need to know exactly which areas are to be protected since rock and ice makes up a lot of the coast. It is riparian areas where the big trees and bioversity occurs that is in need but of course also what the logging companies want.
w should also wait to see what the land status designation will be to se what level of legal protection is provided. If government can give and also take away then we've protected little of lasting value.
My advice: think principles of conservation biology and be skeptical of EBM until youu see it defined in operation

Barrie Gilbert, Canadian, biologist, retired faculty.
Utah USA

Posted by: Barrie Gilbert | Feb 9, 2006 11:54:03 AM

Thanks for this, Barrie. These are excellent points, and ones that deserve our attention as the new Great Bear Agreement is publicized.

I looked high and low within the BC government web site for a comprehensive map of the final land-use designations, or just a list of the final status of the 88 watersheds under logging moratoria and included in the 2001 Great Bear Agreement, which initiated this five-year planning process. No luck.

Something the media has overlooked in its coverage is the fact that mining will be allowed in the Biodiversity Areas, and across the Pacific Northwest mining is a hot industry right now, especially in BC and Alaska. That means major development.

Additionally, the federal government is considering lifting the moratoria on offshore oil and gas drilling on the BC coast.

Ecosystem-based management, even if it is employed with the most strict adherence to principles of conservation biology, won't stop these two other industrial threats to this unique ecosystem.

I'm appoaching the new agreement with cautious optimism. Let's see what's on paper first--once Gordon Campbell and all the stakeholders sign on the dotted line.

Posted by: Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Feb 12, 2006 2:46:42 PM

What I as as a (none-Indian)see here is just another land grab, and another tax payer rip off. I can see the writing on the wall, no access for anybody who is not Indian for the purpose of fishing and hunting unless we are ready to put out money to these free loaders. To see our government bowing to this racist pressure is a sign off the times it seems, as a working tax payer I resent the implications that are surficing here as to who will have access and rights to fish and hunt as the charter of rights says we have as citizens of this country. You can be assured that logging, mining and off shore oil drilling will go ahead, just as soon as these priveledged people figure out how to get their share of the money made by our efforts and their gread. I as one will never bow to these ideas that I cannot hunt and fish as they do just because of their so called ancestery. It will be interesting to see how these people get around the laws to carry on with the foriegn grizzly hunts for money as well as the foriegn fishing. Another " Right"!! Racism ,descrimination and it looks like Apartheid is alive and well in Canada, especialy B.C.

In total disgust but without prejudice, can they say the same!!

Posted by: Ken Collins | Apr 10, 2006 2:55:35 PM