This posting reproduces an Op Ed published March 1st in the Vancouver Sun by Eduardo Sousa, Valerie Langer and Jens Wieting
Six years ago an amazing thing happened. Environmental organizations and the forestry industry, former foes in the fight over the future of the Great Bear Rainforest, stood alongside First Nations and the provincial government in front of the cameras of the world and made a promise. They said, “We are going to work together to protect one of the last forests of its kind and improve the well-being of communities within it.”
That promise was globally noteworthy for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Great Bear Rainforest, home of the rare Spirit Bear, encompasses one of the largest areas of intact coastal temperate rainforest left on the planet. With its verdant river valleys and old-growth cedars, this rainforest isn’t just beautiful; it provides a home to endangered animals, resources that fuel our economy and tools for fighting climate change.
The fact that the February 2006 commitment was a shared effort between differing and at times conflicting interests is also an important part of the story. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements were a precedent-setting collaboration between several environmental organizations, five major forestry companies, the province of B.C. and more than 20 First Nations to model solutions for a place larger than Switzerland. Equally significant is that these First Nations are now involved in resource decision-making over their traditional lands through a government-to-government process.
Overall, the agreements amounted to an ambitious and much-celebrated plan that’s yielded some notable success. Sustainable economic development is starting to take root in communities within the Great Bear Rainforest, which is now better protected from logging than it was before. But these efforts have also been beset by delays that call into question whether the full vision of the agreements will be realized in time to safeguard the forest as we know it.
Scientists who developed the Handbook for Ecosystem-Based Management– the management regime that seeks to achieve healthy ecosystems and healthy human communities in the Great Bear Rainforest–are clear that we need to conserve 70 per cent of the natural levels of old-growth forest in order to keep the whole ecosystem functioning properly. Currently, only 50 per cent of the forest is off-limits to logging. And while that’s an achievement, it’s still insufficient. Too much habitat is being logged to maintain the health of the forest and the species that depend on it. In other words, protecting half of the Great Bear Rainforest is not enough to live up to the vision that was promised to the world in 2006.
There have also been advancements for human well-being in First Nations communities, particularly through the $120-million Coast Opportunities Fund. But while local businesses and resource management departments are starting to take root, reform of forestry tenures and tourism licensing and region-wide capacity building initiatives are incomplete. As on the conservation side, the province has yet to create the conditions that will allow coastal communities and the forestry sector to thrive without undermining the environment.
The good news is that full success is close and achievable. In collaboration with environmental organizations, logging companies are seriously examining how to adapt their businesses to operate within the bounds set out by science. Within the year, it’s possible for First Nations and the province to complete agreements on economic initiatives that can further empower these communities while also conserving a healthy forest.
The final ingredient needed is the will to do all of this by March 2013. With the provincial election cycle already looming over decision-makers in Victoria, British Columbians deserve to know that the fate of the Great Bear Rainforest won’t be punted to another administration. The message from ForestEthics, Greenpeace and Sierra Club BC to elected officials is that the opportunity to finish the job we started in 2006 is now. Otherwise, it could be never.
The provincial government has already told British Columbians, and indeed the entire world, that it wants to do what’s right for the Great Bear Rainforest and the people who depend on it. Now it’s time for them to deliver on their promise to build strong communities and regional economies that function within the carrying capacity of a healthy forest.
Eduardo Sousa is a senior forests campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, Valerie Langer is a senior campaigner at ForestEthics, and Jens Wieting is a coastal forest campaigner at Sierra Club BC. All three are based in Vancouver, B.C.