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'War of the Woods’ Over a Massive Canadian Rainforest Ends With a Peace Agreement

In the 1990s, only five per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest was protected from logging. Now, after a boycott campaign, it's 85 per cent.

by Jake Bleiberg
Feb 2 2016, 5:31pm

Imagen vía Jens Wieting

For decades, a battle raged amidst the trees of Great Bear Rainforest, with First Nations, environmentalists and the lumber industry clashing over logging and land rights. But on Monday, the government of British Columbia announced that 'the war of the woods' would give way to peace agreement.

The brokered deal will protect most of the world's largest temperate rainforest, banning industrial logging in 85 per cent of the remote wilderness area, which stretches through BC and up to Alaska. Two decades ago, just five per cent of the 6.4 million hectare forest (16 million acres) forest was protected.

The remaining 15 percent, some 550,000 hectares (1.4 million acres), remains open to logging, but will be placed under new, more stringent forestry regulations.

The agreement is being heralds by all parties as a victory for the home of the unique white-furred spirit bear.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons / Maximilian Helm

The the spirit bear, or Kermode, is a cousin of the black bear and unique to the region. Its pale coat, the result of a recessive gene found in just one in ten cubs, inspired the term 'Great Bear Rainforests,' coined by environmentalists in the 1990s. Apart from the bears, the forest is also home to a vast and diverse ecology including wolves, grizzly and salmon. 

"The significance of this agreement cannot be overstated," Jens Wieting, a climate campaigner with Sierra Club BC, told VICE News. "The Great Bear Rainforest is bigger than Switzerland, the Netherlands or Belgium and most of the forests of this type have already been lost."

In addition to prohibiting logging in 3.1 million hectares of forest, the agreement recognizes aboriginal rights to make decisions about and share in the profits from timber. The passage of the deal into law this spring will come with a payment of $15 million from the province to First Nations. It will also puts a stop to trophy hunting of grizzlies on the traditional lands of BC's coastal First Nations — although bear hunting will otherwise continue.

BC Premier Christy Clark called the breakthrough a "landmark agreement" in a statement released Monday.

"The Great Bear Rainforest is a global treasure, and all British Columbians have a stake in protecting it," Clark said.

Related: The Fight To Stop Canada's Annual Grizzly Bear Hunting Season

The negotiations over the deal were uniquely successful, as they included not just industry and environmental groups, but because the BC government dealt directly with the 26 First Nations groups who live in the massive forest — treating the Indigenous nations as autonomous governments.

Dallas Smith, president of Nanwakolas Tribal Council, welcomed the deal and said the long process has forged paths for improving relations between First Nations and the province, which are often strained to the point of hostility by conflict over natural resources.

"We are happy that we have also developed tools like Strategic Engagement Agreements and Reconciliation Protocols to help us continue down a path towards true respect and reconciliation," said Smith in a statement.

Photo via Jens Wieting

The agreement announced Monday was the result of negotiations between environmentalist and industry that began a decade ago, but it was not government mediation that sewed the early seeds of peace. Rather, First Nations and activist groups worked to change the economic forces that drive the forestry industry — essentially, launching a boycott — a tactic now being considered elsewhere in Canada.

In the late 1990s, Greenpeace, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club began lobbying Canadian timber purchasers to stop buying wood cut from the BC rainforest. The groups went as far as bringing representatives from big German and American buyers to see the impact of logging on the forest, and 80 companies were eventually persuaded to get their wood elsewhere. By the year 2000, companies and environmentalists were meeting at the negotiating table to resolve the dispute.

"This has become a story from conflict to collaboration," said Wieting of the Sierra Club. "People around the world learned about this place, came to care about this place, and that created pressure on logging companies and the BC government to find solutions."

But even as BC makes peace, the conflict conflict is rumbling through other Canadian forests.

Related: There's a Fight Brewing Over a Really Important Forest in Canada

In Quebec, the Cree Nation is protesting a new forest management agreement struck with the provincial government. The agreement was originally the result of a lawsuit brought against Quebec by the James Bay Cree, but both band leaders and environmentalists now say the pact does too little to protect parts of the Boreal forest that are home to the province's woodland caribou. And this is merely the latest salvo in a war that dates back to 1971 when large swaths of Cree territory were flooded, razed and clearcut to make way for the development of hydroelectric dams.

Photo via Jens Wieting

Meanwhile the Quebec lumber industry has been threatening to drop out en mass from the Forest Steward Council voluntary certification program — meant to ensure sustainable forestry practices and maintain good relations between industry, activists and indigenous peoples — if the organization implements new, stricter, standards. Industry lobbyists claim the new measures, originally proposed to the FCS by Greenpeace, would close mills, and Quebec's largest timber company, Resolute Forest Products, is suing Greenpeace Canada for defamation.

Alarmed by this threat, last month a number of American environmental groups began lobbying the governments of Quebec and Ontario to act on forest conservation. The activists further suggested that dropping the FSC certification could, as in the Great Bear Rainforest, have economic consequences for the lumber industry.

Wieting is hopeful the the model set on the West Coast can serve as a roadmap to peace in eastern forests as well.

"The first takeaway is that it's really important to connect to dots between conservation and the land rights of indigenous peoples," said Wieting. 

Photo via Sierra Club

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg