Great Bear Rainforest wins partial protection

ChrisSixteen years ago, a small team of biologists and explorers traveled north from Vancouver Island. The weeks turned into months as they quietly sailed from river valley to river valley documenting for the first time the full extent of the Great Bear Rainforest.

It was a life-changing voyage for those on board, sailing through the coastal labyrinth of islands and fiords, surrounded by a seemingly endless and ancient rainforest. The salmon rich river valleys were the most impressive landscape any on board had ever imagined. It was the combination of unparalleled conservation potential and the emotional impact of the land and the communities we visited that forged Raincoast’s commitment to the Great Bear Rainforest.

That early voyage, and many others since, provided the data we needed to design an initial protected areas strategy for the Great Bear Rainforest. Now, sixteen years later, after several Premiers and countless presentations, meetings, protests, books, reports, Ministers of the Environment, and more worn out gumboots than we care to remember, we have some news to share.

On February 7, 2006, the BC government announced protection for part of the Great Bear Rainforest. Magnificent and wild rainforest river valleys like the Koeye, Ahta, Aaltanhash, Kwinimass and Smokehouse will be protected for all generations to come. Each one, easily a candidate for world heritage designation, will be spared the chainsaw and bulldozer forever.

Also, First Nation communities have regained control of more of their ancestral lands and will benefit directly from conservation investments associated with this agreement. Your support of Raincoast and the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR) for all of these years has achieved lasting results with this announcement.

Outstanding questions

While we applaud this package as a positive first step, many outstanding issues remain. Under this agreement species protection remains uncertain, and critically important issues – such as the exact definition of protection – remain unclear.

Given that the current government supports mining and trophy hunting of bears and wolves in these new parks, we clearly have more work to do. While logging remains the primary threat to the GBR, a poorly managed park impacted by trophy hunters and industrial scale tourism (all legal in the GBR agreement) can also contribute to species loss.

And what about connectivity? A study of the map of protected areas tells us that this critically important tenant of conservation planning has been neglected. Ensuring that corridors exist between protected areas for far ranging species like bears and wolves is essential. Another outstanding issue is that wild salmon, the very lifeblood of the GBR, received only partial protection under this agreement

With the recent announcement and ensuing media frenzy, some of our colleagues in the environmental movement were fairly tripping over themselves to issue superlatives about what the deal achieves, but a more sober take on the agreement is overdue.

With that in mind, we would like to dispel some myths. 1) The entire GBR is not one big contiguous park as some media outlets reported. 2) There is currently no such thing as “light touch logging” in the region. 3) The agreement does not protect 1.8 million hectares as many have reported; approximately 600,000 hectares was protected over a decade ago. As it stands, it is premature to declare a conservation “victory” when close to 70 per cent of the GBR has been claimed with “certainty” by logging companies. It is also premature to declare victory when the future of close to 70 per cent of this coastal temperate rainforest will be subject to yet another series of negotiating processes.

Details and Analysis

While the Great Bear Rainforest announcement represents conservation progress, less than 30 per cent protection falls well short of the ecological criteria set out by the scientific advisors to the region’s land use negotiations. Here’s how it breaks down across the landscape on the central and north coast:

  • 9% was previously protected (i.e., areas that were designated as protected a decade or more ago by the previous government);
  • 19% represents the new protected areas in which all resource extraction is prohibited;
  • 5% is designated for “mining and tourism”;
  • 67% of the land base will be left unprotected under what is being termed Ecosystem Based Management (EBM).

For more details visit the announcements for Feb 7th at: http://www.mediaroom.gov.bc.ca/

The Coast Information Team, the assemblage of scientists appointed to inform land use negotiations for the central and north coast, identified 44 per cent protection as the minimum (high risk) requirement for maintaining biodiversity in this globally significant landscape. While some individual First Nations land use plans reached this threshold, these same scientists recommended that even higher levels of protection (as much as 70 per cent) would be necessary to ensure that biodiversity values remain at a low risk in perpetuity.

As far as Ecosystem Based Management (EBM – a prescription for human based activities outside of protected areas) is concerned, its definition is muddled, and how it would be implemented and enforced on the ground is unknown. The EBM standards that we are aware of would allow up to 50 per cent of a given watershed to be logged and require only 15 per cent tree retention in cut blocks. Current EBM standards would only allow for a 1-1/2 tree length buffer for fish habitat. As Raincoast’s Science Advisor Dr. Paul Paquet stated, EBM cannot be considered a substitute for protection – it is a logging plan.

Until more progress is made, we must remember that spectacular river valleys like the Stagoo, Kshwan, Ecstall, Green, Neekas, Kiltuish, Johnston, and Piper – to name only a few – along with many other islands and fiords remain unprotected. Furthermore, trophy hunting of the region’s namesake – the majestic coastal grizzly bear – is still legal under this agreement in most of the protected areas and across the most of the rest of the landscape.

Our Position

Some will say that Raincoast won’t ever be happy until every last tree is protected. This is not true (and in fact more than half of the Great Bear Rainforest has already been logged). The question of old growth logging is where we depart from some of our colleagues, as we don’t believe the logging industry’s track record justifies the kind of certainty they are getting with this agreement, particularly given the decades of ecological destruction and unsustainable practices they have wreaked on the Great Bear’s irreplaceable rainforest. As these transnational companies move around the globe chasing mineral deposits or the last old growth, the best that they can do is measure “community” in a quarterly statement in the scale of a five year “development” plan.

Isn’t it time to stop making accommodations for industries that care so little about the environment or the communities that live in the Great Bear Rainforest?

We will be satisfied when enough area is protected to give all living things in the Great Bear certainty. As it stands right now no one can say that we have yet achieved that milestone.

Support of Raincoast and the Great Bear Rainforest is still needed. It takes time to build lasting conservation on such a large scale. Based on this agreement, lasting conservation won’t be achieved in one giant leap – but in many steps.

By Ian McAllister & Chris Genovali
February 20, 2006

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