How to Save a Rainforest

It took decades to hammer out a landmark conservation deal to save Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Now the real work begins.

On a golden early morning on the coast of British Columbia, two young grizzly bears stand on their hind legs and swat each other like the half-annoyed siblings they probably are. After a minute they turn their attention to a crabapple tree. In a blink one is 10 feet up, straining to reach the tiny fruit. Behind them, dense forest rises to thousand-foot stone walls scraped raw by glaciers.

A hundred yards away, a mother and two fat cubs stand on a gravel riverbank, looking for stray salmon. Suddenly all three stand up, alert; an adult male—a potential threat to the cubs—is approaching from upstream. A fifth bear, a younger male, lies in the muddy grass on the far side of the river, peeling the skin from a freshly caught fish.

Being surrounded by grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) is something that typically happens only in fairy tales or certain B-grade horror movies. Here in the Great Bear Rainforest, though, our small group is learning that with careful planning and a little luck, you can fit it in before breakfast. There are nine of us, including scientists with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation (RCF), which owns the Achiever, the 70-foot sloop we arrived aboard yesterday evening, two days after leaving the community of Bella Bella 50 miles to the south. Others in the group are donors, a few photographers, plus two sailors to keep us all afloat.

Since the RCF started buying up commercial bear-hunting licenses for this part of the coast in 2005, the group has been required by law to bring people to the animals a few times a year. But killing them is the last thing on our minds. We’re mostly trying to heed the safety instructions that Brian Falconer, Marine Operations Program Coordinator for the RCF, gave last night, which basically boils down to: Be cool and don’t act like food. Never, ever run away.

The only sound is that of camera shutters clicking. Every so often a bear throws us a sideways glance, but otherwise they ignore us.

This wasn’t always the case. When the RCF purchased and shelved the commercial hunting license—a blanket permit that entitles the holder to hunt bears in an area for 20 years—for this part of the Fjordland Conservancy, grizzlies understandably avoided humans. Since then, four generations of bears have learned to mostly ignore people again. “Nobody could believe how quickly it turned around,” Falconer says. “Within two years of buying the license we went from seeing no [bears] to seeing 18, 19 at a time.”

The Great Bear Rainforest stretches from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border, including thousands of islands and the huge archipelago of Haida Gwaii farther out to sea. The heart of British Columbia’s rugged coast encompasses 25,000 square miles of glacier-carved fjords and icy peaks, surrounded by a full quarter of the world’s remaining coastal temperate rainforest. It’s a place where nature goes to 11: Bald eagles perch in thousand-year-old cedars, wolves prowl timber-choked valleys, and 20 percent of the world’s wild salmon surges upriver every year. First Nations, the region’s indigenous inhabitants, make up most of the population of a handful of remote towns here.

After more than a century of industrial-scale fishing, logging, and mining, the Great Bear celebrated last February when provincial and First Nations governments, together with conservation groups and forestry companies, announced the completion of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements (GBRA).

The agreements are one of the landmark conservation efforts of the 21st century. They add significant new levels of environmental protection, including safeguarding one-third of the region from logging, forever, and give First Nations new rights and responsibilities in managing the territory they have always called home. The sweeping plan took 20 years of negotiation and compromise to hammer out. Even though it’s not perfect by anyone’s definition, its sheer existence is cause for celebration for the conservation community and many local residents.

In another sense, though, the real work has just begun. “The plan is finally in place, whatever limitations it may have,” says RCF’s Chris Genovali. “The challenge now is putting it all into action in the real world.”

First Nations trace their history on the BC coast back at least 10,000 years. When Anglos arrived in the 19th century, they quickly set about harvesting the seemingly endless supply of fish and trees. The booming industries made some newcomers rich, but indigenous groups saw little or no benefit. Their legal claim to traditional territories was often murky, and the provincial government treated them more as wards than as equal decision-makers. The objectives of the provincial government and industries built around natural resource extraction only became more closely aligned as the 20th century progressed.

By the late 1980s, the biggest and most productive valleys had already been severely impacted by logging. (While only about 8 percent of the GBR’s forests have been logged, the majority of old-growth forest in the most productive ecosystems—those with the largest trees—is already gone.) First Nations communities were ravaged by poverty and cultural marginalization, with ripple effects like poor health and low graduation rates.

These communities found themselves almost accidental allies with conservationists, against timber companies and the provincial government, in a large-scale campaign the media dubbed “The War in the Woods.” Protestors chained themselves to trees and stood in front of logging trucks. In 1993, 900 people were arrested for blocking a logging road into Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island—later declared a UN Biosphere Reserve—in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

The ground really started to shift when the billion-dollar market for BC wood products came into the crosshairs. In the late 1990s, rallies, boycotts and ads in The New York Times shamed companies like Staples, Home Depot, and Ikea for buying lumber, pulp, and paper made from BC’s old growth. The threat of losing millions of dollars in contracts finally brought representatives from five timber companies to the bargaining table with three environmental organizations, the BC provincial government, and First Nations representatives at the start of the new century.

Even then it took years to nail down the details. Two attitude shifts were key: the idea that protecting the environment and sustaining local communities and cultures aren’t mutually exclusive, and that First Nations communities should be equal decision-makers in the process.

Dallas Smith, who was involved in the talks from the beginning, recalls that the negotiations started out tense but slowly became more collaborative and efficient, with the help of occasional excursions to local bars. “Eighteen people would agree on something and then number 19 would want to change it,” says Smith, the former president of the Nanwakolas Council, a group of six First Nations communities on northern Vancouver Island and BC’s south-central coast. “We spent years thesaurusing and wordsmithing to make things agreeable to everyone.”

In a savvy public-relations move in the mid-1990s, environmentalists started calling the area the Great Bear Rainforest, after the rare white-furred black bears (Ursus americanus kermodeii) found nowhere else. It was a clear improvement over the government’s original label for the region: Midcoast Timber Supply Area.

Even when the agreements were initially announced in 2006, though, it took another decade to decide how they would actually be put into action. This past February, BC Premier Christy Clark held a press conference in Vancouver to announce the legal framework for the deal—the rulebook, essentially, for fulfilling the agreements’ promise.

What’s truly groundbreaking about the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements is how much of the landscape is protected, and to what degree. Under the agreements, 85 percent of the region’s forests will be managed for conservation and off-limits to logging. That’s more than 12,000 square miles, an area about the size of Maryland, or more than 3 percent of BC’s total land area. Protection comes in various forms, including “conservancies”—a new land designation that is planned and managed with input from First Nations. All told, roughly a third of BC’s central and north coasts—not just forests, but estuaries, wetlands, salmon streams and other ecologically critical habitats—now has some kind of formal protection.

Logging is still allowed in the rest, but only under what is being called the most stringent commercial standards in North America. Less than a tenth of a percent of the total forested area can be harvested annually, with the forests’ long-term health prioritized over lumber productivity. The agreements broke new ground by mandating minimum levels of old-growth protection across all forest types, says Ken Wu of the Ancient Forest Alliance, which works to conserve BC’s old growth. When the negotiations began, only 7 percent of naturally occurring old growth had some kind of protection; now it’s close to 70 percent. “Having this high a percentage of protection, on as large a scale as this, blows away anything I know about in the Western world,” Wu says.

It’s a little surprising, then, to hear that timber companies don’t consider the deal a defeat. In fact it’s a step forward, says Karen Brandt of Interfor, one of the five companies involved in the negotiations. The BC coast is an incredibly complicated place to cut trees, requiring a significant investment of time and money. Any amount of uncertainty, including unclear First Nations land rights, is bad for business. “Before the agreements, you didn’t typically have a defined area available for harvesting, or it was clear legally, but there were concerns about whether you had ‘social license’”—in other words, public support. “Now we know the area we can harvest in.” Even though less timber is available to cut, it’s worth it over the long term to have clearly defined boundaries and harvest levels.

Brandt compares the lengthy negotiating process to a marriage. “There are going to be things that come up that you don’t expect. But because you’ve built this relationship you say, okay, let’s sit down and talk about it and work through it.”

Protections under the 2016 Great Bear
Rainforest Agreements

     Fully Protected Areas

% of forest off limits to logging
     70% – 100%
     50% – 70%
     30% – 50%

Adapted from Albert and Schoen, Conservation Biology 2013

At sunset we drop anchor at Klemtu, a town of about 400 people. A scattering of prefab houses are sandwiched between steep forested hills and the deep-blue water. There’s a floating dock crowded with powerboats, and a wooden structure the size of a small apartment building sits on a peninsula nearby, painted with First Nations motifs. Most residents are members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, one of 28 First Nations that claim territory in the Great Bear. Only accessible by boat or plane, Klemtu is an example of the challenges facing the region’s scattered coastal communities, along with potential solutions the agreements were designed to encourage.

The hum of an outboard motor signals the arrival of Doug Neasloss, Chief Councilor of the Kitasoo/Xia’xias Nation. Neasloss is 34, with a shaved head and two silver hoops in one ear. He talks with a mix of intensity and humor about how life has already started to change in Klemtu. “The new protected areas helped this community turn 180 degrees,” he says—in large part through ecotourism. “We went from almost 90 percent unemployment to almost 90 percent employed.”

About 50 people work in six salmon farms set up in partnership with Marine Harvest Canada, BC’s largest aquaculture company. But the greatest number of jobs are in the seasonal tourism industry, guiding visitors who want to see bears and catch salmon. The most comfortable place to stay for hundreds of miles is the community-run Spirit Bear Lodge, that painted wooden building, where Neasloss has just finished giving a presentation. Designed to resemble traditional First Nations long houses, the ecolodge has become one of the most successful operations of its kind on this part of the coast.

The lodge is one of hundreds of projects whose initial funding came from a conservation-financing program set up under the 2006 accords—a way to develop and diversify the coastal economy, something that had never been tried on this scale in Canada. Half of the $120 million pot came from the Canadian and BC governments, earmarked for investment in sustainable businesses like this. The other $60 million, raised from private sources with help from The Nature Conservancy, was put into an endowment, with part of the interest going toward creating hundreds of permanent jobs in fields like conservation management, scientific research, ecotourism, and aquaculture. One example is the network of local Coastal Guardian Watchmen who monitor and protect salmon streams and other coastal ecosystems.

“There has been a huge shift in how First Nations are thinking on the coast,” Neasloss says. Communities that were divided and operating independently from one another 15 years ago have started to collaborate. Businesses like the lodge are providing new jobs, and youth-focused community initiatives are training a new generation of land stewards through education, mentoring, and hands-on experience in the outdoors.

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements’ special emphasis on the wellbeing of coastal peoples is one of its biggest innovations, says Nicole Rycroft of the forest conservation group Canopy. “If you actually want to have durable conservation solutions, you can’t ignore that there are communities that are going to live off this land as they have for the last 10,000 years, and they need economic options.” For First Nations communities to be in a power-sharing relationship with the provincial government, with a real voice in making decisions over their land, “that’s kind of a revolution in itself.”

The agreements solidified First Nations land rights and title, a contentious issue since European settlers first arrived. Groups whose territory contained new conservancies were encouraged to help develop management plans that drew on community input and traditional knowledge. So far First Nations have done this for 18 protected areas, including Fjordland, which is co-managed by the Kitasoo and Parks Canada. The new responsibility sometimes involves making tough choices, like foregoing logging revenue in favor of ecotourism, as the Kitasoo did when setting up the Sprit Bear Lodge. “The elders are always telling us, if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you,” Neasloss says. “What we have is not ours, it’s for the next generation. That’s always the model we use.”

The process is still far from perfect. New management responsibilities demand resources that local communities often simply don’t have. The $120 million in conservation financing is “a good start in the right direction, but it’s not enough to really mobilize,” Smith says. (One analysis in 2003 put the necessary amount closer to $500 million.) Half of it is tied up in an endowment, and the other half, designated for economic development, has already mostly been spent, he says.

The idea of protected areas co-managed by First Nations is so new that there’s no existing model to follow, Neasloss says. Government agencies like Fisheries and Oceans Canada and BC Parks have traditionally put few resources toward monitoring or enforcement along the coast, and budget cuts in the past decade have made the situation even worse. “Our watchmen patrol every day, six months of the year,” Neasloss says. “BC Parks comes two or three days the entire year, and that’s on a good year. If we don’t do this, no one does it. We have to find a better system.”

As complicated as it will be to manage this region under the new agreements, the fact that two-thirds of it still falls outside of formal protected areas only makes the situation more complex. This larger portion of land will be administered under what’s called ecosystem-based management (EBM), a relatively new approach that aims to maximize both ecological sustainability and human wellbeing. It permits sustainable resource use, including logging, and tries to preserve areas or even specific trees that have cultural significance for First Nations communities.

EBM is designed to work by first generating agreement on what needs protecting—wildlife habitat, old growth, cultural sites—and then letting decisions about logging and other resource extraction proceed from there. Preserving old-growth forest is a priority; over the entire region, 50 percent of the natural level of old growth forest of each ecosystem type will be maintained, or restored where forests have already been logged. This translates into an additional 700,000 hectares of forest set aside from logging.

The result, in theory, is to limit environmental impact while preserving some social and economic benefits. But EBM is an ambitious and unproven forest management practice, says Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild, who views it with a skepticism shared by others in the conservation community. “There is no other region where this type of model has been done successfully on this scale and scope,” he says. According to the RCF, the U.S. Forest Service tried EBM years ago but abandoned it in 2004 because it was too poorly defined and didn’t accomplish its stated goals.

“EBM has such a complex suite of objectives that rigorous monitoring and evaluation are incredibly important, but the resources on the ground just aren’t there,” McAllister says. It shouldn’t be considered a surrogate for protected areas, he adds, since it still allows activities like road building and rotational forestry, where cuts are staggered over time and space. He says, “It’s more ‘faith-based forestry’”—trusting that a vague practice will work on a huge new scale. “The impact will be measured down the road, but the damage will already have been done.”

McAllister acknowledges, however, that the situation in the Great Bear is “light years” ahead of where it was 25 years ago. “The relationships that have been built between parties that once were at odds with each other, and the amount of spectacular wilderness areas that are now protected is truly an important achievement that should be celebrated. But declaring ‘victory in the rainforest’ on an untested forestry model is irresponsible.”

The other looming question about EBM, beyond whether it can work, is who will take the reins. “No one is implementing it,” Neasloss says. “You ask the province how they are, and they’re not. The onus has fallen on us, and that’s absolutely crazy.”

At the very least, Smith the negotiator says, a new system is in place for productive discussions, and First Nations communities will now always be a part of those conversations. “You can coulda-woulda-shoulda things to death. I’m sure we’ll have some arguments, but we’ve built a process to have those arguments without having another war in the woods.”

Beyond the Great Bear, the agreements could serve as an example in any place where indigenous groups, government, environmentalists, and large companies are colliding. And there are many, starting with most of northern Canada. First Nations groups in other parts of BC are already using some of the policy tools that were negotiated under the GBRA, and Smith has consulted with indigenous groups from the Himalayas to the South Pacific.

Closer to home, conservationists are looking to extend the GBR campaign south to Vancouver Island and the southern BC coast, where the impact from logging has been much greater. “It’s harder down here, with a lot more industry and people,” Wu says. “But we’re following it very closely and adopting a lot of the key elements of the approach. There are huge lessons to learn.”

Three days into our boat trip, we enter Carter Bay, part of a 1.8-square-mile conservancy on the mainland north of Pooley Island. The bay was named after John Carter, an unfortunate member of Captain Vancouver’s 18th century expedition who died after eating bad mussels; Mussel Bay and Poison Cove are other landmarks nearby. We putter slowly in a zodiac up a shallow copper-colored river, counting kingfishers and bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The main stop is a giant waterfall that kicks up enough mist to create its own rainbow in the sunlight.

On our way back to the boat we steer the zodiac to shore again and clamber out onto the muddy bank. Like most places in the Great Bear, the dense forest comes so close to the water that branches trail in the current. We follow a path of shallow indentations in the ground that enters the trees and ends a few yards later at a large red spruce. Its shaggy bark is worn smooth on one side up to a point higher than my head. Both the trail and the spruce are signs of bear activity: bears stomp a trail in the ground to leave their scent markings, then rub their bodies against the bark for the same reason. It’s the opposite of hiding, and it’s evidence of how comfortable they feel around here.

That’s not the case everywhere in the Great Bear. One of the most contentious topics left unsettled by the agreements is trophy hunting, especially—and ironically—of grizzly bears. On one side is a small but vocal lobby group, which Falconer likens to the NRA in the U.S., that wants it to continue. On the other are First Nations groups and some 91 percent of British Columbians, according to some surveys. The trophy hunting opponents point out how important bears are to coastal native culture, how grizzlies are the second slowest reproducing land mammals in North America (after musk ox), and how bear-viewing operations bring in up to 12 times as much money from visitors as hunting does.

Tired of waiting for the provincial government to take action, Coastal First Nations declared their own ban on bear hunting in the GBR in 2013. Signs posted at regional airports and on shore near popular bear-viewing areas declare trophy hunting prohibited. First Nations governments have also partnered with RCF to raise money to buy up the 20-year commercial hunting licenses. Since 2005, they have raised $2 million to buy three out of the seven licenses in the GBR, like the one that covers Fjordlands, covering a total area of 11,500 square miles. “We now have the biggest guide territory on the coast by a long stretch,” Falconer says. “It’s the only thing in the last 20 years that has made any impact on the hunt.” The license requirements are one reason we’re here aboard the Achiever, pointing telephoto lenses instead of rifles.

Putting critical habitat hotspots like the estuary in Fjordlands off-limits to hunting would have a large impact in relation to their size, Falconer says. “Relative to the whole province, it doesn’t seem like much to ask for.”

The next afternoon, a pod of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) appears off Achiever’s starboard rail. At this time of year it’s a rare day that passes without a humpback sighting. It’s still always exciting to see an animal the size of a Greyhound bus appear out of nowhere. They roll slowly past the boat, six in all, exhaling clouds of fish-scented mist. Then one by one they show their tails and dive.

Thirty seconds later a line of bubbles appears on the surface. It lengthens and starts to curve, as if someone is drawing a circle from below. That’s more or less what is happening: Down in the darkness, the whales have found a school of small fish or tiny crustaceans called krill. One or more whales have started blowing bubbles and swimming around the prey in a shrinking circle. Others are coming up from below to drive the food into the “bubble net” and toward the surface.

Just as the circle is finished, the center erupts into six gaping mouths lined with pink sheets of baleen. Each whale gulps a pool-sized mouthful and disappears.

The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the few places in the world where humpbacks engage in this kind of cooperative hunting. They’re among the more than 20 species of marine mammals that live in these cold waters, along with five species of Pacific salmon that return to thousands of streams to spawn every year. Earth and ocean are intimately connected here, yet the marine ecosystem just off B.C.’s 16,000-mile coastline is one of the least protected in the developed world, McAllister says. While the agreements were always meant to focus on land, “it’s short sighted to describe the Great Bear as ‘protected’ until a system of marine protected areas are established,” he says.

Any marine management plan will have to take into account what many consider one of the greatest threats facing the Great Bear Rainforest: the risks of shipping traffic from various schemes to convey Alberta’s oil and natural gas through BC to Asia and the rest of the world. These megaprojects would bring jobs to the coast, but also pipelines, processing facilities, and massive vessels. With its fractal coastline, narrow passages, and tempestuous weather, BC’s coast is a tough place to navigate in a small boat, let alone a tanker loaded with crude or liquefied natural gas (LNG). Even though it was 27 years ago and 500 miles away, nobody here has forgotten the Exxon Valdez.

Conservationists and First Nations communities have opposed the dozen or more proposed projects, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to ban tanker traffic outright in the GBR while he was campaigning. But the BC government seems convinced that the benefits of such a project would outweigh the risks, says Jens Wieting of the Sierra Club, even though it would make meeting the Paris Agreement emission goals—another Trudeau promise—more difficult, if not impossible. “It’s really astonishing how long it’s taking them to wake up and realize it doesn’t make sense from a climate or economic perspective,” Wieting says.

On our last day on the water, an overcast sky hangs low as Achiever returns to Bella Bella. After ten days of off-grid silence, phones come alive, overflowing with emails and news—including, just today, the federal government’s conditional approval of a controversial plan to ship LNG through Prince Rupert, the GBR’s only urban center.

The Pacific NorthWest project, backed by the Malaysian energy giant Petronas, would involve building a province-spanning pipeline and an $11.4 billion processing facility near Prince Rupert. The local Lax Kw’alaams First Nations community voted unanimously to reject the project, which could threaten the nearby Skeena River, Canada’s second-largest salmon producer. (For more on this, read our September 20 story “The Nursery” by David Wolman.)

The announcement makes an oddly fitting bookend to the trip; not long after we first started out, a court ruling effectively killed the $8 billion Northern Gateway Pipeline to carry natural gas and bitumen 730 miles from Alberta to northern BC. The Pacific NorthWest LNG project isn’t a done deal yet, but the timing of the approval sends a not-so-subtle message: For the past week, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been touring the region to dedicate the GBR as part of a forest conservation initiative.

And the proposals keep coming. Up next is a decision on a $6.8 billion expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil pipeline to Burnaby, BC, which the federal government is expected to rule on by the end of the year.

Two weeks after we all fly home, a tugboat towing an empty tanker barge hits a reef and sinks near Bella Bella. The tug’s 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel immediately start leaking into the water. The accident happens three weeks before harvest time at a nearby manila clam fishery that supports 50 local families. It’s a sobering reminder of the environmental risks of shipping traffic and, more broadly, of the many struggles and threats that this spectacular region faces, despite its newly protected status.

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements promised that the future of the Great Bear will be more conservation-minded and collaborative than anyone could have imagined 20 years ago. But they are still only an ambitious guide for what needs to happen going forward, one that must be constantly scrutinized, tested, and improved. As Chris Genovali of RCF says, “Everyone has their work cut out for them.”

Julian Smith

Julian Smith’s writing and photography have appeared in Smithsonian, Wired, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Traveler and the Washington Post, among many others. He is the author of Crossing the Heart of Africa, about retracing the route of a love-struck British explorer across the continent, and co-author of Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters. Smith’s science background includes degrees in biology and ecology (the latter studying grizzly bears on the coast of BC), as well as launching and editing the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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