Under the province's new forest-carbon rules, developers must identify where the market will turn to replace the timber supply they intend to remove from the market, and estimate how much carbon will "leak" that way.
Tim Lesiuk, executive director of business development at the Climate Action Secretariat, says the new B.C. rules accounting for leakage err on the side of caution. "FCOP is seen as overly conservative or not producing enough offsets," he concedes, "but [this ensures] it is doing at least as much good for the atmosphere as it says, and probably more."
Private sector to the rescue?
First Nations in the Great Bear aren't the only ones getting into forest-carbon offsets in B.C. In January 2012, the province invited proposals from private interests willing to reforest Crown land damaged by mountain pine beetle and wildfire in exchange for carbon offset revenues from the newly-planted forests.
For the 2012 planting season, the ministry had hoped to target between 500 and 2,000 hectares of Crown land, with plans to increase that to as much as 10,000 hectares annually by 2015. A Pacific Carbon Trust press release says "banks, carbon finance companies, silviculture firms and First Nations can generate significant carbon credits, which they will be able to sell on the open market as the carbon storage value of these replanted areas increases over time."
In April, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) spokesperson Vivian Thomas confirmed that four proposals had been received to date, with one under active negotiation. None of the proposed terms were being made public.
"This program is a creative way of encouraging the replanting of these areas that generates carbon credits for program partners and reduce the burden of taxpayers," Thomas said.
Briony Penn doesn't see it this way at all. If the public subsidizes the planting of trees for future generations, then that money needs to flow back in some way to communities and taxpayers, she argues (see sidebar "Whose Carbon? Whose Cash?").
"These decisions are being made now, and there has been absolutely no public discussion about carbon in British Columbia," Penn says.
In June, just as this story was going to print, ministry spokesperson Thomas told Tyee Solutions that the one deal under negotiation had fallen through. "Given the tight timelines, the proponent wasn't able to get the necessary financing together to meet timelines for this year's planting season," she said of the aborted deal. She added that the ministry will be posting another request for proposals in the late summer for the 2013 planting season.
First Nations not racing to get involved
Despite the lure of new revenue, Gary Wouters remains skeptical that many First Nations outside the Great Bear Rainforest will follow its path in the short term.
The upfront costs of defining and qualifying a project, and ongoing management work, are too onerous for most smaller First Nations, he says. "Unless you come together as a collective group and take advantage of the economies of scale, some small First Nations couldn't afford to do it."
The GBR carbon project was also the result of unique circumstances difficult to replicate: there was acceptance of the "ecosystem-based" forest management system by government, and funding specifically dedicated to developing a lower-carbon forest economy.
For other First Nations to seize the same opportunity, Wouters says the province would need to reopen existing land-use agreements and entertain new protected areas and reduced timber harvests on Crown land.
Importance of Great Bear carbon
None of this diminishes the precedent set in the Great Bear. Carbon being drawn from the atmosphere is being captured in forests on land the Crown and First Nations contest -- then packaged into offsets and sold with the profits shared by both. The parties have agreed to set aside their treaty impasse and manage the land for carbon over the next 100 years.
If nothing else, it has bought some time in which to do more.
"The Great Bear is that first little baby step on carbon," says Briony Penn. She says its success could lead to a day when the cost of carbon emissions are factored routinely into every decision government and citizens make. "Once Great Bear is completely figured out, we will all know exactly how much carbon is released into the atmosphere every time a hectare of coastal rainforest is cut down," predicts Penn.
The win-win of generating revenue from keeping more forests standing is already apparent in Hartley Bay, where five nights a week Cameron Hill's family eats deer, moose or seafood they have harvested together during the year. The forests also provide medicine, and the raw materials supplying a renaissance in Gitga'at wood carving, weaving and blanket making.
More than a revenue stream, the carbon deal means the Gitga'at have a new level of food, resource and even cultural security. Clear-cutting has been replaced by gentler forays into the woods: later this month, Hill will take his class out to harvest cedar bark for Hartley Bay's weavers.
"I can't stress it enough," he says, "we can go and take from a tree and give it thanks, look after it, and it will heal and never be gone."