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Landmark Great Bear Agreement Is Down to the Wire

Hopes, doubts rise as Premier faces signing deadline. A Tyee Special Report.

By Heather Ramsay 11 Sep 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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There is frustration and urgency in Art Sterritt's voice as he talks on his cell phone while rushing down the highway to catch a boat in Kitimat. As the executive director of Turning Point, a coalition of coast First Nations, he is on his way to meet with log buyers and funders from the United States. They want to know why nothing has changed in the way business is done in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Other business people are asking similar questions. Klaus Peter Petschat is one. He represents a consortium of the German paper industry. After first visiting the Great Bear Rainforest in 1999, he and a group Europeans have come back to see whether protesters are still chained to the forest products coming out of the Great Bear Rainforest.

They, along with other players in this long unfolding coastal card game, hope the government will soon play their hand and sign off on an agreement dictating the future of roughly 8.5 million hectares of ancient cedar, salmon, wolf and bear habitat in British Columbia's globally significant temperate rainforest.

It is a high stakes game. Between the German paper industry, Home Depot and Lowe's, a billion dollars in wood and wood products are purchased from coastal British Columbia, says Merran Smith, director of the BC Coastal Program of ForestEthics, one of the environmental groups involved in negotiating a complicated land use agreement. Also at stake is $200 million in financing for conservation-based economic initiatives on the coast.

A lack of government action could mean the unraveling of ten years of transformation in the way environmentalists, industry and First Nations work at land and resource management in British Columbia, she says.

The environmental sector has worked long and hard with other stakeholders to move away from conflict toward developing a solution for the coast. That's why there are no protesters chained to trees in the woods at the moment. But Smith foresees trouble if the government continues to delay.

"The whole solution will start to erode and this will take people back to marketplace campaigns and conflict," she warns.

Premier holds cards

The cards are in Premier Gordon Campbell's hand, says Smith. In December 2003, a multi-stakeholder consensus agreement was reached at planning tables on the coast. From there, First Nation governments in the area and the provincial government have been behind closed doors hammering out the final details. The deadline for these negotiations was December 2004, then spring 2005 and now the leaves are starting to turn.

Premier Campbell promised coastal First Nations government to government negotiations would be signed off by the end of summer. Those close to the Great Bear Rainforest campaign are generously interpreting this as September 30. A government spokesperson would give no exact definition but said discussions and meetings continue and they are on track to deliver on the Premier's commitment.

"We've been muzzled a bit too long," says Sterritt. He wonders if the premier's office is feeling a false sense of security about its relations with First Nations, since the release of its New Relationship document.

"If the deal fails at this time, if we can't make this work, then denying our communities an opportunity to make an economy on the coast will never be forgotten," he says.

"All hell will break loose," he adds.

What's at stake

One of Sterrit's biggest concerns is the potential for $200 million in pledged conservation financing to fall apart, leaving a myriad of First Nations and coastal community projects, like shellfish aquaculture, tourism, non-timber forest products and sustainable logging to fail.

Smith says the money, raised from private industry, government and foundations, became an important piece of the complicated Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, because communities demanded it.

Environmental groups helped to secure $110 million dollars intended to help First Nations implement the land-use plans in their territories, Smith says. Some of the money will become seed capital for business ventures and some will be set aside to help First Nations go about the physical task of managing and monitoring the streams, forest and ocean. She sees it as one way to help First Nations build capacity and control in their territories.

An additional $80 million in socially responsible investment dollars may be available to larger communities like Prince Rupert for sound business projects.

Sterritt says if the land-use plans are not enacted by November most of the funders will pull out. If that happens, he's not sure what will happen to the rest of the package.

The plan, as negotiated by parties such as logging and mining spokespeople, tourism operators and the general public, at the Land and Resource Management tables will preserve one third of the land base from logging.

The five companies operating on the coast have also committed to significant changes in how logging is carried out in the unprotected areas by turning to full implementation of eco-system based management (EBM) by March 2009.

Forest firms push for action

Bill Bourgeois, spokesperson for the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative, a coalition of Canadian Forest Products, Western Forest Products, International Forest Products, Weyerhaeuser and Norske Canada, says government must act, not only to ensure certainty for the forest companies, but in order for them to fully implement this new way of doing forestry on the ground.

"Work has already begun, but [foresters] need further clarification on how to implement EBM," he says.

The companies have agreed to interim measures and have begun training staff in the EBM principles agreed to by an independent science panel, but Bourgeois says it may take another year before change will be noticed in the woods. They also need to see the new rules enacted into law.

"It's one thing to have it written down on paper and another when you are standing on the edge of a creek deciding which to cut and not cut and why," he says.

Bourgeois who spent the last ten years working with an interior forest company as vice-president of environment and government affairs looks forward to seeing this new approach take hold.

Even over the last six months, he has noticed employees of the CFCI companies starting to embrace the ecosystem based management concepts more whole-heartedly. He thinks innovations will really start rolling when the parties have truly begun working collectively and collaboratively.

How the truce was won

Throughout the 1990s, tension over the rate of clear cutting BC's ancient rainforests was building. Massive arrests of otherwise law-abiding citizens at Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island heightened public awareness of the raging conflict between conservationists and corporate interest.

At the same time, resource communities in rural BC faced high unemployment due to increased mechanization and over cutting in the forest sector.

The government's very own projections confirmed that regional rates of logging far exceeded long-term sustainable levels, and significant declines in the yearly amount harvested, otherwise known as the falldown effect, were inevitable throughout the region.

Into this milieu, protesters opposed to clear cutting and seeking more protected areas were labeled "cappuccino-sucking urban environmentalists" by resource town mayors. First Nations leaders also disdained many enviros, and coastal communities like Bella Coola were torn apart by conflicting interests.

At the height of the tension, Premier Glen Clark fed the flames by labeling environmental activists the "enemies of BC."

Out of this evolved a new approach to activism, says Darcy Riddell, who worked on the Great Bear campaign from 1998 until 2004. Some environmentalists, frustrated by the traditional "valley-by-valley" confrontational style of activism dominating the coastal BC scene made a conscious effort to change their tactics.

Campaigners recognized the need to move away from angry and adversarial positions to being open to the possibilities of negotiation.

A model of the possible

Riddell thinks the agreement is unique partly because it is a consensus reached between such divergent interests. But the process of finding agreement between environmental, economic, social and First Nations interests was not only difficult and painful, it was transformative, she says.

Riddell now works for the Hollyhock Leadership Initiative which provides training and strategic support to people working for environmental and social change. She thinks the Great Bear Rainforest agreement sits on the emerging edge of social change.

"It is a model of the possible. It represents the next steps in resolving land management issues," she says.

She says the methods used are known as the integral approach after philosopher and psychologist Ken Wilber's Integral Theory. The approach seeks input from disciplines such as natural sciences, economics, politics, culture, psychology and spirituality on an individual and the collective levels, including the interior and exterior of each of these.

"[The strategy] comes from a place of understanding power," she says, adding that people had to be ready to take responsibility for their own issues while seeking innovative solutions.

In the beginning of the campaign, someone took the time to figure out the mindset of the adversary, rather than demonize them, she says. This led the activists from groups like the Sierra Club of BC, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network to become involved in what is now called the Rainforest Solutions Project. They then started using a particularly potent tool - the markets campaign.

In 1999, at the height of the conflict over the rainforest, major companies including building suppliers Lowe's and Home Depot cancelled millions of dollars in contracts. They told the BC government they wanted the dispute in the Great Bear Rainforest solved in a way that respected the global significance of this temperate rainforest.

"That was the turning point," says Smith. The markets campaign was essential in bringing all sides to the table.

But according Riddell's theory, the next phase had to be negotiation and mutual understanding.

'Solution builders'

Circumstances swirled around the campaigners to help facilitate the transformation. Riddell remembers the companies on the coast were losing money, and the communities and First Nations were disempowered due to lack of economic opportunity and control of resources.

The integral approach addresses all of these problems and everyone can win, she says. She calls it a more optimistic framework that tends toward solutions.

Riddell knows that some in the environmental movement feel the Rainforest Solutions Project has sold out. But she says there is too much at stake to exclude the people who hold the power from the dialogue.

"Where the most power and control of resources lies is where there is the most opportunity for transformation. We have to engage with corporations and government because they are the ones who make the decisions."

She has noticed more and more new activists tending toward this style of work.

"They see the path towards environmental health and sustainability has to be holistic. Young activists see themselves as community builders and solution builders," says Riddell.

Too much or too little?

But there are those who suggest the compromise approach of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement amounts to nothing more than large environmental groups giving away too much of a globally-significant ecosystem.

According to George Hoberg, professor in the department of forest resource management at the University of British Columbia, the process by which the Great Bear Rainforest agreement was brokered may be groundbreaking, but the details are not.

Although 33 percent protection triples the amount of protected areas in the region, it still falls short of protected areas in similar regions Hoberg writes in a March 2004 paper entitled "The Great Bear Rainforest: Peace in the Woods?"

The Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which occupies 6.9 million hectares in the Alaskan Panhandle (the region just north of the Great Bear Rainforest), is topographically and ecologically very similar to the GBR, he states. A 1999 decision by the United States Forest Service provided for the protection of approximately 80 percent of the Tongass National Forest.

Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Society, also thinks the agreement doesn't go far enough to protect wildlife. He says the Great Bear Agreement doesn't even protect the creatures it is named for.

According to a study commissioned by Raincoast, bear biologists Dr. Brian Horejsi and Dr. Barrie Gilbert show that 80 percent of grizzly bear habitat will remain unprotected in the land-use plan awaiting Premier Campbell's signature. Genovali is also concerned that trophy hunting wasn't addressed in the plan and will be allowed to continue in the region.

Genovali says the Liberal government's rhetoric maintains they will make decisions on the best available science. But not so in the Great Bear Rainforest.

He points to the Coast Information team, a panel set up to provide the best science to negotiators of the deal. They concluded that protecting 44 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest was the minimum amount necessary to create a high risk solution for maintaining biodiversity. The agreement as it stands falls short and will threaten wolf, salmon and bear habitat.

"Millions of dollars were spent by government, industry and non-governmental organizations on a science panel, but their recommendations are being tossed aside," he says, demanding Premier Campbell increase the size of the protected areas.

Others on environmental listserves have cried foul, as well.

Some question how much of the proposed protected areas cover forests and how much is "rock and ice" while others suggest negotiating and acquiescing to corporate interests indicates a much deeper problem in the environmental movement.

"That Rainforest Solutions Project view actually represents the [public relations] perspective of the forest industry rather than the informed analysis of less credulous environmentalists and ecologists.," writes Michael Major, who is not a spokesperson for any environmental group, but he is an active member of BC Envirowatch listserve.

Aiming for balance

The frustration in Sterrit's voice rises up again as he ponders those in the environmental world who are fighting the deal he and others have poured blood, sweat and tears into. He is angry and it shows in his comments.

"There are environs who would love to see us [First Nations] living like in a zoo with no economy but an ancient one, exchanging trinkets," he says.

"Our communities need a little bit more than that."

Bourgeois has heard the complaints too. He knows there are some who think there is too much conserved and others who think it is not enough.

"There will be some on both ends of the spectrum, but we can't manage for those," he says.

In the end he believes balance between human well-being and the environment will be achieved.

"It is an exciting initiative. By March 2009 we will have made a significant contribution to forestry in BC and around the world.

Would he apply the same approach everywhere? No. But if other areas of global significance in the world follow this process of collaboration we will have exported a very valuable product, he says.

"But there will be some agony getting there."

Heather Ramsay is a contributing editor of The Tyee, based in Queen Charlotte City.  [Tyee]

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