Finishing the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements akin to climbing Mount Everest

This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight. Read the original story

Finishing the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements feels like climbing Mount Everest: the air is getting thinner, the peak is in sight. With just one last push, we will reach it.

The Great Bear Rainforest is known around the world not only for its spectacular natural beauty, and as the home of many First Nations, but also for the inspiring story of moving from conflict to collaboration and solutions for conservation and community well-being. The latter are the goals of the 2006 Great Bear Rainforest Agreements endorsed by the B.C. government, First Nations, a group of forestry companies, and a coalition of Sierra Club B.C., Greenpeace, and ForestEthics Solutions.

Though the deadline for implementing the agreements passed one year ago on March 31, 2014, we are finally approaching the summit. New logging rules, community well-being agreements between the province and First Nations, a new forest management framework, and proposals for a number of new protected areas are all close to being final. That being said, the final stretch is still a difficult climb and the sun will be setting soon.

March 31, 2009, marked our arrival at “base camp”, when half of the region’s rainforest was set aside through a combination of new protected areas and stricter logging regulation; $120 million funding was made available for First Nations communities to support a conservation economy; and a new government-to-government relationship between the province and First Nations got established. All parties agreed to the route for the next five years to meet the goals of ecological integrity and human well-being by March 31, 2014.

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements are guided by the Ecosystem-Based Management Handbook, a set of expert recommendations for the region on how to achieve both low ecological risk for the rainforest, and ensure a high quality of life in coastal communities without undermining the environment. One of the key recommendations on the conservation side was to set aside 70 percent of the natural level of old-growth forests, across all types of ecosystems. The 2009 measures fell 20 percent short of that.

In early 2014, after three years of technical work, negotiations, and planning, the environmental organizations and a group of forest companies which together form the Joint Solutions Project (JSP) delivered a set of recommendations outlining increased conservation to close this gap, and the future scope of logging. The proposal would see hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest set aside to achieve the goal of low ecological risk and result in a harvest level that can still maintain commercial forestry.

Over the course of 2014, the province and the region’s First Nations have been in the process of reviewing the proposal, while simultaneously identifying additional measures to support communities with new training, jobs, and revenue opportunities. The B.C. government has stated that it wants new logging regulations out for 60 days of public comment in the first half of April.

Negotiations and planning over land use for a region larger than Switzerland take time. But final implementation in June of this year is critically important because the world is watching the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements and has been waiting for the final outcome for many years now.

Internationally, environmental organizations, customers of wood products, and other stakeholders interested in conservation and sustainable forest management are waiting for final implementation of the model. Timely implementation will be essential for many observers in assessing whether the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements can stand the test of a world-class conservation model that others can learn from.

There are challenges to be overcome. One of them is TimberWest, a major logging company operating in the very southernmost portion of the Great Bear Rainforest with very little remaining old-growth. TimberWest is not a member of the Joint Solutions Project (JSP member companies are B.C. Timber Sales, Catalyst Paper Corporation, Howe Sound Pulp & Paper, Interfor, and Western Forest Products are members) and has a history of opposing increases in conservation and pursuing profit above all else. The company has promised to improve their logging practices but there is still a threat of logging targeting rainforest ecosystems at high ecological risk in the near future.

Full implementation of the outstanding conservation steps as soon as possible is urgent to avoid further degradation of the rainforest. Implementation of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements will be worth celebrating because it will bring certainty for ecosystems and forestry jobs, new initiatives for community well-being, and much needed hope that solutions for a better world are possible.

As we are getting closer to this spectacular summit, both the excitement and the risk of slippage after a long tiring climb are high. It will take a final show of leadership by the B.C. government to reach the peak.

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