Above: The Great Bear Rainforest via hellobc.com

By contributor Chantelle Spicer. 

Halfway up the coast of BC sits the largest, mostly intact temperate rainforest in the world. Terrestrially, it is home to old growth trees, Kermode (also called spirit) bears, many bird species, and rare species of frogs. As the forest slopes away into the waters, one sees humpback whales, orcas, and white-sided dolphins, along with hundreds of fish species that contribute to the health and diversity of this forest ecosystem; the land and the water are one. The area is also home to many scientists and non-governmental organizations, such as ForestEthics, Greenpeace, and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Many First Nations people not only call this area home, but a part of themselves and their history. It is over three million acres of bustling life and exquisite beauty—one of the few places in our province left unspoiled by industry.

It is also a place that, for the last 20 years, has been the subject of a great battle. Forestry companies who have invested interest in the forest for timber rights have been at the table with many other stakeholders who see the land as more than monetary value. This includes hunters, fishermen, First Nations, policy makers, environmental groups, scholars, and citizens all using their voices to express concern over what would happen to this land if harvested. It is a testament to a deep love for the land and the life upon it that the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement has persevered.

On February 1, the nation-to-nation council (the First Nations council to provincial government) announced alongside forestry companies Sierra Club BC, Green Peace, and Forest Ethics, that a decision has been reached—marking the most ambitious land conservation and management agreements in the province’s history. What has been agreed upon is the safeguarding of 85 per cent of these lands for future generations, wildlife, and the trees themselves. The remaining 15 per cent will be under the strictest forest management, guided by ecological-based management, that will be the strictest recognized in all of North America. This is a very rare and unique agreement that has the forestry industry working together with First Nations and environmental groups to protect old-growth and potentially valuable forests. It sets a precedent for other forests around the world that need to be protected from various types of industrial pressures. As stated by Jens Wieting of the Sierra Club in a recent press release, “The realization of the agreements proves their value as a model for collaboration, conservation, communities, and climate action. Implementation of the agreements strengthens the resilience of communities, and secures the ecological integrity of an ancient and vastly rich network of forests, fjords, and islands twice the size of Vancouver Island.”

One major critique of the agreement is its lack of protection for grizzly and black bears, both of which are a major attraction to sport hunters looking for trophies. As ambassadors for healthy forest and stream ecosystems, Kermode bears are a critical part of the landscape and culture for many First Nations—the Kermode spirit bears in particular. These bears have become the stars of this ecosystem and a major driver in so much international attention. They are a unique subspecies of black bears who bear a milky-white coat which makes them stand out like a spirit in their dark, old growth forest homes.

For First Nations, they represent a reminder of times past when these lands were covered in ice and snow, which the Kitasoo First Nations call the Long White Time of Before. Raven, the Creator, chose Bear to be the keeper of dreams and memory of this time, with the two of them making an agreement that a portion of all bears would wear the mark of the white coats. At this time, the population of these sacred animals is approximately 400. Even though their spectacular habitat is being protected, these creatures within it are not, being under the persistent threat that arises from continuing trophy hunting.

Because of these culturally significant bear populations, as well as two thousand vital salmon streams, and rare coastal wolves, science will continue to rule and try and protect the Great Bear Rainforest. Organizations like Raincoast Conservation Foundation, who employ different types of biologists and scientists, as well as education and public outreach coordinators, will continue to be integral to our understanding of this area. PacificWild is a similar organization, connecting local communities to education and resources, as well as ongoing scientific observation of at-risk environments.

It is not just science interested in expanding our love of the forest; many artists have been involved in and will continue to participate in the conservation of the land in beautiful ways. Recently, Lorna Crozier, who teaches at UVic, released a book of poems inspired by her time in the Great Bear Rainforest. Each poem is a deeply moving testament to the beauty and importance of our connections to the natural world—especially one as special and unspoiled as the Great Bear Rainforest. The book, which features photos from PacificWild, “inspires you to treasure and protect wolves, bears, salmon, whales, and trees in all their beauty so they will thrive alongside us on this earth.”

Even if you have never stood in these forests, laid eyes upon a Kermode bear, or heard the call of wolves on the coast line, knowing that such a place exists in the world is comforting. This land is important to our human sense of the wilderness—as something untouched and free that lives in our hearts as much as it does upon the landscape. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement is not perfect and will need to be constantly adapted, but that is the way of nature too—with the land and its creatures constantly changing and adapting—but it is a welcomed step in the right direction.

For more information on this Great Bear Rainforest issue, check out savethegreatbear.org.