After almost 20 years of environmental protests, conflict and negotiation, the B.C. government and coastal First Nations are poised to ratify a sweeping land-use order for the Great Bear Rainforest aimed at protecting 70% of the area’s old-growth trees.

The Great Bear land-use order is expected to be signed by the B.C. government and First Nations in the first week of February and made into law during the spring session of the legislature. It is the final step in balancing the economic, social and environmental objectives of a 6.4-million-hectare stretch of rugged B.C. coast extending from Kitimat in the north to Knight Inlet in the south.

The land-use order has its origins in the “war in the woods” that began in 1997 when environmental activists coined the name Great Bear Rainforest, chained themselves to logging equipment on remote islands, targeted industry customers in a sophisticated marketing campaign and brought global attention to the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world.

Before that, the designated government name for the region was the Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area.

The forest companies and environmental groups agreed to sit down to negotiate when they wearied of fighting each other.The industry players, Interfor (TSX:IFP), Western Forest Products (TSX:WEF), BC Timber Sales, Catalyst Paper (TSX:CYT) and Howe Sound Pulp and Paper, called themselves the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative. On the other side of the table, negotiating under the name Rainforest Solutions Project, were ForestEthics, Greenpeace and Sierra Club BC.

Those negotiations resulted in a plan that included development and conservation. That plan was forwarded to government and the region’s First Nations in 2014.

Since then, the government has sought public input and negotiated specifics on how the region is to be managed with the 26 First Nations living there.

Details on what the government and First Nations have agreed upon remain shrouded until the final documents are signed, but it is expected to bring a major transformation to the central coast. Three key elements are known:

  • The province and the region’s First Nations are to share decision-making in determining future economic and social development of the Great Bear Rainforest. A cash component and/or revenue-sharing package is expected to be part of the joint agreement.
  • Timber harvesting, the region’s main economic activity, will be guided by an innovative approach called ecosystem-based management, which focuses on lowering ecological risk by setting aside large areas of undisturbed forest.
  • Human well-being, a concept that encompasses health and a higher quality of life within local communities, will be as important as ecological integrity. It is expected to include greater First Nation involvement in economic development with a goal of achieving an employment rate similar to the rest of Canada.

The Great Bear agreement will also bring what are essentially stringent zoning requirements on development to the entire rainforest. The land-use orders are expected to preserve 70% of the old-growth forest by setting aside 85% of the land base in large, contiguous areas for ecological purposes. Within that area, there will be opportunities for activities like tourism and mineral exploration. Logging will be permitted and managed on the remaining 15% of the land.

“Instead of fragmenting the forest, there will be areas where we are harvesting and areas where we are not harvesting. It’s a managed forest with a very stringent operating environment,” said Coast Forest Conservation Initiative representative Rick Jeffery.

He said by setting aside large, contiguous areas, both environmental benefits and economic benefits can be maximized. For example, larger areas of wildlife habitat will remain undisturbed, while industry will benefit from having all logging activity within a smaller area, reducing road-building and other development costs.
“This is a globally unique area and it required a globally unique solution,” Jeffery said, noting that the environmental and economic objectives are both sustainable over time.

Valerie Langer, one of three negotiators representing the three environmental groups, said stakeholders have been told the orders will be signed soon. She said she won’t know until she sees the final document whether the 70% old-growth target will be part of the order, but she is hopeful.

“I am waiting to hear back from the First Nations and the province that we actually get the kind of scope and scale of conservation and the new rules that we have been working on,” Langer said. “The goal is 70%. That has been the goal since 2006 and it remains the goal.”

The province released a draft of the plan last summer that proposed the 70% old-growth target. Of the 6.4 million hectares within the boundaries of the land-use plan, ecosystem-based logging is to be restricted to a managed forest area of 550,000 hectares, according to the draft plan.