This week’s landmark agreement to preserve a huge tract of the B.C. coastal forest had its beginnings in words scratched on a tablecloth in a San Francisco restaurant some 20 years ago.

“We were sitting around at dinner one night in a cheap Italian restaurant with a bottle of great wine,” wrote activist Tzeporah Berman in This Crazy Time, her 2011 memoir of her days with Greenpeace and the environment movement.

“We needed a name that immediately defined the area. We wanted people to hear the name and be mad as hell that anybody could turn it into toilet paper.”

She and her fellow activists were looking to rebrand what was then known to the B.C. ministry of forests as “the mid-coast timber supply area,” a name that pretty much said it all about how the government and forest companies saw the place.

So they experimented with some possibilities on the paper tablecloth: “Raincoast … wilderness … great rainforest … great bear,” the latter chosen because the targeted section of the B.C. coast was home to grizzlies and the emblematic spirit bear, the Kermode.

Finally, in what Berman characterized as “the most successful single action of any campaign I have worked on,” they came up with a name for the ages. “The mid-coast timber supply area sounded like an aisle at Home Depot,” wrote Berman. “The Great Bear Rainforest was definitely something that people wanted to protect.”

Not everywhere, mind you.

“They are really enemies of British Columbia,” declared then premier Glen Clark when Greenpeace launched its campaign in the spring of 1997.

“Absolute, total goddamned nonsense,” added Jack Munro, head of the logging-friendly Forest Alliance.

Even some environmentalists thought the campaign overreached itself by seeking to preserve all 69 pristine watersheds on the coast. When Greenpeace set up a protest encampment in the remote coastal region, one First Nation leader blasted the interlopers as “eco-imperialists” for presuming to tell natives how to manage their traditional territories.

The breakthrough came when the campaign shifted from homegrown protests to targeting buyers of B.C. forest products in Europe and the United States. Once primed by Greenpeace, “they didn’t want to buy products from one of the last endangered forests on earth,” wrote Berman.

Re-branding the coast was critical to building support for the boycott. I remember one interview with host Bill Good on CKNW where he challenged a representative of Home Depot to specify the whereabouts of a forest that did not appear on any official map of B.C.

She replied that she’d seen the Great Bear Rainforest marked clearly on a map published in the New York Times — in an advertisement crafted and paid for by Greenpeace of course.

By the end of the 1990s, the New Democrats under new leader Ujjal Dosanjh began the process of reconciliation, aiming to give Greenpeace at least some of what it wanted. Plus Berman herself entered into high-level negotiations with representatives of MacMillan Bloedel, then the largest player in the coastal industry.
On replacing the New Democrats in 2001, the B.C. Liberals soon recognized there was no overcoming the increasingly effective international campaign to save the coastal rainforest, given its backing by deep-pocketed foundations from outside the province.

“They have a collective endowment of $50 billion,” explained then cabinet minister Stan Hagen. “The environmentalists got $20 million from them but if they needed $50 million — $100 million — they could have gotten it. There isn’t enough money in the provincial treasury — there isn’t enough money in all of Canada — to fight this thing.”

Despite the efforts of Berman and others, the settlement didn’t come together overnight. There was a preliminary deal in 2002, a more comprehensive one in 2007 then a slow buy-in by First Nations over the ensuing years.

This week’s announcement, presided over by Premier Christy Clark, First Nations leaders, environmentalists and industry representatives, still needs enabling legislation and regulations to cement the pieces in place.

The terms are said to preserve 85 per cent of the coastal forest, giving rise to grumbling in some quarters that after 20 years of pressure, 15 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest remains subject to logging.

But Berman, writing five years ago, had this message for the all-or-nothing crowd. “I simply don’t believe it is possible for the environmental movement to build adequate financial pressure to shut off enough markets to force every forest company out of business … We can create an incredible amount of noise in Europe and the United States. But then the logging companies that harvest old growth forests will just turn around and look for new markets in Asia.”

Having lately joined industry and other stakeholders in negotiations to improve the B.C. Liberal greenhouse gas reduction targets, she also has this to say to those who disdain behind-the-scenes deal making: “If you are not willing to negotiate with those who walk the halls of power and work on solutions, then you are not campaigning — you are just complaining.”

As evidence that the Berman method can produce results, look to the deal to save the Great Bear Rainforest. But I’m wondering if she saved those scratchings from the restaurant in San Francisco, because they belong under glass in the provincial museum.