One of British Columbia's most remarkable collaborative creations, the Great Bear Rainforest, is close to becoming a reality after more than a decade of negotiations.
But the key architects of the deal say it is in danger of falling apart unless the provincial government addresses the needs of the region's human residents – primarily First Nations communities.
The pact that ended the war of the woods, which would preserve large swaths of old-growth trees and the home of the Kermode bears on B.C.'s mid-coast, has focused since talks began in 1999 on logging and wildlife.
Now, its approval hinges on a settlement between the province and 27 First Nations who reside within its boundaries on issues ranging from carbon offsets to the grizzly bear hunt.
In January, environmentalists and the forest industry announced they had reached agreement on what can be logged and what must be protected in the Great Bear Rainforest.
It would mean the protection of 70 per cent of the land base in a rugged coastal region that covers 6.4 million hectares of the mid-coast, and the end of a battle marked by logging blockades and a marketing campaign that advocated boycotts of B.C. forest products in Europe and the United States.
"This would be a feather in Premier Christy Clark's cap," said Valerie Langer, representing the coalition of environmental organizations at the table: Greenpeace, ForestEthics Solutions and the Sierra Club of B.C.
"Not completing it would unravel a collaborative initiative that has taken more than a decade to produce."
First Nations communities who live in the Great Bear Rainforest are asking for skills-training opportunities, carbon-offset credits and a share of the limited logging activity as part of the "human well-being" component of the deal.
Also entwined in the negotiations are demands to roll back coastal ferry service cuts, and to end trophy hunting of grizzly bears.
A letter to the B.C. government signed by industry, environmentalists and First Nations who have been instrumental in developing the "ecosystem based management" agreement says the province needs to bring the financial resources to the table to ensure the agreement is signed by the end of the year. "Failure to do so will make … it very difficult for us to keep our respective members supportive" of the deal, the Oct. 9 letter warns. Advocates fear the government is not moving quickly enough to get Treasury Board approval in time for the next B.C. budget.
The Treasury Board is working on the framework of the budget and will meet on Thursday. But Forests Minister Steve Thomson, the minister responsible for the file, has not promised to meet a firm deadline. "We are fully committed to work as quickly as we can to get it done," he said in an interview. Mr. Thomson added that he is working on a package to improve the living conditions of First Nations communities in the region, but he cautioned that change won't come quickly. "It may need to be incremental."
It is clear an agreement with First Nations will not be as simple as cutting a cheque. Ferry services were reduced earlier this year and despite a storm of protest from coastal communities, the province has maintained those cuts are necessary to ensure the financial health of BC Ferries. As well, the province has long defended the grizzly bear hunt. There were 234 hunting licences issued in the Great Bear Rainforest last year, which the government maintains is sustainable given the size of the grizzly bear population.
Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, said he believes an agreement is within reach that could see the Great Bear Rainforest enshrined in legislation by next spring. He said it will require some "creativity" around the ferry services that are important to communities' economic well-being. As for the grizzly hunt, he said the province needs to understand how offensive it is to his members. "It is a lack of respect for our culture; we can't fathom people shooting bears for sport."
Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, which represents the southern First Nations, said preserving the land base isn't enough without helping lift up impoverished communities within the region.
"It's frustrating how long it has taken. It has been hard to hold our communities at the table," he said. "We haven't been able to bring home anything to our communities."
Rick Jeffrey, lead negotiator for the forest industry, said the framework for a settlement is there, but the province needs to deliver its part. "The government has to bring their authorizations and resources to the table. I'm quite satisfied that everybody is dedicated to getting it done."