The uncertainty that hangs over the vast majority of British Columbia's land base due to unresolved aboriginal land claims has been an irritant for resource developers for decades, stalling and sometimes killing investment. The province's coastal forest industry says it has finally achieved certainty in a significant portion of the province with the Great Bear Rainforest agreement announced on Monday.
Premier Christy Clark unveiled the pact in Vancouver alongside environmentalists, forestry executives and First Nations leaders, calling the land-use plan "a jewel in the crown" of Canada's protected areas, ensuring the preservation of the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world.
The agreement is the product of 20 years of negotiations, a unique collaboration that will preserve 85 per cent of the old-growth forests within a 6.4-million-hectare stretch of the province's north and central coast. It also gives the 26 First Nations in the region a larger share of the timber that is available for harvest, while forest companies will be able to market their products with an environmental seal of approval.
More than that, the forest industry has achieved an important partnership with the indigenous communities in the region that provides a degree of confidence about land use that exists in few other parts of British Columbia.
"We know what the rules are, we know what areas are going to be set aside for protection and what areas we are going to be operating in, we know we have access to 2.5-million cubic metres of timber each year," said Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of Coast Forest Products Association.
"Knowing we have that, people can start to invest in their mills, in training and in capacity. That's the first level of certainty. The second part is that First Nations have more tenure and we are in a better position to build on those partnerships."
Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and president of the Coastal First Nations, said both environmental and economic sustainability are part of the collective responsibility that First Nations leaders and elders share. "We know we must respect and care for the land and the water so they can support our communities," she said.
Richard Brooks of Greenpeace Canada – one of the organizations that spearheaded the deal – said the model is "a gift to the world" to show how forestry can be managed in a sustainable way. "The foundation has been laid to build a vibrant, conservation-based economy."
Under the agreement, the annual allowable cut (AAC) in the region will be set at 2.5-million cubic metres each year for the next decade and of that, 750,000 cubic metres will come from valuable old-growth timber. The provincial government also signed 26 separate agreements with the First Nations living in the Great Bear Rainforest, guaranteeing those groups a greater share of the timber that will be available for harvest: Seventeen per cent of the AAC will be allocated to aboriginal communities, up from the current 7 per cent.
Steve Thomson, B.C.'s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said the specifics of the deal are unique to the region, but the principles can be used to resolve land-use conflicts in other parts of the province.
"This is a unique solution for a unique area of the province, but it points to how you can achieve that certainty through a collaborative process. We know others are looking at this, this is what we are trying to do in different areas of the province."
Only a handful of treaties have been settled in British Columbia, leaving the 94 per cent of the land base that remains as Crown land subject to unresolved land claims.The Business Council of B.C. has warned in past reports that the resulting uncertainty over the land base is bad for the economy.
However, the business council's chief economist, Jock Finlayson, said the scale of this deal is troubling because it effectively "sterilizes" a large amount of land.
"While we support what the players are seeking to accomplish here and also recognize the ecological sensitivity of some of the areas captured by the GBR agreement, classifying massive portions of land as off-limits for future development represents a big step, one that is not cost-free," Mr. Finlayson said.
B.C. already leads North America with the amount of land that has been set aside for protection, he said. "There are limits to how far this kind of thing can and should be carried forward."