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David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/david parkins The Globe and Mail

The creation of the Great Bear Rainforest offers a textbook lesson in conflict resolution – a process that was never led by politicians.

The environmentalists, industry executives and first nations leaders who brokered the deal first had to set the table before inviting the politicians to lead.

As a result, two B.C. premiers can take credit for saving this vast stretch of temperate rain forest. And there is room for one more. This week, Premier Christy Clark was offered a chance to add her name to the legacy.

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Chapter 1: Brokering a deal

The battle for the Great Bear Rainforest – formerly known as the "central mid-coast timber supply area" – began 16 years ago with an innovative environmental campaign pioneered in Clayoquot Sound to persuade the industry's customers to stop buying products made from old-growth timber.

With European buyers boycotting B.C.'s old-growth forest products, the industry was forced to do something it had never tried before: Collaborate with its critics.

A series of extraordinary meetings was held at the Metropolitan Hotel in Vancouver: timber barons sitting down with radical greens, negotiating a state of détente – the Standstill Agreement. Environmentalists stopped their market campaigns in exchange for the logging companies suspending operations in more than 100 watersheds in the region.

Chapter 2: Finding a champion

But a permanent deal wasn't theirs to make: Most of the 64,000 hectares in the region is publicly owned Crown land, and most of it is subject to unsettled land claims. A political leader was needed who could negotiate government-to-government with first nations.

In 2001, premier Ujjal Dosanjh was heading into an election campaign with little hope for his unpopular New Democratic Party. Environmentalists and first nations leaders persuaded him there was a splashy opportunity to quell the long-running "war in the woods."

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A month after he made a commitment to preserve the region, his New Democratic Party was wiped out at the polls. The new government, led by Premier Gordon Campbell, was in a hurry to declare B.C. open for business, and showed little patience for complex land-use negotiations.

For a while, it looked like the whole deal was going to fall apart.

Chapter 3: Offering solutions

The greens and the forest industry continued their work, with the province looking on. They raised cash to help with their proposal for a transition to a new forestry model, and first nations leaders were ready to move forward.

In 2005, Pat Bell, the new forests minister, sat down with representatives from environmental groups and forestry executives.

"It just caught me totally off guard. They were 100-per-cent on board that the model needed to change," Mr. Bell said in an interview this week. "I was stunned by the level of co-operation."

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Merran Smith was in the room that day representing the environmentalists. She said Mr. Bell had no choice but to back the proposal. "People were putting a solution on the table that would cut the controversy and engage first nations," she said this week. "How can the government not agree when you have all the stakeholders walking in the door saying, 'This is the answer?'"

Mr. Campbell formally established the Great Bear Rainforest in 2006, earning international accolades for his efforts. It took another three years to turn the proposal into the land-use plan that is in place today. One-third of the region is preserved and the rest is subject to a new set of logging rules called ecosystem-based management. But the changes are still in transition, and half of the region's natural old-growth forest is still open for logging.

Chapter 4: Wrapping it up

This week, environmentalists went on the offensive against a forest company that is not part of the pact. Although TimberWest is logging under the accepted rules, photographs of its recent logging in the Great Bear Rainforest were held up as evidence that the home of B.C.'s spirit bear is not yet secure.

The groups are agitating now because they see an opportunity to get B.C.'s new Premier to provide the leadership to complete the final stage. Two things need to happen. They want to get to the original target of preserving 70 per cent of the old-growth forest. And the government has to reconcile the other half of the deal to save the forest – to deliver social and economic benefits to the people who live there – mostly impoverished first nations communities.

Bill Dumont, chief forester for Western Forest Products at the height of the negotiations with the environmentalists, is now a forestry consultant representing some of those first nations.

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"A lot of the issues that remain to be resolved are to do with first nations who now hold forestry tenure," he said. The final measure of success will be if the new forest managers accept the constraints required to meet the eco-based management objectives.

"The noise we are hearing is to get the new Premier's attention, to let her know this isn't resolved," he said.

Patrick Armstrong, one of the negotiators on behalf of the forest industry since the start of the conflict, has joined the environmentalists in calling on Ms. Clark to act.

"What should motivate the Premier is that this is a globally significant agreement that was reached and it's important for B.C.'s reputation and it's important for coastal communities and first nations," he said. "You don't want to run the risk of reopening the war in the woods."

Ms. Clark has an invitation from both industry and environmentalists – to ignore it would be to risk undoing one of the province's most remarkable collaborative creations.

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