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British Columbia Proposed deal to preserve large swaths of B.C.'s Great Bear Rainforest

Crystal Schooner takes a selfie inside a 1,300-year-old tree on Hanson Island in the Great Bear Rainforest.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The last land parcels of the Great Bear Rainforest have been identified, clearing the way for an extraordinary pact between the forest industry, First Nations, the province and a coalition of environmental organizations to be finalized by September.

The new land-use agreement, if approved following a summer-long public consultation period, would ensure the preservation of 70 per cent of the old-growth forests in a huge section of the province's north and central coast.

It has taken almost two decades of unprecedented collaboration, led by the forest industry and environmentalists, to engineer this deal. It was designed to end the "war in the woods" that was marked by mass civil disobedience and international boycotts of B.C. forest products in the 1990s.

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Under the proposed terms, commercial logging will be prohibited in eight new "biodiversity, mining and tourism areas." Those sites and other new conservation areas add up to a total of half a million hectares that will be set aside, The Globe and Mail has learned.

That is in addition to roughly 2.4 million hectares of parks, conservancies, biodiversity zones and other protected areas that have already been established in the region.

"The Great Bear Rainforest is a global treasure. To get to this point has not been easy," said Steve Thomson, the Minister of Forests and Lands. "The parties involved have competing interests at times, but through hard work and working towards common interests, we'll be able to provide enhanced protection for this special place, while still allowing for economic activity that supports the people that live there."

Greenpeace Canada's senior forest campaigner Eduardo Sousa welcomed the announcement but cautioned that it will still require political leadership to seal the deal. "There is a lot of work ahead to get to the finish line and that work needs to happen at a sprint pace," he said. "The challenge of this work has been to try to anticipate where the next hurdle lies."

The campaign for the 6.4-million-hectare region – previously known as the Mid Coast Timber Supply Area – began when environmentalists rebranded it as the Great Bear Rainforest in 1997. Activists launched a marketing campaign that aimed to smother the appetite for B.C. forest products in Europe and the U.S.

Although industry initially resisted the moniker adopted by the environmental movement, a group of forest executives did come to the table to negotiate in 2000. Over the years, the two sides worked out a new ecosystem-based management formula that allows logging to continue in some areas, but only after ensuring that certain wildlife habitats and ecosystems remain intact.

The terms established by those companies that did come to the table – Interfor, Western Forest Products, Weyerhauser, Canfor and Catalyst Paper – apply to all forest companies operating in the region.

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In recent weeks, environmentalists accused the logging company TimberWest of accelerating its operations in the Great Bear Rainforest before stricter logging regulations are expected to come into effect this fall.

Mr. Thomson said TimberWest is operating within the current limits of the law, but he has encouraged the company's executives to consult with the Joint Solutions Project – the body that represents both industry and the participating environmental organizations.

It now falls to the province to work out the remaining details with First Nations leaders. The Great Bear Rainforest spans a number of aboriginal territories. The Coastal First Nations and the Nanwakolas Council represent most of those communities and they've laid out an additional set of objectives for improving human well-being for residents in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Mr. Thomson said he hopes those details will likely be finalized in the fall as well.

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