After years of conflict that featured blockades and market boycotts, environmental groups and the forest industry have finally agreed on what can be logged and what must be protected in B.C.'s Great Bear Rainforest.
A detailed plan has gone forward to the provincial government and 27 First Nations that reside in the area. If approved by those entities, it will lead to the protection of 70 per cent of the land base in a rugged coastal region that covers 6.4 million hectares on the mainland coast.
The agreement comes after two years of intensive negotiations between three environmental groups and five forest companies in what is known as the Joint Solutions Project. Those talks were preceded by years of protest which saw activists blocking roads and chaining themselves to logging equipment. A market campaign by Greenpeace in the United States and Europe finally brought industry to the table, leading to a groundbreaking deal in 2009 in which the B.C. government, First Nations, environmental groups and industry agreed to fully protect some areas, while following scientifically prescribed logging plans in others. In that broad agreement, about 50 per cent of the area was protected. The final deal increases the current protected area by 20 per cent.
In the process of getting the agreement, said Ric Slaco, vice-president and chief forester for Interfor, the former protagonists had to learn how to communicate about an emotionally divisive issue. "It wasn't easy, I can tell you that," he said in an interview Wednesday.
He agreed that the forest industry did give up some areas it wanted, but so did the environmentalists as the plan permits some old-growth logging.
"This is not about capitulating. This is about understanding," said Mr. Slaco, whose company produces more than one billion board feet of lumber a year in B.C. "You know we're bringing new thinking to an old, traditional issue of conflict."
The agreement is a key hurdle in a land use planning process that began about 15 years ago, when the forest industry first sought to end "the war in the woods" by seeking a mutually acceptable formula for logging in the Great Bear Rainforest.
The goal, Mr. Slaco said, is to protect the most precious areas, while also allowing logging on a scale that will support local economies.
"So we've been … looking at all the different landscape areas … trying to find the right balance in terms of achieving those two objectives in a way that would make sense for us … and for the conservation groups," Mr. Slaco said.
Valerie Langer, of ForestEthics Solutions, said the agreement "maximizes conservation while minimizing the impact to the timber supply."
Most of the area will be protected, she said, and the logging that does occur will be to high standards known as ecosystem-based management.
Ms. Langer said she's hopeful the government and First Nations will approve the agreement by March 31, 2014, a deadline that was set for final settlement when the broad agreement was first reached in 2009.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said 27 bands have to be consulted about the agreement before it can be finalized and he can't see that happening by March 31. "It's a huge decision. I can't imagine us getting this done in anything less than six months," he said.
But Mr. Sterritt said the deadline can be pushed back, and he's confident final approval, by governments for the province and First Nations, will be given later this year.
"I do believe we're going to complete this. There's no doubt about it," he said. "You know this is more a process of fine tuning. We don't think anything is going to jump out at us that we won't be able to solve."
In a statement, Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, congratulated both the environmental groups and industry for their co-operative effort "in finding solutions that manage both the environment and local economies in this unique region of the world."
The parties involved in the negotiations were: ForestEthics, Greenpeace and Sierra Club of BC; Western Forest Products, Interfor, Howe Sound Pulp and Paper, BC Timber Sales and Catalyst Paper Corp.