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Gerald Butts, president and CEO of WWF-Canada

The hearings to decide the future of the Great Bear Sea and Rainforest got off to quite a start this week. Big oil, foreign intrigue, a grassroots uprising, duelling polls, angry ministers – this one has all the makings of a blockbuster. But the fervour obscures the heart of the matter: whether and under what conditions we should permit supertankers and a bitumen pipeline in one of the last intact temperate coastal rain forests on Earth.

I suspect most Canadians would be surprised that the proposed route of the Northern Gateway pipeline bisects this ecological treasure. Pipeline proponents would rather frame this issue around developing an Asian market for oil sands bitumen – and the allegedly nefarious U.S.-based interests who would prevent us from doing so – than have a science-based debate about the real risks associated with getting it there by this route.

It's the peculiar Canadian paradox that we're blessed with such natural beauty and abundance that we often fail to value it. Even by our standards, however, the Great Bear is a special place. It's the only habitat in the world for the spirit bear, which is rarer than the giant panda. Humpbacks, orcas and many other species of cetaceans take advantage of this quiet cold ocean to prosper. Eagles are as plentiful as sparrows are in Canada's urban parks. And all five species of Pacific salmon are present, providing the basis for a prosperous fishery.

Mercifully, the communities that have been sustained by this wondrous ecosystem don't share our undervaluing of nature. B.C.'s coastal first nations know well that Great Bear's value as a functioning ecosystem dwarfs the tantalizing but fleeting promise of short-term cash from oil revenue. And they know from history what we know from traditional science: that this meticulously interconnected ecosystem is very vulnerable to disruption.

A toxic event can't be ruled out, even in Enbridge's own estimation. The 1,170-kilometre pipeline would divide the rain forest, crossing countless salmon rivers. At Kitimat, toxic diluted bitumen would be loaded onto supersized tankers. Each year, more than 200 would travel through narrow fjords and into some of the world's most treacherous seas.

This isn't the first time the Great Bear has been threatened. Twenty-five years ago, it was slated to be clear-cut. But, after years of conflict, a group of unlikely allies found a solution. First nations, forestry companies, NGOs, the Harper and Campbell governments and both Canadian and U.S.-based philanthropists finally came together to create a model of ecosystem management and economic development.

So the question of whether foreign interests can participate in the National Energy Board hearings is curious. Should we prohibit oil sands companies, the majority of which are foreign-owned and operated? It's also hypocritical, given that the industry and government has spent untold millions to lobby foreign governments, air PR campaigns in foreign markets and solicit foreign direct investment in the oil sands. The message we're sending the world is that you're free to come to Canada to exploit nature, but not to protect it.

In the interests of full disclosure, less than 2 per cent of our revenue came from the U.S. foundations that have been targeted by smear campaigns. We're proud to add that support to the larger contributions we receive from almost 150,000 like-minded Canadians. We're also proud to provide a platform for Canadians who care deeply about conserving nature. Most important, we're transparent about our sources and uses of revenue.

Ultimately, this debate is a red herring designed to distract. The Great Bear is globally significant. If this development were proposed for the Amazon or the Great Barrier Reef, people around the world would engage. These are irreplaceable sites and input from global citizens who care about nature should be welcome. This expectation ought to be second nature in an open society.

Gerald Butts is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada.