It’s a place you’ve probably never heard of. But the Great Bear Rainforest agreement has the potential to keep places wild on a massive scale.
What is the Great Bear Rainforest?
The Great Bear Rainforest is a massive swath of sea, forest, and mountains ranging from the north end of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border. At first glance on a map, it looks about half the length of the California coast. But when you look closer at the intricate mix of islands and channels, it’s real size is much larger. It is a landscape of rugged reefs and surf-battered islands, deep fjords, glacier-carved coastal mountains, salmon streams and thick rainforest. It’s named for the Spirit Bear (also called the Kermode Bear), a rare white-colored race of black bear, as well as two distinct populations of coastal wolves. Almost entirely roadless, the Great Bear is one of the last great wildernesses of the Pacific Rim of North America. Dotted by one town (Prince Rupert) and the small First Nations villages of Bella Coola, Bella Bella and Klemtu, the region is the historic home of the 28 First Nations cultures.
What Happened on Feb. 2?
Conservation battles have raged around the Great Bear for decades. The combination of small population, rich timber and fish resources and sea access along the inside passage have made it a target for extractive industries. A coalition of conservation groups and First Nations have fought for the Great Bear a quarter century. They notched a big win on Feb. 2.
It went under the unassuming name of The Great Bear Land Order, an agreement signed by BC Premier Christy Clark. Under the agreement, roughly 38 percent of the land stretching from roughly Bute Inlet to Prince Rupert is formally protected from logging—an area that’s five times the size of Delaware. Another massive area, 47 percent of the region, is designated as “Ecosystem-Based Management,” which is also referred to as “light touch logging” with restrictions to protect streams and estuaries, buffers and that preserves half of forest cover. But perhaps the most significant fact is that the various parties were able to hash out an agreement after so long in opposition.
What Didn’t Happen?
It’s Not A National Park
First of all, the agreement doesn’t—as some soundbites mention—protect 85 percent of the Great Bear from logging, which would be an area half the size of Ireland. The land in Ecosystem-Based Management “should not be confused as a surrogate or replacement for protected areas because it will involve rotational forestry, road building, dry land sorts and a host of other human activities,” writes Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild in Bella Bella.
The agreement does nothing to stop the other threat to the Great Bear Rainforest: the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. It would carry tar sands crude from Alberta across the coast range to Kitmat in the Great Bear, where it would be loaded on tankers. The tankers would ply the narrow, rocky channels of the Great Bear, threatening the area with a Valdez-size oil spill.
What Happens Now?
Ban the Tankers
Pacific Wild and other conservation groups are pursuing a tanker ban in the Great Bear to counter the Northern Gateway threat.
As Abraham Lincoln said, a law without enforcement is basically just advice. First Nations and conservationists will be monitoring the enforcement of the protected areas and environmental restrictions of the agreement. In an area as wild, remote, and sparsely populated as the Great Bear, where all travel is by floatplane and boat, a lot can happen on the ground before officials notice. “The burden of monitoring will fall disproportionately on the Indigenous peoples—like Heiltsuk—who live on the front lines, and whose lives and livelihoods depend on the integrity of our lands and waters,” said the Heiltsuk Tribal Council.
How Can I Visit?
You can help by visiting the Great Bear. The more that people visit and care about a place, the easier it is to enforce the agreement.
Like most remote and beautiful places, getting to the Great Bear is challenging. That’s part of the adventure. The first step is a BC Ferry from Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Bella Bella, Klemtu or Prince Rupert. From there it’s more challenging. To access the coast, fjords or mountains requires a boat, a kayak or a boat with a kayak strapped to the deck. Plan lots of time: this coastline calls for a zigzagging exploration of coves and islands. Travel is weather and current dependent. Current tables mostly don’t exist, and uncharted tides do. This is true wilderness. Expect to share your camps with wolves and bears.
But like all wild places, it needs little defending. Now’s the time to visit.