The Great Bear Rainforest

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 Pipeline
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. 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.