The Great Bear Rainforest: A Brief History of Conservation

April 18th, 2019

Stretching across 6.4 million hectares––a spread of land the size of Ireland––the Great Bear Rainforest holds one quarter of the word’s temperate coastal rainforest. It also holds the world’s only population of the Kermode bear, also known as the spirit bear. This vast region is home to 26 separate First Nations groups, indigenous peoples who have lived there for millennia.

Despite the Great Bear Rainforest’s unique biodiversity and importance to indigenous peoples, it was relatively unprotected before the 1990s. The spirit bear lives only in this region, demonstrating the area’s immense value both through its representation of the rainforest’s unique ecosystem and it’s importance in Indigenous oral traditions. A subspecies of the American black bear, this rare and majestic animal is only found in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.

And yet, it wasn’t until 1996 that the area saw the hope of protection, when land and resource management planning first began to take root in coastal BC. In 2000, a further step was taken when a number of environmental groups and forestry companies agreed to collaborate through the Joint Solutions Project. By 2003-2004 the government entered into talks with the region’s First Nations, and in 2009 the BC government amended existing Land Use Orders and protected 50% of the old-growth forest.

Deemed by some to be “a jewel in the crown of Canada,” the Great Bear Rainforest has, perhaps fittingly, drawn royal attention. In 2015, The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy was launched in hopes of uniting all 53 Commonwealth members in the conservation of their forests. With the slogan, “Together our forests will thrive,” this initiative was designed to raise awareness, amongst the Commonwealth’s 2.3 billion citizens, of the value of forest conservation, and also to encourage the sharing of best practices. In 2016, during a Royal Tour, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge––otherwise known as Prince William and Princess Kate––gave official endorsement to the Great Bear Rainforest’s protection under The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy.

2016 was in other ways a historic year for the forest’s protection: it was also the year when the Federal Government rejected the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would have passed through the rainforest. This was a significant move especially for the region’s population of spirit bears, whose main threats were trophy hunting and pipeline spills. This same year also saw the Great Bear Rainforest Land Use Order and the Great Bear Rainforest (Forest Management) Act, which will conserve 70% of the region’s old-growth trees and 85% of its forests for generations to come. The remaining 15% of the area was designated as managed forest, focusing on ecosystem-based management and traditional indigenous stewardship practices.

The conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest has been hailed as a success of collaborative conservation and forest management. Not only do these initiatives protect the forests and their wildlife, but they also protect indigenous cultural practices, as the vast area has been inhabited by indigenous groups for thousands of years. Additionally, some have noted that the Great Bear Rainforest’s conservation and forest management are demonstrating that creating jobs and protecting ecosystems do not necessarily have to function in opposition.

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