Journey to the Heart of the Great Bear Rainforest

by Paul Koberstein

Situated just at the far edge of western markets, money and politics, the Great Bear Rainforest lives on as it has for 10,000 years. Nowhere else in the Earth's temperate zones can you find such a large, biologically rich, intact rainforest. Yet civilization can't stand still forever even in this remote wilderness along British Columbia's Pacific Coast, where a deal made two years ago to save it is almost in tatters. All the pieces are in place for the eventual destruction of another of nature's wonders: Roads are going in, trees are falling and an antagonistic right-wing government is in power. Even so, in a race against time, a spirited cadre of Canadians believe they can still save the Great Bear. After all, they've done it once before.

Bella Bella

 

There may be no better place to begin a journey into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest than Faith's Place, a bed & breakfast in the island village of Bella Bella on BC's Central Coast. Operated by Ed and May Carpenter, and named after their daughter, its location bespeaks hospitality. Also known as Waglisa, for thousands of years Bella Bella served First Nation people along the coast as a meeting spot.

A commercial fisherman since he was nine, Carpenter was also the cook on his father's boat. Now he is chef in his own inn. As a group of six Americans and Canadians arrive one warm September evening, Carpenter presents platters of fresh wild salmon and prawns the size of Maine lobsters, four to a pound. He fixes halibut three different ways, served with crab, scallops, oysters and generous helpings of vegetables, bread and, of course, stories.

Ed and his cousins had caught all the fish that morning within a mile or two of Bella Bella. His salmon will be sold in American markets, he says, while the prawns fetch a top price in Japan. As if to illustrate the point, he carries a platter of them as he talks.

Carpenter is a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, one of eight aboriginal groups along the north and central BC coast, with a population of about 1,200.

“We are not so much connected to the forest as we are to the ocean,” Carpenter says of the Heiltsuk. “But where we bridge the ocean to the land is with the salmon. Without the forest, we have no salmon.”

In his view, logging is not the only threat to their livelihood. The Heiltsuk are trying to stop a salmon farming operation from opening on the central coast east of Bella Bella. The operation would grow Atlantic salmon, which are escaping from net pens all along the BC coast, interfering with wild salmon and its habitat. More critical are the disease and sea lice outbreaks that have caused massive declines of pink salmon in the Knight Inlet area south of here. The government promises to allow even more salmon farms.

Under Canada's Constitution Act, First Nations retain aboriginal rights, including title to the land, especially in the absence of a treaty. As the Heiltsuk Nation says, “We have never surrendered our Aboriginal Title to anyone; we maintain title to all of our lands.” In fact, very few treaties were signed with aboriginal people in British Columbia, and most First Nations have had to wait until this century to pursue their aboriginal rights through the BC Treaty Process. What's more, according to high court rulings, the federal and provincial governments have a legal duty to consult with and accommodate the interests of First Nations in the interim before the title issue is resolved, including concerns about resource use in the forest and ocean. The implications for natural resource industries are far-reaching, and fundamental changes are beginning to occur in the way decisions are made.

We're mindful of whose land we are visiting as we board a sea plane for the first leg of our journey. As we fly low over channels and islands, it's startling to witness such a vast landscape that remains much like it was before Europeans migrated across the continent. The Heiltsuk and their neighbors managed to live richly for thousands of years without cutting it all down.

In our journey we look forward to fabled Princess Royal Island, home of the mysterious Spirit Bear, a rare white bear from black bear parents. Only black bears from this region possess the recessive gene that yields a spirit bear. Also known as the Kermode bear, it serves as a powerful icon for the struggle to save these lands and waters.

 

Talk and Log

 

The Great Bear Rainforest is the popular name given to BC's wild and rugged central and north coast, stretching from the tip of Knight Inlet to Southeast Alaska. Covering more than 20 million acres, bigger than Maine, it is one of the last large remaining remnants of a once-unbroken forest from California to Alaska. For many species that live here, the Great Bear Rainforest represents the best chance for survival, if enough forest is preserved. That is what ecosystems are supposed to do. They protect their own.

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth, including Sitka spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock and amabilis fir. Trees here tower up to 300 feet and grow for more than 1,500 years.

Most of the logging on the coast is pretty marginal. Timber companies can make money logging the south coast and Vancouver Island, parts of the BC interior and Haida Gwaii. Along the central and north coast, most of the major valleys and most accessible areas have already been logged (see map at left). Though handlogging began 100 years ago, the big wave of industrial clearcut logging along BC's central and north coast commenced in the 1980's, and earlier in places like Kitimat and Bella Coola River.

By the 1990s, almost every remaining valley in the Great Bear was slated for logging over the next two decades, despite their global rarity and high biological values. One exception, the 783,000-acre Kitlope Valley, was fully preserved in 1994 in a precedent-setting collaboration among the Haisla Nation, Ecotrust, the BC government and the timber company West Fraser. Ian Gill, executive director of Ecotrust Canada, said the Kitlope was resolved peacefully without the “set-piece battles” raging elsewhere on the coast at Clayoquot Sound, Haida Gwaii and the Walbran Valley.

One of the lessons of Kitlope, Gill says, is that environmental groups must do far more than protect ecosystems. Social and economic issues facing the Haisla Nation will require painstaking efforts that will take many years to address. “All these new parks are just lines on the map which sometime down the line can be undone,” he says. “Our children’s children may say, ‘thanks, gramps, that was good for you but we’re going to do it differently.’ You are not just creating wilderness, you are thinking through the community benefits that arise out of it. I’m much more interested in what we can create for centuries, not just decades.” Ecotrust Canada has built a $3.5 million revolving loan fund for conservation-oriented coastal economic development, while another $1 million loan fund has been created by US foundations. Economic development has become a major priority in all First Nation treaty and environmental negotiations on the coast.

By the late 1990s, the BC government had begun long-term planning for the north and central coast, and invited all stakeholders to take part, including bitter rivals in the timber industry and environmental community. But environmental groups called the process a sham. They refused to take a seat at the planning tables to discuss the future of these areas while the timber companies were still clearcutting the trees.

“We weren't going to go through a talk and log process,” says Merran Smith of Smithers, BC, a campaigner at the time with the Sierra Club, and now with ForestEthics. ForestEthics is an international organization that works to protect the Great Bear Rainforest and other endangered forests worldwide by redirecting consumers and businesses toward environmentally sound alternatives.

“We weren't trying to shut down their operations, we just said that in these intact areas, we think that all options should be preserved while we are talking,” Smith says.

Industry representatives didn't lose sleep over the environmentalists’ departure. Hostility festered on both sides in the wake of a series of angry confrontations at Clayoquot Sound, Carmanah and Haida Gwaii that took place in the 90s. “There was a lot of animosity between them and us,” Smith says. “Some people did not want to be across the table talking to us.”

By excluding environmentalists from the table, industry leaders may have thought they had moved significantly closer to their objective of converting the central and north coast into a tree plantation. But it didn’t work out that way. Smith and other environmentalists were willing to play hardball to save the Great Bear.

This meant going after the BC timber industry’s customers in the US and Europe. They pressured companies like Home Depot to drop BC wood products from their shelves. Their tactics included consumer boycotts, high visibility demonstrations at stores and media campaigns accusing them of helping destroy the rainforest. Greenpeace activists built a huge Home Depot logo on a massive clearcut in Southwest BC where 1,000-year-old trees once stood. The campaign was wildly successful, persuading foreign buyers to cancel $15 million in sales contracts. In the summer of 1999, Home Depot, the world's largest retailer of wood, pledged to phase out purchases from endangered regions by 2002. During the summer of 2000, Lowe's, second in sales behind Home Depot, went even further by announcing an immediate ban on wood from the Great Bear Rainforest.

In the end, they applied enough pressure to force the BC government and timber industry to meet with environmentalists, and they agreed there would be no more talk and log. These discussions set the stage for the dramatic announcement of April 4, 2001, when Ujjal Dosanjh, then-Premier of British Columbia, agreed to a deal that would permanently preserve large chunks of the Great Bear. The government signed protocols with First Nations, recognizing their aboriginal title to land, and initiated unprecedented government-to-government talks on ways to end damaging logging practices.

Several coastal First Nations — including the Council of the Haida Nation, Gitga'at First Nation, Haisla Nation, Heiltsuk Nation, Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation, Metlakatla First Nation, Old Massett Village Council and Skidegate Band Council — and many environmental groups played key roles in forcing the government to come to terms. The list of environmental groups included ForestEthics, the David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter, Raincoast Conservation Society, Greenpeace, Forest Action Network, Ecotrust Canada, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Rainforest Action Network, Valhalla Wilderness Society, Forest Watch of British Columbia and Natural Resources Defense Council.

The centerpiece of the agreement called for lasting protection for 20 enormous, intact watersheds, totaling 1.5 million acres. It left open the possibility for preservation of 2 million more acres in 68 other watersheds, pending additional conservation studies and more negotiations. Those 68 watersheds were granted interim protection that expires at the end of June 2003.

The BC government and the companies agreed to suspend logging in other areas pending completion of ecological studies. In exchange the groups agreed to suspend activities encouraging consumer protests against these companies while the moratorium remains in effect.

At the time, many hailed the agreement as a “huge victory” for British Columbia. “It's a major first step toward creating a North American rainforest legacy, and ensuring that British Columbia move from being an environmental culprit to being an environmental hero,” Smith said.

“This decision protects substantially large areas of BC's Central Coast forests and commits to a transition strategy that will help realize a new economic model,” Smith said.

As he signed the document, Premier Dosanjh hailed the Great Bear Rainforest as “an icon of the unique environmental and cultural values British Columbia can share with the world. It truly is that island paradise of legend, and will be forever.”

But, as fate would have it, Dosanjh was ousted from office just weeks later. Voters replaced him with a rigidly conservative government in Victoria that has since repealed a trove of environmental rules designed to protect “Super-Natural” BC. And now, with the government backsliding on its environmental commitments, some in the timber industry appear to have returned to their old ways. Negotiations over unsettled issues continue, but with new players representing the Campbell government at the table, and a new dynamic among the players.

 

Fjordland

 

Our sea plane taxis on the calm waters of Rescue Bay, about 30 miles north of Bella Bella. The Ocean Light II, a 71-foot ketch skippered by Tom Ellison, a former commercial fisherman, shimmers in the morning sun.

The Ocean Light II will be our home for the next week, and Tom our guide. I draw a map in my journal, and note the date: 11 am Saturday, September 8, 2001. A week before, a serious storm hammered the north coast of BC, but today a tropical breeze barely ripples the sails. Salmon are jumping all around, reminding us it’s that time of year when millions of pink salmon come home to spawn. One of our mates, Chris Vance from San Francisco, dives au naturel. His fiancé Kristi Chester and friend Jacqueline Pruner, both representatives of ForestEthics, are here to explore the vast area their organization is trying to help save. Monika Marcovici, a digital media producer with GreenDreams Productions in Victoria, is along to record images from our journey.

Once a commercial fisherman, Tom has followed the well-worn path of those whose work depends on trees that stand, not trees that are cut down. It is clear from the onset he is no fan of the new government in Victoria. He worries that the Liberals — an odd name for a right-wing political party — will open up the entire coast to logging. He points to Pooley Island, dead ahead. “All this is going to be logged,” he says, pointing this time to his nautical map, his finger drawing a circle around the south part of the island. “The trade off is that all of this will be preserved.” He points to a much larger area on Pooley, including the James River watershed. We'll hike in there next Wednesday.

“The issue to me is not logging,” he continues. “It's taking all the trees like they did on Vancouver Island. If it's logged properly, you'll save the fish. If it's not, you lose everything.”

At 3 pm we pass through Mathiessen Narrows, a dramatic cut between two rocks, and head east toward Fjordland. Fjordland, a provincial recreation area is nature in its full glory: dolphins and puffins, towering waterfalls and steep cliffs surrounding an arm of the sea jutting 30 miles inland. We pass inlets and bays, islands and fjords, bare granite rocks and glaciers. The lowlands are draped with thick forests of Sitka spruce and western hemlock.

Grizzly were here yesterday, crowding the mouth of a river at the very end of the channel, no doubt to feast on salmon. But they’re gone now, as early evening sets in. A few black bears play on a nearby beach. We don hip waders to see what’s up the river. Salmon, blackened and ready to spawn, fill the channel. Grizzly scat on the rocks suggests their unseen presence. Yet we feel safe with Tom, mostly from our gut feeling he knows what he’s talking about. Out here, there’s not much else to go on.

“They might be here later, when the tide goes down,” he said. “At low tide the salmon are trapped in pools and eddies. Grizzlies don't like to fish in deep water.”

The next morning, a couple of grizzly stroll on the beach for the entertainment of early risers. Several jump into the Zodiac for a closer look.

In the distance, another sailboat approaches. After dropping anchor, two passengers in a small skiff motor our direction. Echoes off the surrounding cliffs amplify the sound. It was more than enough to spook whatever bear may have been lurking. In this place of majestic silence, just one inconsiderate visitor is enough to spoil the wilderness.

 

Talk and Log II

 

Outside the protected watersheds, the fate of the forest awaits results from further negotiations. All the parties at the table — government, industry, environmentalists and First Nations — agree that logging in the region should continue, but with a much lighter impact on the land, water and wildlife. All agree that “business as usual” is no longer an option. No massive clearcuts visible from the Moon. No pulping entire watersheds into toilet paper, no logging right down to the banks of salmon-bearing streams.

But with the new government in office, nothing can be certain. And indeed as a study released in January 2003 indicates, “business as usual” is still the order of the day in parts of the Great Bear Rainforest. This study, from the David Suzuki Foundation, Forest Watch of British Columbia and the Raincoast Conservation Society, is based on research done by a group of scientists and foresters who flew by helicopter over 37,000 square kilometers of the Great Bear, and over offshore Haida Gwaii (colonially known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). They examined 227 logging plans, all approved by the provincial government.

They conducted 90 aerial assessments and 21 ground surveys, but did not visit the remainder because the BC Ministry of Forests and some timber companies refused to identify the location of any logging operations. They documented every site for which they received coordinates with a photograph and information about the type of logging practices used.

Their study found that at the vast majority of logging sites, timber companies removed or planned to remove between 80 and 100 percent of the trees. These are clearcuts, according to the report's authors.

The study reveals that timber companies plan to log 85 percent of small salmon streams down to their banks. Only 4 percent of the plans provide for unlogged buffers on small fish streams flowing through logging sites. These methods not only kill salmon, but can render a stream unsuitable as future salmon habitat. Oregon, Washington and Alaska require unlogged buffers along this type of stream, but not British Columbia.

Among the timber companies implicated in the devastation, one is of distinctly American fiber: Weyerhaeuser.

“One of the forest industry's better kept secrets is there still is massive clearcutting on the central and north coast of British Columbia,” said Jim Fulton, Executive Director of the David Suzuki Foundation based in Vancouver. “We probably have more accurate overall knowledge about what's happening than the companies and the government.”

The study examined timber operations through Jan. 15, 2002 (an update will be released in November 2003.) “It shows that bad logging practices are going on, and resources are being irresponsibly exploited,” Fulton said.

“We are concerned when we see that logging practices have not really changed since we reached this agreement,” said Art Sterritt of the Gitga'at First Nation, a leader who co-signed the 2001 agreement. “Clearcut logging is not acceptable in these forests.”

“Once again the public has been lied to regarding forest practices in British Columbia, and the repercussions in the international market place will further damage the province's reputation,” said Ian McAllister of Raincoast Conservation Society and a resident of Bella Bella. Ian and his wife, Karen McAllister, proposed the preservation of this region in their impressive book of essays and photographs, The Great Bear Rainforest: Canada's Forgotten Coast (Harbour Publishing 1997).

McAllister says the fragile ecosystems that sustain wolf, deer and salmon may be more at risk than previously thought, and argues that the number of preserved watersheds should exceed the 88 now under consideration.

In April 2003, ForestEthics, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter, issued their second yearly report card to measure the government’s performance. The four groups gave the BC government three Ds and one F for its non-commitment to uphold the April 2001 agreement (see chart Page 9).

“The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement pointed BC in the direction of long-term sustainability and market access,” says Lisa Matthaus of the Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter. “Unfortunately, the BC government's forest policy agenda is headed in exactly the opposite direction.”

Smith says environmentalists are now striving to deliver new agreements that protect as many watersheds as possible. They are also pressing for strict “ecosystem-based management” rules intended to provide protection for wildlife in areas where logging will be allowed.

The definition of this term is crucial and depends on whom you talk to. The timber industry contends it allows clearcutting; environmentalists say it requires a much greater level of protection. An independent panel of scientists, known as the Coast Information Team (CIT), will make recommendations to the government. The government and a number of conservation groups have put up $2 million for the CIT scientists to determine what needs to be protected in this globally significant ecosystem, and how. But its work is months behind schedule, and as time flies by, more areas get logged.

Fulton notes that Premier Campbell and his deputy minister have been participating in meetings and discussions — perhaps a hopeful sign. “The political solution is a huge reduction in logging, conservation of key areas and the evolution of a First Nation-led conservation-based economy,” he says. “And the Premier knows it.”

Meanwhile, environmental organizations are leading a major effort to attract international investment in support of conservation. This initiative recognizes that conservation gains can only be sustained alongside healthy community economies. Accordingly the groups together with the BC government have put up $1 million to raise funds for conservation management and conservation-based economic development. “These are new initiatives which have never been done before in the province,” Smith says.

But these studies show there are plenty of reasons to doubt the government has any intention to protect these rare forests.

“The province may be upholding, for now, the letter of the agreement, but the constant delays and frequent attempts to undermine the process and their boosterism of unsustainable development belies any real commitment to change,” said Catherine Stewart of Greenpeace.

“The global marketplace has changed and the trend is irreversible. Customers want products derived from ecologically responsible logging, and BC forest companies claim they are prepared to begin meeting that challenge. Now, the question is: When will this government act to support real change?”

Fulton of the David Suzuki Foundation says the government has incentive to change. “The government and the forest industry need a big green win to save their hides,” he said. “And that is why they will recognize that the forests of BC's central and north coast and Haida Gwaii are worth more left standing than cut down. I expect a deal to save the coast will come before the next election.”

But patience is running short. At a news conference in early April, ForestEthics said the government's performance in protecting endangered forests throughout British Columbia has been so disappointing that it is threatening to end the two years of “peace in the woods” that began with the April 2001 agreement. Current logging practices in BC “are devastating endangered forests in the province and threatening key wildlife species,” says Tzeporah Berman, the group's program director.

“We are putting the government and industry on notice,” she says. “They must move now to stem the tide of industrial expansion that continues to threaten what's left of British Columbia's old growth forests. They need to move now to identify and protect endangered forest in this province. And if they don't we plan to return to the marketplace with renewed vigor.”

 

Princess Royal Island

 

We set sail for the Indian River waterfall on the eastern shore of Princess Royal Island. Many on board are hopeful of spotting a Spirit Bear.

It's almost 4 pm on Sunday, the 9th. Two black bears play in the bushes 50 feet from the falls. Full of salmon, the commotion stirs one of the bears who saunters up to the top of the falls, hardly more than 10 feet high and easily scalable by a salmon. The bear seizes one and takes a bite as Monika Marcovici braces her digital camera on a tripod beneath the falls.

Tom says only about 100 Spirit Bear exist in the world — others count as many as 1,000 — and he says several hang out at this waterfall. But they're not here today. Tom speculates that one of his favorite bears may have been killed by hunters or run off by black bears. But the biggest threat, he says, is logging.

“If this area is logged, the Spirit Bear will go,” Ellison says.

In the distance, two humpback whales breach the surf. We’re in a tiny Zodiac, a mere herring to a 30-pound whale, and they’re coming our way. We’re on a well-traveled body of water known as the Inside Passage, the marine highway from Juneau to Vancouver to Seattle. At the same time, a cruise ship emerges into view from the opposite direction.

We abandon the bears to join the whales. At this time of year, humpbacks forsake their summer feeding grounds in Southeast Alaska for Mexico or Hawaii. For an hour they entertain the visitors in our little boat and on the cruise ship. We got the better show, and wet to boot. The whales leapt into the air within 10 feet of our tiny craft.

That evening, Tom finds safe harbor in Khutze Inlet. We count at least a dozen waterfalls, a scene that could be a national landmark in the US, but here seldom visited. The best way to explore is by kayak. As the high pressure front continues to hold, we paddle up the braided Khutze River to watch bald eagles and yet more black bears, but no grizzlies.

Tuesday morning is the 11th, and it greets us with a light drizzle. We double back to Indian River falls for one last look for the Spirit Bear. We plan to go north to the Green River and the Aalthanash Valley, still intact but all divided up in cut blocks for the timber companies. But that trip will have to wait for another day. Instead, we hear on the radio of the attack on New York and Washington, and our adventure is over. Until further notice there will be no flights, the Coast Guard says, not even out here in the one of most remote wildernesses in North America. Not too remote, it is clear, to be untouched by terrorist acts occurring a continent away. We deal with an almost overwhelming fear by circling back to Pooley Island, to walk among the salmon, wolves, bears and cedars, and to seek out the comfort and wisdom we need.

On the southern part of the island, some logging is permitted under the April 2001 Agreement. But on the northern part, the entire James River watershed will be protected. Once again donning our hip-waders, we hike several miles up the river channel as hundreds of pink salmon frolic around our feet. We find a trail, some stinky wolf scat and a dead salmon minus its head. Scientists are not sure why, but wolves eat only the head. The rest is eaten by other animals, which spread the nutrients across the landscape. There is no waste. This is nature's way of feeding a forest.

On returning to Bella Bella, we pass an ancient Heiltsuk totem — a reminder of not only who owns this land, but who has owned it for thousands of years. One day the government and timber companies in British Columbia will understand this as well.

Paul Koberstein