Great Bear Rainforest Agreement

Ian McAllister

I have been asked for my opinion of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement (GBRA) several times since it was announced by the BC government in February, 2016.

As I’m sure many people reflecting on this agreement in public and private can relate, synthesizing thoughts for a media sound bite is challenging at the best of times – more so when you are attempting to address the complexity of a multi-stakeholder agreement many years in the making.

Before the announcement was formalized, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council released this very pragmatic statement, describing their view of the agreement. If there is one sound bite that trumps them all, I respectfully nominate this one: “We are grateful for a step down the right path. It is the first of many miles yet to walk.”

Looking Forward
Today, on behalf of Pacific Wild, and in the interest of setting our course for the miles still ahead, I offer the following reflections on the agreement as it has been relayed to the public via the media and provincial government. In particular, I will address what I view as the most problematic assertions:

•          that 85% of the GBR is protected; and

•          that trophy hunting is now banned in the GBR.

Before I do, I want to reiterate that over the last 25 years that I have been involved in conservation efforts in the Great Bear, we have certainly come a long way. The relationships that have been built between parties that once were at odds with each other and the amount of spectacular wilderness areas that are now protected is truly an impor- tant achievement that should be celebrated.

That being said, there are a lot of layers to these agreements, and their implications are not nearly as clear as the headlines and the government’s talking points would have you believe.

“85% of the Forest Will Be Protected”
This number is getting a lot of media attention and many people are asking where it comes from. My understanding is that 38% of the region is now formally protected with clear boundaries and management guidelines attached to them. They all prohibit industrial logging but some allow for mining and other industries.

As it has been explained to me, the remaining 62% of the GBR has been placed under Ecosystem Based Management (EBM), an ambitious but nevertheless a new and unproven forest management practice. It 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 that are not compatible with the true definition and meaning of a protected area. Obviously, the more stringent management guidelines that come with EBM are a step in the right direction and light years ahead of the business-as-usual deforestation practiced elsewhere in British Columbia, but it is not without limitations. We need look no further than the southernmost tip of the Great Bear Rainforest, where despite the EBM framework that has been in place for a number of years, TimberWest continues to log the last remaining old growth enclaves.

The Great Bear Rainforest is a geographically complex coastline, dominated by rock, ice, bogs, and steep terrain. The majority of the land base simply will never be logged because it either does not support forested landscape or is inaccessible from an operations standpoint. It is the low elevation and ecologically productive forest that exists outside of protected areas, the areas that are disproportionately valuable to salmon, bears, wolves, and many other old-growth dependent or associated species where EBM will be tested. Only time will tell if this new approach to land use management will work, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and describe it as a level of protection.

“The Commercial Grizzly Hunt Will Cease”
Premier Christy Clark stated that the commercial hunt of grizzly bears in the Great Bear Rainforest is “over.”

In the wake of the announcement, everyone I spoke to was searching for some proof. To the best of my knowledge, none has materialized so, at the time of writing, I can only respond to the Premier’s statement.

First, some background: In the Great Bear Rainforest, there are two ways that grizzly bears are killed for trophy. Approximately 60% are killed by BC resident hunters (the “residential hunt”) and 40% are killed by non-residents on guided hunts (the “commercial hunt”). The BC coast is made up of guide-outfitting territories owned exclusively by individuals or companies and in recent years a number of successful purchases have been made by First Nations and conservation groups in an attempt to control and end the commercial trophy hunt in those areas. Now back to the agreement: Except for the statements made at the press conference, the government does not appear to have taken steps to actually end the hunt. The implication of the statements appears to be that the government will continue to not interfere with First Nations and other groups buying out commercial licenses.

So let’s be clear: until there is a documented policy change or financial support for groups or First Nations to buy out the remaining commercial licenses, the province has so far done nothing to stop the commercial hunt.

Other Things To Note:
•          The resident hunt is actually where the majority of grizzly bears are killed and, by all accounts, it will continue under this agreement.

•          Since 2003, Coastal First Nations have declared a ban on the trophy hunting of grizzly bears in the Great Bear Rainforest.

•          91% of British Columbians, rural and urban, oppose grizzly bear trophy hunting.

What should have happened – and what would have been consistent with public opinion, the position of coastal First Nations, basic economics, and the best available science – would be for the Premier to announce a ban on all grizzly bear trophy hunting in the Great Bear, along with a clear strategy to extinguish the remaining guide territories.

As it is, trophy hunting – not just of grizzly bears but of all large carnivores – is still allowed by provincial legislation in the Great Bear Rainforest, including in most of the newly established protected areas. First Nations are left to enforce the ban on trophy hunting with their own resources, in defiance of the province’s regulations.

The Coast Is More Than Timber and Trophies
As we wrote in an email to Pacific Wild supporters, the productivity of the Great Bear Rainforest is fuelled by the richness of the ocean and while this agreement was never meant to address marine protection, it is short sighted to describe the Great Bear as “protected” until a system of marine protected areas are established.


Ian McAllister is co-founder of Pacific Wild and an award winning photographer and author.

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