Caitlyn Vernon: Protecting Great Bear Rainforest from oil tankers a question of humility

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      Conservation photographers from around the world travelled to the Great Bear Rainforest in early September, with the International League of Conservation Photographers, to document the ecosystems and cultures at stake if oil tankers are allowed to travel the narrow fjords and navigate the maze of islands on B.C.’s north coast. Caitlyn Vernon from Sierra Club B.C. was there.

      Imagine sitting underneath an open drainpipe, for nine hours. At least, that’s how the rain felt some of the time. But sitting under a tarp on a bear viewing platform, perched just above a river filled with spawning salmon, the rain hardly seemed to matter. And the bears certainly didn’t mind. Every once in a while they’d shake the water off, like a dog, spray droplets flying everywhere. But that was the only sign that they even noticed the rain. And they certainly didn’t notice us—the salmon were far more interesting. Over the course of those nine hours we saw five black bears, including a cub, fishing in the river. And in what felt like a privilege, an honour, and a responsibility, we saw two spirit bears.

      I say responsibility because the Great Bear Rainforest is the only place in the world that these bears live. A spill from the proposed oil tankers would put at risk their home and future, as well as the future of First Nations ecotourism on the north coast. But the bears don’t know this. They just go about their day, eating and sleeping. Clambering up and over fallen logs, pouncing into pools in the river to catch salmon, emerging dripping water and sometimes with a fish in their mouth. Most times the bears carried the salmon into the woods and bushes along the river to eat. Some bears would walk out of the forest yawning, clearly just waking up from a nap. One lay down for a while, just looking at the river, one paw crossed over the other. Another had a good scratch behind the ear. Seemingly, they could care less that there was a group of people watching them and taking pictures.

      When we contemplate Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal to build a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat and ship oil in tankers through the rainforest, the issue is not one of jobs versus the environment. Instead, the question is what kind of jobs, and what kind of future, do we want for our coast? Do we want the 165 long-term jobs proposed for Kitimat and the possibility of short-term jobs cleaning up oil spills? Or do we want to maintain the 26,000 jobs in the fishing industry that our oceans currently support, and the 30,000 jobs—including those of the Gitga’at bear viewing guides I spent the day in the rain with—in coastal tourism?

      Marven Robinson, Gitga’at guide and photographer, has three children and says he hopes one of them will want to be a spirit bear guide. His voice breaks with emotion as he thanks all the photographers who travelled from far away and volunteered their time to share images of the Great Bear Rainforest with the world.

      Because it’s not just a matter of statistics about how many jobs would be lost when (not if) there would be an oil spill. As Gerald Amos, president of Coastal First Nations, has said, “the fear in our communities is palpable”. The Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay know, from the experiences with the Exxon Valdez and the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that their community would likely not survive. This is not just a matter of jobs; it is a matter of lives.

      You can hear it in the voices of people from the coast, of the photographers who just spent two weeks exploring the region, and in my own voice when I speak. The love for this coast that brings emotion into the conversation in a way that must not be ignored. The deep fear of all that stands to be lost. The frustration and anger of not being listened to. The knowledge that we can choose a different future, one that puts ecological limits and human rights over shareholder profits.

      In fact, the people on the coast have already made this choice. In the Great Bear Rainforest agreements, coastal First Nations set aside a third of their traditional territories into protected areas and agreed to manage the rest using ecosystem-based management, a more sustainable and lighter-touch approach to forestry. Key to this agreement was the commitment to building a conservation-based economy, in which coastal communities could benefit with jobs and revenue from activities that don’t undermine the ecological health of the rainforest. Funds were raised—$120 million in total—to support the transition to a conservation-based economy. Coastal First Nations are actively exploring new opportunities for their communities, including shellfish aquaculture, renewable energy, non-timber forest products, and carbon. Local community-based monitoring programs are being established—supported by the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network—to ensure that tourism, resource extraction, and other activities along the coast are done in a way that protects and restores cultural and ecological values.

      All of these efforts would be dashed by an oil spill in the rainforest. A spill from just one of the over 200 tankers proposed to travel to Kitimat each year would release as much as half of all the oil recently spilled in the Gulf. Industry considers 15 percent recovery a successful clean-up—a shockingly poor recovery rate that would be made even more impossible by the strong currents and big waves of the north coast. That quickly, we would lose all that has been worked towards in the Great Bear Rainforest. We would lose the opportunity to choose a conservation-based economy.

      Sitting there in the rain I couldn’t help but make a promise to these bears and to the people of the coast to do all I can to keep tankers out of the Great Bear Rainforest. With the generous support of the International League of Conservation Photographers, those of us who live far away can see clearly all that is at stake. The “photogs” as they call themselves have done their part; they have captured beautiful images that tell a story about this place and the people and wildlife who call it home. Our job starts now, to take these images to decision-makers across Canada and the United States and even to Europe. To use the power of a picture to gain support from all quarters for a legislated ban on oil tankers through the Great Bear Rainforest.

      For me, it is a question of humility. Of recognizing that everything we eat and everything we use, even our cellphones and computers, come from the natural world around us. Ensuring a healthy future for ourselves and our children means making choices that respect, protect and restore the health of the world we depend on. Oil tankers would take us in a different direction.

      Caitlyn Vernon is a coastal programs campaigner with Sierra Club B.C. People can take action to stop tankers at