First Nations along the north and central coast could reap a financial windfall if they and the government agree on recommendations from industry and environmental groups to protect an additional 500,000 hectares of the Great Bear Rainforest.
It's in a region covering about 6.4 million hectares along B.C.’s central and north coast—an area larger than Switzerland.
It's the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest.
According to UBC Sauder School of Business professor James Tansey, protecting 70 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest from logging—which would result from the recommendations—would yield about 1.2 million tonnes of carbon credits per year.
These credits could be sold for $15 to $25 per tonne, generating $18 million to $30 million annually for First Nations communities in the region.
“It gets spent on community economic development and job creation,” Tansey, CEO of Offsetters, told the Georgia Straight at a clean-technology conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre. “We’ve been working with them on things like shellfish aquaculture and ecotourism.”
The Great Bear Rainforest is home to 17 types of marine mammals, as well as grizzly bears, rare white spirit bears, and numerous other species.
Tansey said that the current level of protected old-growth forests in the Great Bear Rainforest generates about a million tonnes of carbon credits annually.
First Nations can sell these credits to generate revenue in return for choosing not to harvest forested lands, which would jeopardize biodiversity.
Recent history of Great Bear Rainforest
Jens Wieting, forest and climate campaigner with the Sierra Club of B.C., visited the Straight office earlier this week to discuss how the recent recommendations came forward.
He began by noting that the region is home to more than 20 First Nations groups who’ve been there for thousands of years.
In the 1990s, tensions rose between environmentalists and forest companies over the extent of logging in the area.
He mentioned that at times, discussions would break down because the two sides would end up yelling at each other.
Wieting said that around the same time, the provincial government and First Nations began negotiations on how to improve their relationship and share decision-making in the region.
“All these different conflicts and discussions then morphed into the so-called Great Bear Rainforest agreements announced in 2006 by the provincial government, First Nations, a group of logging companies, and three environmental organizations [Sierra Club of B.C., ForestEthics, and Greenpeace],” he said. “These agreements were about increasing conservation [of land] based on ecosystem-based management. Secondly, there was an agreement around a big funding package to support economic alternatives—conservation financing, primarily in First Nations communities.”
He added that another “very important component” concerned a new decision-making model: the province and First Nations would jointly agree on land use and other important issues in the area.
The 2009 milestones
Wieting said that in 2009, about one-third of the Great Bear Rainforest—2.1 million hectares—was protected from logging.
In addition, a $120-million fund was established to support economic alternatives in First Nations communities. And a land-use forum was created to facilitate further discussions, which Wieting described as a “big, outstanding step”.
“All parties agreed that the so-called land-use objectives implemented at the time would be reviewed within five years,” he stated.
The 2009 agreement called for “transitional logging regulations” protecting half of the region’s old-growth timber, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy environmental groups.
“We wanted to make sure that we would meet the scientists’ recommendations for conservation of the rainforest, which was to set aside 70 percent of the natural level of old-growth forests,” he said.
Wieting explained that by reaching the 70 percent figure in a coastal temperate rainforest, there’s a high likelihood that wildlife won’t be seriously affected.
“You don’t have to worry about the bears, wolves, and salmon, and these remarkable ecosystems will remain stable and intact,” he said.
He pointed out that the 2009 agreement set aside similar amounts of different types of ecosystems, such as cedar-leading, western hemlock-leading, alpine meadows, and wetlands.
The environmental groups zeroed in on five “focal species”: grizzlies, marbled murrelets, mountain goats, northern goshawks, and coastal tailed frogs.
That’s because if there’s enough habitat for them, it will also preserve sufficient land for other species with similar needs.
"Most importantly, we didn’t favour ice and rock like on Vancouver Island," he said. "On Vancouver Island, the biggest protected area is Strathcona Park. There are very few productive forest areas in there. There’s a huge lack of productive big-tree ecosystems off-limits to logging. The Great Bear Rainforest has a completely different approach."
Wieting emphasized that while the environmental organizations and forest companies have been at the table reaching a consensus on recommendations, final decision-making rests with the First Nations and the B.C. government.
There are two aboriginal organizations that represent indigenous groups in the decision-making process.
Coastal First Nations includes the Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaisais, Nuxalk Nation, Gitga’at, Metlakatia, Old Masset, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation. Its key spokesperson is Art Sterritt.
The Nawakolas Council, headed by Dallas Smith, represents the Mamalilikulla Qew’Qwa’Sot’Em, Tlowitsis, Da’naxda’xw Awaetlatla, Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw, We Wai Kum, Kwiakah, and K’omoks First Nations.
Wieting said that after some tough negotiations, the three environmental groups, B.C. Timber Sales, and four forest companies—Interfor, Western Forest Products, Catalyst, and Howe Sound Pulp and Paper—have proposed to set aside an additional 500,000 hectares of forest area in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations staff and First Nations will review them. Under the Land Act, the government must subject any proposed changes to a public-review process lasting 60 days.
According to Wieting, these latest recommendations would set aside “pretty close” to 70 percent of the old-growth forests.
“If you protect old-growth forests from being chopped down today, that has the immediate benefit of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions today, not tomorrow,” he said.
That’s because old-growth forests act as a sink, sucking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to climate change.
He also noted that the terrestrial and marine ecosystems work hand-in-hand. Grizzly bears, for example, take salmon carcasses into the forest. Marble murrelets nest in old-growth forests, but travel to the ocean to find fish to eat.
Wieting said that because final decisions about protected areas will be made by First Nations and the B.C. government, he didn’t want to reveal too many details about the latest recommendations from the industrial and environmental groups.
“We want to respect the First Nations in particular,” he said, “and not describe it in a way that could be misinterpreted.”
B.C. is losing carbon sinks
Earlier this month, the Sierra Club of B.C. revealed that the province's forests have been releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in recent years.
In 2011 alone, new data suggests emissions of 35 million tonnes.
That was more than half the official total of 62 million tonnes released that year—and the 35 million tonnes weren't counted in the province's official tally.
Since 2003, according to the Sierra Club of B.C., 270 million tonnes have been released—six times B.C.'s official total.
That's as a result of logging, forest fires, cutting down trees as a result of the mountain pine beetle outbreak, and poor forest-management practices.
UBC's Tansey said that the province has bought carbon credits already from the Great Bear Rainforest to meet its goal of creating a carbon-neutral government.
He added that First Nations in other areas may be in a position to sell up to another million tonnes of carbon credits annually.
“As the province’s emissions grow and LNG ramps [up], we need to see, now, more funding from offsets flowing into the First Nations communities to compensate for the loss of forestry revenue," Tansey said. "So that’s probably the next stage in the process. The government hasn’t made a final decision on whether the LNG facilities will be regulated yet—and needs to do that.”
The Northern Gateway threat
Meanwhile, Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline poses a threat to the economic interests of Coastal First Nations, according to Wieting.
That's because many of the economic initiatives being undertaken in lieu of forestry rely on healthy ecosystems and a pristine coast.
"If there would be a tanker accident, that would have a catastrophic impact on everything—on communities, on jobs, on the environment," Wieting said.