A few days ago, I flew over the southern part of the Great Bear Rainforest to take a look at the landscape in the tenure of the logging company TimberWest. After studying satellite images I expected to see a fair amount of recent logging activity on the ground. But in reality I was hardly prepared to see an extended patchwork of huge swaths of clearcuts in the world’s largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest.
The three environmental organizations working to implement the Great Bear Rainforest agreements fully—Sierra Club B.C., Greenpeace, and ForestEthics—had become concerned with the recent spike in logging activity and its impact on rainforest in the south that is of crucial importance to achieve the ecologically appropriate level of conservation across the region. We decided to organize this reconnaissance flight over TimberWest operations, with the help of LightHawk, an organization of volunteer pilots supporting conservation efforts.
The Great Bear Rainforest is home to the rare white spirit bears, grizzly bears, and rich runs of salmon. The 2006 Great Bear Rainforest agreements aimed to protect this globally-significant rainforest and improve the well-being of coastal communities. They were supported by the B.C. government, First Nations, a group of logging companies, and a coalition of environmental groups, and received international acknowledgement.
However, while half of the Great Bear Rainforest is off-limits to logging under current transitional management rules based on ecosystem-based management (lighter-touch logging), a significant conservation objective remains: to revise logging regulations in order to set aside 70 percent of the natural level of old-growth forest (over the current 50 percent).
Unfortunately, the only major logging company in the Great Bear Rainforest that has so far not supported the conservation agreements or implemented voluntary conservation measures happens to operate in the southern part of the Great Bear, already the least protected area and the hardest hit by logging.
Logging has already converted most of the rainforest in the south to second-growth forest. For example, within TimberWest tenure, only 10 percent of the productive forest growing in lower elevations is old-growth. And there are significant differences in the level of protection within the three planning areas in the Great Bear Rainforest. While 33 percent of the region as a whole is in protected areas where logging is prohibited, only 12 percent of the South Central Coast is in protected areas.
What I saw during the flight is that TimberWest’s surge in logging activity is happening in areas that are already ecologically at the edge, including the Gray, Fulmore, and Thurlow areas, just north of Quadra Island.
To make matters worse for the south, a key conservation commitment made in the 2009 agreements has been critically delayed. A network of forests and essential habitat for five species of conservation concern outside of protected areas was supposed to be mapped and set aside by the end of 2009. Yet this network is still not in place. Without these vital measures, habitat of at-risk species like grizzly bears, mountain goats, and tailed frogs that should be conserved could still be logged. Marbled murrelet and northern goshawk habitat is already in alarming deficit in the South Central Coast.
My flight over this region was a stark visual reminder why we need the Great Bear Rainforest agreements fully in place today rather than tomorrow. The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests and after five years of transition it is time to ensure adequate protection for the Great Bear and the species that live there.
Last month, TimberWest shareholders voted to support a change in company ownership. The new owners are the B.C. Investment Management Corporation and the (federal) Public Sector Pension Investment Board. TimberWest management is currently considering whether to follow other operators in the region and adopt voluntary measures to set aside a slightly higher minimum amount of rainforest in each landscape unit than what is legally required. It remains to be seen if the company, under new management, will follow the lead of other forestry companies.
Taking immediate voluntary steps to bring its conservation standards to the same level as other operators, publicly supporting the Great Bear Rainforest conservation model, and preparing the company for a move to full ecosystem-based management could tip the balance and make TimberWest a champion instead of remaining the pariah in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Jens Wieting is a forest campaigner for Sierra Club B.C.