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The Planet

Pact Keeps Great Bear Wild

by Jenny Coyle

Once you have seen it, you cannot help but fight for it.

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That's what Bill Wareham, executive director of the Sierra Club of British Columbia, believes about the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada.

"A commitment to preserve the rainforest is ingrained once you've been there," he said. "On a recent trip, we were coming out by boat and we saw white spirit bears hunting in the river, salmon jumping everywhere, massive 1,000-year-old trees, humpback and killer whales. You know this will never be recreated - ever."

British Columbia is the largest supplier of old-growth wood to the United States, and the United States is British Columbia's biggest customer. As a result, Sierra Club activists on both sides of the border got involved in the campaign to protect the Great Bear, and are now celebrating what is being called the largest rainforest conservation measure in North American history.

A hard-won accord struck in April by First Nations (aboriginal peoples), environmentalists, industry groups, local communities, labor and government will bar logging, mining and hydropower development on 1.5 million acres of the Great Bear. A moratorium on these activities is in place on another 2 million acres while a team of scientists and economic specialists - along with all parties, including First Nations - looks at possible land use and protection of these watersheds.

The agreement also calls for a team of scientists to develop an ecosystem-based management framework as a guide for future forest practices, and a program to provide economic development opportunities for First Nations and other local residents.

"This is like having the past four years of sweat and hard labor and pain and crying finally get honored by something good," said Wareham.

Great Bear Rainforest is a name bestowed on the region years ago by environmentalists looking for a way to identify the area and give their campaign a memorable moniker. The name refers to the region's poster child, the rare white subspecies of black bear called the Kermode bear, or spirit bear.

The Sierra Club of British Columbia was instrumental in the agreement in two ways: Activists mapped all pristine watersheds and the present state of development and logging threats in the region and, under the leadership of forest organizer Merran Smith, brought an array of players to the negotiating table.

"Merran had the vision that such an agreement was even possible," said Vicky Husband, a long-time Sierra Club of British Columbia director who last year won the province's highest award for her environmental activism. "Who'd think we could sit down and negotiate with the timber industry? Merran brought us together and she was not going to give up."

Another important player, she said, was Club scientific advisor Dr. Jody Holmes, who was respected for bringing solid data to the negotiations.

"We also brought credibility to the process because we're the Sierra Club - it's a name that's recognized everywhere, and it's got clout," Husband said. "We made sure all the decision-makers had the issue of Sierra magazine that featured the Great Bear Rainforest on its cover. In a province with a population of 4 million people, a magazine that goes to 600,000 people has a tremendous impact."

Key to the timber industry's decision to hammer out a pact was the work done by activists in the international marketplace. A high-profile campaign by Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, the Coastal Rainforest Coalition (now Forest Ethics) and the Club convinced major corporations and cities to pledge a phase-out of wood from endangered forests, including the Great Bear. Home Depot, Lowe's, Kinkos and 400 other corporations have made such commitments. Greenpeace lobbied the international market and got contracts canceled that cost the Canadian timber industry millions of dollars.

The Club's Atlantic (New York) Chapter and its Good Wood Campaign joined the effort, pressuring the New York City Council to adopt a bill requiring the city to buy only wood that is sustainably harvested. The council is expected to pass the bill soon. Said Susan Holmes, the Club's New York regional representative, "By using consumer and government purchasing power, we can build a national market for sustainable wood."

The agreement is firm, said Wareham in British Columbia, though politics in the province are looking like those in the United States: Elections in May were expected to bring a shift not unlike the Clinton-to-Bush changing of the guard. The new administration could ignore the pact.

"But that's highly unlikely, given the broad base of support for the agreement, and the importance of the Great Bear Rainforest nationally and internationally," he said.

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