The Great Bear: worth more alive than dead

By Briony Penn, January 2015

Will adventure tourism and forest stewardship trump logging, pipelines and hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest?

The Canadian Embassy in Beijing recently opened its doors to the Chinese public to showcase Canada’s natural resources in big glossy photographs. Visitors shouldn’t expect pictures of oil rigs, LNG plants, mountains of coal or stacks of timber. Instead there are pictures of bears from the Great Bear Rainforest, orca in the Salish Sea, and sockeye salmon in the Adams River. The Chinese wildlife photographer Xi Zhinong, commissioned by the Canadian Tourism Association, told the China Daily, “Everyone yearns for magnificent nature and stunning animals. There are endless seas and forests in British Columbia. Various animals, including black bears, grizzly bears, whales, bald eagles and salmon can be found everywhere. In British Columbia, you can see the world as it first appeared.”

Meanwhile, in November, Destination BC—the Province’s re-minted Tourism BC—launched its own branding video for BC, The Wild Within, wherein the narrator takes you through a stunning array of wild BC landscapes, much of it in the Great Bear Rainforest, and declares: “The exhilaration of BC that reminds you of what it feels like to be alive. The wild within. Supernatural British Columbia.” 

Yes, it is now official; we can talk again about Supernatural BC as BC’s brand. Destination BC’s hip new “virtual experience” show, a 3-D view created through Oculus Rift technology, is hitting all the trade shows this month. Viewers, relying on virtual reality goggles, get immersed in images from the Great Bear Rainforest. Manager of Trade Media Relations Janice Greenwood-Fraser tells the viewer in a promotional Youtube video that they picked the region because “The Great Bear is such an iconic representation of what BC is: the towering mountains, the untouched forest, and the beautiful coastal wilderness is so much what British Columbia is about.”

Meanwhile, back in Victoria, Jens Wieting, Sierra Club BC’s forest and climate campaigner—one of the steadfast hundreds up and down the coast slogging through negotiations for the last decade to see our iconic representation stay iconic—is feeling cautiously optimistic that the final ratifications to the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement are being given some priority and resources by the Province. This agreement started with the market campaigns of 1999, reached a tentative agreement with interim measures in 2009, and was supposed to be finalized by the close of 2014. The agreement is still not in place, but there are signs things are moving past the deadlock.

Wieting, at press time, expressed concern with the ongoing delays that have dogged the process the whole way, but noted, significantly, “We have seen a difference in terms of the BC government just in the last few weeks with a little more leadership.” 

Are the tourism initiatives helping? “Hard to know,” says Wieting. With the relaunch of Supernatural BC’s The Wild Within, perhaps the provincial government has finally connected the dots. You cannot have iconic landscapes of untouched forests when you cut them down. You cannot have beautiful coastal wilderness when you have oil tankers fouling coastlines. You cannot have tourists paying the big bucks when you destroy the very thing they are paying for—what makes them feel alive—and that isn’t a clearcut or an LNG plant. 

With Petronas putting its plan for developing LNG on hold and plunging oil prices transforming pipelines into pipedreams, the Province may now want to turn some of its attention to sustainable tourism. As Wieting comments: “In some cases it just takes a little longer for this current government to see there are priorities other than LNG.” For the Great Bear agreement, according to Wieting, “It appears that they have a little more resources for the outstanding steps.”

What are the outstanding steps to finalize this agreement?

First are the new land-use objectives (or, in old-speak, new logging regulations) based on ecosystem-based management, which increases the preservation of old-growth forest to 70 percent in the Great Bear. 

Second is a new legal framework for long-term timber supply that will determine how much companies can take and when. 

The most complex component of the plan, though, is negotiations with First Nations. They want job training, the end of the commercial grizzly bear hunt, a restored ferry service, and shared decision-making. 

Astonishingly, neither the provincial nor federal agencies have done any research into the economic values generated from this region, nor have they kept up any baseline information on the landscapes that generate this wealth. 

We do know, however, from international sources like the Adventure Tourism Market Study completed last year, that this market, worldwide, has had an annual yearly growth of an astounding 69 percent since 2009 and generated $263 billion in 2012. The provincial government’s 2012 report on tourism, Gaining the Edge, reported that BC’s tourism industry generated $13.4 billion (in 2011) in revenue and that consumers cite the natural environment as the greatest motivator in choosing a trip to BC. Perhaps most important, tourism’s contribution to BC’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to  the ministry website, “[exceeds] other primary resource industries, including forestry, agriculture and fisheries, and mining and oil and gas extraction.” As the CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission states, it is “Canada’s spectacular beauty that attracts visitors from across the globe.” 

Although there has been little data gathered by anyone on the region’s adventure tourism potential, a bear-viewing study conducted by the Center for Responsible Travel out of Stanford University determined that 53 local companies were taking people out to see grizzly and spirit bears in the Great Bear. This generated over $15 million in one season, 15 times what was generated from killing bears. That is direct revenue going straight into the pockets of local communities, guides, small travel operators and professional services. If you extrapolate to all the businesses catering to all forms of nature and adventure tourism along with indirect revenues, the wild within begins to have substantial and numerous hairy legs.

Wieting thinks the new draft logging regulations and the management framework for the region should be going out for 60 days public comment in mid-January, and could be signed and sealed by March 31, together with the agreement on conservation and human well-being initiatives for First Nations communities.

The biggest dots that Premier Christy Clark still seems unable to connect, however, are those of the Great Bear and climate change. These forests constitute the largest land-based carbon sink for emissions on the planet. The lowland rainforest captures more carbon per hectare than anywhere else in the world, a fact that hasn’t escaped First Nations. They are generating a new kind of revenue in carbon offsets for stewarding their forests that—like bears—are worth more alive than dead. 

Clark missed the point again recently when she tried to quell critics of her government’s expansive LNG dreams with promises to purchase carbon offsets from places like the Great Bear to balance her carbon budget. As Wieting points out, “good forest carbon projects don’t sell to businesses that are expanding their fossil fuel emissions; they sell to businesses that are in the process of reducing emissions.” Clark needs to understand this final point, “because,” as Wieting notes, “if we don’t get a handle on our emissions and protecting our sinks, there won’t be a Supernatural BC.”

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993. She is currently working on a biography of Ian McTaggart Cowan.