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The “Great” Bear Rainforest Agreement? A Love Affair, Deferred

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I recently moved to Orcas, in the northwest corner of Washington state. This horse-shoe-shaped island is the largest and most mountainous of the San Juans, a haven for weirdos, rich retirees, hippies and DIY hipster farmers. It’s a strange mix of the rich and the poor, almost a fiefdom, if the rich did not mix so well with the poor. It’s confusing. The lines blur. We support each other, because we all fiercely love this place, this community, and we choose to be here at the expense of many urbane luxuries and status symbols.

About a month ago, I was walking the docks on a far corner of the island, and, as is Orcas culture, I ran into an older man, white beard, salty, typical, and waved. He looked at me and said, “You have a good spirit.”

I said, “Who are you and where are you from?”

This is the way of the Northwest Coast, once you head off I-5. It’s different from the cities, where they examine resumes and musical tastes. Here, you look at someone in the eye and ask, “Are you my people?”

We became friends. I visited his beautiful boat, the Orina. I read his book, Inside the Inside Passage, about his long trips every summer for 30 years from here to Alaska, which includes, of, course, the coast of British Columbia. And from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the border of Alaska, environmentalists renamed this huge swath of pristine land “The Great Bear Rainforest.”

I hadn’t really thought much about the Great Bear since the early 00’s, when I worked as the communications advisor on the campaign to conserve this place and, ultimately, leave it in the hands of the people who live there – the First Nations, the native people, the Indians, of the B.C. Coast. I left that campaign deflated. I saw how politics are really done. It’s not pretty. (For more about that, you can read the piece I wrote for CounterPunch, Behind the Big Green Door.)

My new friend here on Orcas, Captain Joseph, 80 years old, cranky, lover of Ed Abbey and Jim Harrison, living on his boat, practicing a curmudgeonly wise brand of Buddhism, reminded me of the beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest and how I fell deeply in love with the place, through our conversations and sharing our written stories. It was like revisiting an old love affair years later, after the wounds healed, or rather, the scars formed and faded.

Joseph took CounterPuncher Doug Peacock (Abbey’s inspiration for Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang) up the coast on his boat one time. He also took many Big Green enviro groups through the Great Bear Rainforest for scientific and publicity trips.

So, about a month ago, I began to recall places like the Koeye, in Heiltsuk Territory, where I first saw wolf prints on the beach, and then a river teeming with salmon at dawn, canoeing up its waters, the mist rising.

And cruising on a zodiac into the Khutze, a steep mountain fjord where grizzlies play in the grass.

And Princess Royal Island, where I tried, and failed, to see a Spirit Bear – a genetically unique, white, black bear. (But I did see the black-bear cousins ripping out the eyes and brains of salmon swimming upstream to die.)

There are calm, small villages, in deeply beautiful settings: Klemtu and Hartley Bay and Bella Bella, homes of some of the First Nations of the Great Bear Rainforest. In Klemtu, I met a little boy fishing happily off the wet, neat boardwalk, and learned about rock art in their territory. (I also ate some awful Chinese food). In Hartley Bay, I met grandmas who made beautiful spruce root baskets in an imposing and stunning community longhouse, and marveled at contemporary shell middens. In Bella Bella, I attended a tense meeting with the tribal council among my environmentalist employers about the negotiations between government, Big Green, and big logging companies, underway, and the First Nations’ demand to have a real seat at the table, not just a word and a photo-op in a press release. (At that time, in Bella Bella, suicide was an epidemic, as was alcoholism and despair.)

I saw humpback whales breach. I ate fresh crab, just out of the trap. I met tribal elders and witnessed beautiful totem carvings. I cruised on a Heiltsuk elder’s rusty fishing boat on a crisp fall day, and he showed me his regalia, wool blankets of sea shells sewn in patterns. When I was four months pregnant, I traveled through the Great Bear Rainforest on the Maple Leaf, a gorgeous sail boat, with my environmentalist colleagues, on a big donor trip. After that, I thought my daughter would be a child of the Great Bear Rainforest, due to her experiencing whales and bears and salty sea, and deep fjords, through my body.

So it meant a lot to me, 12 years after that trip, and one month after remembering my passionate love of a place, to learn that the final Great Bear Rainforest Agreement has been signed. It only took 20 years of rapacious negotiations, hundreds of millions of dollars in fundraising, many careers vaulted into great wealth and prestige and political largesse – a lot of consultants made a lot of money, that’s for sure, and some just got fed up, like I did, and walked away from it all. Still, many, many people over the years working their asses off, on all sides – government, loggers, environmentalists, and natives. And, from what I hear, something lasting happened.

Last Monday, a week ago, Canada, First Nations of the coast, big logging companies and the big three environmental groups – Greenpeace, Forest Ethics, and the Sierra Club – announced another agreement, one of many over the years, to conserve this magnificent place. The press, if not in the USA, has saturated Canada and the UK – the Globe and Mail, the BBC, the Guardian, the CBC.

I was around for the first agreement, in 2001. And I’m hoping, 15 years later, that this agreement solidifies the promises from way back when. I read that 85 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest will be conserved, with only a mythological determination called “ecosystem-based management,” by a band of so-called scientists, to keep the saws from the trees. I still don’t know what EBM means. I tried to understand it 15 years ago, for PR purposes. Shrug.

In fact, I was surprised, no, not surprised, I was following the money, sigh, when I saw that the small web site, formerly called Vancouver Observer, now called the National Observer (surprise!), was publishing a 10-part PR series about this agreement.

And the underwriters for the series, just before the announcement? Tides Canada (the umbrella group for all Big Green organizations in British Columbia), Teck Cominco, a MINING COMPANY, and Van City, an big bank.

Wow. What impressive independent journalism.

Still, what I trust, and what I have trusted since I have moved to the coast, and immediately landed among the big negotiators of the Great, Greater, and Greatest Bear Rainforest Agreement over the years, is a group called Pacific Wild.

Pacific Wild, once called Raincoast – these were the people I trusted to keep things honest, even as I worked for others more lucrative. And, to this day, I believe them. You can get their take on the Greatest Bear Rainforest Agreement here.

Ian and Karen McAllister, friends of my friend Captain Joseph, are the real deal. True, hard-knuckled activists. They have lived and worked in this place for two decades, and they know both the lay of the land and the lay of the negotiations. They express love for this place, not just careerism.

Here’s a bit about what they say regarding this, the latest Great Bear Rainforest Agreement:

1. 85 percent of the forest is protected:

Ian says: “We need look no further than the southern-most tip of the Great Bear Rainforest, where despite the EBM (ecosystem-based management) framework that has been in place for a number of years, Timber West continues to log the last remaining old growth enclaves.”

2. Large carnivores are protected.

No, Grizzly hunting, to rich men and women who want a rug or a head, continues in the Great Bear Rainforest. As Ian says, “[T]rophy hunting – not just of grizzly bears but all large carnivores – is still allowed by provincial legislation in the Great Bear Rainforest, including in most of the newly established protected areas. First Nations are left to enforce the ban on trophy hunting with their own resources, in defiance of the province’s regulations.

I, as much as anyone who has spend even a day in the Great Bear Rainforest, wants a real solution, that protects the forest and the animals, and those who live there. I’m sad to say that I’ve been witnessing this for drama of press and ceremony and money for 15 years. I sincerely hope this leads to lasting solutions. What a drama.

In fact, I left the Great Bear Rainforest Campaign, or my place as a staff member, one night on Greenpeace’s imposing, formidable, huge Rainbow Warrior. The ship was returning south after an action in Alaska’s Tongass, stopping to refuel before a sojourn to Costa Rica.

I was three days shy of my due date, very, overwhelmingly pregnant, and despite all the entreatments of champagne and appetizers on the boat, I just waddled around looking for the heads. I climbed down that ladder in Vancouver’s harbor and immediately went into labor once I hit the pavement. Simone , my child, was born 24 hours later.

I tell my child, now, that she was born from that place. She is blessed.

That was many years ago. And still the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement remains amended, like a software update. I think: 10.1.11. or whatever.

I also think now about my recent travels in South Dakota, and the defeat of the KXL Pipeline. There are many similarities between the two fights. In B.C., Big Green poured, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars into agreement after agreement.

In South Dakota, Big Green poured millions into stopping the KXL Pipelline.

For that, they must be congratulated.

But what of the people on the ground? The people like Ian and Karen, in the Great Bear Rainforest, and for the matter, the Lakota on Rosebud who set up action camps – women like Paula Antoine, Shenna Fortner, and Leota Eastman, who made a difference, even among abject poverty and, well, for certain, there was no Rainbow Warrior with hor d’ouerves there on cold nights, in front of a fire on the plains of South Dakota.

So I turn to the Lakota, to the KXL. This, is where the true battle is being fought. Forget the money and the press. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, as much as I admire it, is a sale to the highest bidder. And those who live and work on the land, those like my Lakota friends on Rosebud, they deserve your support.

it’s worth the fight. for our children, for my child, so that we have a place to call wild, or at least free.

Despite my cynicism, let’s hope this is not the last damned Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. Because there is more to do. Let’s hope it does not take 20 years, and hundreds of millions of dollars, this time. Let’s hope for a spirit of community, walking on the docks, or the legislative aisles, or the conference room tables at the posh hotels, or on the road to tipis, looking each other in the eye, and saying, “You seem like good people.”

If not, as the Lakota say, “Hoka Hey.”

I’d rather do so than compromise these places I love so much. And I did not bring my child into this earth for more logging, the trophy hunting of magnificent bears, or the political career of the “Liberal” B.C. government, which, ironically is fighting for it’s life just after this “Final Agreement” was signed.

How odd.

Hoka hey indeed.

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