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Canada's Huge New Preserve Protects Rare "Spirit Bears"

Anna Petherick
for National Geographic News
March 1, 2006
 
After more than ten years of dispute, government, industry,
environmental, and indigenous groups in British Columbia (see map) agreed last month to create
a massive new wilderness preserve.

The Great Bear Rainforest lies within a 15.5-million-acre (6.3-million-hectare) region of steep-sided fjords and islands along the Canadian province's Pacific coast.

Under the deal, the new park's 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares)—nearly twice as large as Yellowstone National Park—are off limits to loggers and largely closed to mining exploration.

Logging companies can fell trees in a sustainable manner over the rest of the region.

"[The agreement is] a living process, which I don't think is ever finished. But in today's terms, I think we have balance," said Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia.

Genetic Variant

According to tribal legend, a godlike creator in the form of a raven turned one of every ten black bears white to remind humankind how clean the Earth was during the Ice Age.

These "spirit bears" live almost exclusively in the temperate rain forest region that stands at the heart of the decade-long land dispute.

Spirit bears, also called Kermode bears, are not albinos. They are rare genetic variants of the black bear (see photo), with black skin underneath white fur. Only a few hundred of the white bears are known to exist.

"Last year I saw seven white cubs on one river—all of them had black mothers," said Marvin Robinson, a spirit-bear guide of the Git-ga'at First Nation tribe.

Robinson, 36, spends his days from August through the first week of October taking tourists by boat to viewing platforms he built along several of the region's rivers.

From there visitors can safely watch spirit bears splatter their white fur with blood as they gorge on migrating salmon.

"The first time I saw a spirit bear, which was only about a decade ago, it was similar to what people call spiritual," Marvin said.

At least one observer believes the spirit bear was a critical symbol for the movement to create the Great Bear preserve.

"Environmentalists started to take different tactics with the Great Bear Rainforest," said David Tindall, an environmental sociologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

"One of the crucial things they did was to frame [their campaign] specifically, not as an effort to protect biodiversity, but with bears—large mammals that really capture people's imagination," he said.

"But I don't think the bear is the main thing that they are trying to protect."

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to many threatened and endangered species, such as coastal tailed frogs and peregrine falcons, as well as 20 percent of the world's salmon.

Merran Smith, director of the British Columbia coastal program of activist group ForestEthics, is a veteran of the Great Bear conflict.

According to Smith, environmentalists realized that the sheer size of the land they wanted to protect meant that they would have to rethink their more traditional grassroots methods, such as protesting on the roads leading to logging operations.

So conservationists, led by Greenpeace, took their protests to Europe and the United States in the 1990s. They aimed to put pressure on logging companies by diminishing the market for their products.

The protests convinced more than 80 firms, including Home Depot, Ikea, Staples, and IBM, to stop purchasing wood from logging companies operating in the rain forest.

The measures forced a moratorium on timber extraction from the region's hundred pristine valleys and opened negotiations among government, conservation, and industry groups.

Eco-economy

First Nations leaders joined the land-use discussions in 2002. Until then, the First Nations had felt excluded from decisions that impact their lives, Campbell, the British Columbia premier, says.

The new agreement, negotiated with First Nations leaders at the table, establishes a fund to help tribes in the region stay viable in a conservation-based economy.

The provincial government has promised about 26 million Canadian dollars for conservation management projects and ecologically sustainable business ventures in First Nations territories.

Many stakeholders are hoping that the Canadian federal government will match that pledge.

"I'm hopeful that they will come forward with 30 million [dollars]," Campbell said.

The government funds would then supplement contributions from several private U.S. and Canadian foundations, bringing the total package to about 120 million Canadian dollars.

Many of the details of the new land-use agreement still have to be fleshed out, according to Lisa Matthaus, coast campaign coordinator for the Sierra Club of Canada, British Columbia Chapter.

"This is an achievement on a world scale, but we don't look at it as over," Matthaus said.

In the next year, experiments with different logging methods are needed to see which ones are most appropriate, Smith adds.

The agreement is expected to come into legal force in June. But both the government and the forestry companies have already committed themselves to implementing the changes beforehand, Smith says.

And then the ecosystem-based logging management needs to be enforced on the ground.

"I can't really say that we, the conservation agencies, trust [the government's enforcement] processes," Smith said.

"We will be reporting out with an annual report card to let the world know what's happening."

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