Saving the Spirit Bears

A Historic Agreement Protects Canada’s Largest Temperate Rainforest

A historic agreement reached this April between Canadian environmental groups and Canada"s logging industry will ensure the long-term security of British Columbia"s threatened west coast Great Bear Rainforest. The groundbreaking deal promises to bring an end to almost 20 years of some of the most intense and bitter environmental campaigning in Canadian history.

The spirit bear, or kermode, a rare white subspecies, exists only in the Great Bear Rainforest, which has won an important reprieve from the logger’s ax. A Greenpeace-led boycott of Great Bear forest products cleared the way for the deal.
Ian McAllister/Greenpeace

Under the terms of the agreement, which involved intense negotiations with First Nations, logging companies, unions and coastal communities, 20 untouched watersheds will receive permanent protection, and logging will be deferred in another 68 watersheds. In addition, the logging industry has committed itself to more ecologically sensitive harvesting. "This is a great leap forward in securing the future of Canada"s rainforest," says Tamara Stark, a Greenpeace Canada forest campaigner.

The Great Bear Rainforest, so named by environmentalists because of its high concentration of large bears, runs north from Vancouver to the Alaskan border and represents the largest remaining area of temperate coastal rainforest on the planet. Rendered virtually inaccessible due to its ruggedly wild terrain of plunging fjords and ice-topped mountains, the Great Bear Rainforest has remained untouched since the last ice age some 15,000 years ago and, until now, was largely unknown to the outside world.

The forest is a natural treasure trove of rare plants, birds and mammals. Scientists continue to uncover the extent of the biodiversity and complex ecological relationships. It was discovered only recently, through research by the Raincoast Conservation Society, that the region supports a genetically distinct population of wolves. Research by Neville Winchester at the University of Victoria found up to 10,000 insect species specific to individual rainforest valleys, the vast majority of which had been unknown to science.

Perhaps the most startling discovery of all is the importance of salmon in providing nutrients for the entire rainforest ecosystem. Studies by Tom Reimchen, also at the University of Victoria, have shown that, over the course of the salmon spawning season, bears carry up to 700 salmon each into the rainforest, eating only half of any one fish. The decaying carcasses provide a vital pulse of nutrients into the ecosystem.

One of the more well-known examples of the forest"s unique biodiversity is the kermode, or spirit bear, a rare all-white sub-species of the black bear that only lives in a remote area of the Great Bear Rainforest. Though kermode bears are normally black, thanks to a genetic quirk (unrelated to albinism), a number of them are born with all-white fur. According to local indigenous Kitasoo and Gitga"at First Nation people, when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, the First Nations" creator, the Raven, made the spirit bear as a reminder that the rainforest was once white with ice and snow.

While nearly 1,000 black bears live in British Columbia"s rainforests, only around 400 white spirit bears are thought to exist. They live mainly on the remote Gribbell and Princess Royal islands some 300 miles north of Vancouver. These islands form the heart of the proposed Spirit Bear Park.

Haunting images of the spirit bear were used to great effect by environmental groups around the world in the global campaign to save the Great Bear Rainforest from being destroyed by logging. Central to the successful campaign was a market boycott led by Greenpeace International against the global market of Interfor, the Canadian forest products company that was logging within the Great Bear Rainforest. By targeting the company through a series of high-profile direct actions around the world to dissuade customers from buying timber from British Columbian temperate rainforests, Greenpeace brought about a significant victory. "We have been under a lot of pressure," admits Steve Crombie, Interfor"s director of public affairs and communications. "We have been anxious to find a way to resolve this."

As a consequence of the agreement, British Columbia has since undergone a staggeringly rapid change in the eyes of environmental groups. "British Columbia"s international reputation has been transformed overnight from an environmental culprit to an environmental hero," says Merran Smith of the Canadian Sierra Club. Smith adds that the agreement creates a North American rainforest legacy "that can be held up to the world as a template for resolving environmental conflict."

However, the environmentalists" euphoria that accompanied the signing of the agreement with then-British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh has given way to caution following provincial elections in May, when the right-wing Liberal Party sweep to power under Gordon Campbell. "We would expect the new Government to fully implement a deal that had such a high level of consensus from such diverse interests," says Tamara Stark from Greenpeace Canada. "The bottom line, though, is that we don"t know their full intentions."

Betty Krawczyk, the 72-year-old great-grandmother who was jailed last year for protesting against the logging of the Great Bear Rainforest, is more pessimistic. "The Great Bear Rainforest is just one forest in British Columbia that has been saved while other old-growth forests are still being clear-cut," says Krawczyk. "The new Liberal Government is no friend of the rainforests, so I predict there"s going to be more war in the woods. I fear that I may have to spend the rest of my life in jail."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace"s Canadian success has given a much-needed boost to the group"s Ancient Forest campaign, which aims to save the remaining forests in the Amazon, Congo Basin and the Russian Far East. "Logging companies destroying ancient forests around the world and their customers should take note of what has happened here in British Columbia," says Tim Birch, a forests campaigner for Greenpeace International. "We will be stepping up our campaign to target governments and companies who fail to protect the world"s remaining ancient forests."