B.C. Coastal First Nations have taken on a critical role in the future of the Great Bear Rainforest, which covers a land-base twice the size of Vancouver Island.
On Feb. 1, the province announced a comprehensive agreement that will protect 85 per cent of the forest land base, while the remaining 550,000 hectares will be subject to the most stringent, science-based commercial logging standards in North America.
“It is structured specifically to allow for a viable forest industry,” ForestEthics Solutions spokesperson Valerie Langer told Windspeaker.
“They have reduced the total amount [of harvest] and First Nations get a bigger piece of the pie.”
Calling it “globally significant,” Langer said the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement actually consists of 26 separate agreements between the province, First Nations, forest companies and environmental organizations.
“When you look at the land use objectives that have been signed into law, the whole first section of the new logging rules is First Nations cultural values. So this is dramatically different from how forestry has operated across the province.”
Heiltsuk First Nation has taken a leading role in bringing the agreement to fruition, and the new rules are already playing out at the ground level, according to William Housty of Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.
“We have working agreements with all the forest companies in our territory,” Housty said. “It’s through them we are able to increase our access to free-use wood, to cultural wood, for major projects like our Big House.”
Housty said, unlike many of the smaller Nations, Heiltsuk has been fortunate to have a large resource management department, including a full-time forester, at its disposal throughout the process.
“We have been able to focus exclusively on developing these land-use objectives. We have been able to sit at every table, travel to every meeting and have a voice at every venue.”
All told, Heiltsuk Coastal Forest Products has gained access to an additional 235,000 cubic metres (cm3) of timber plus a forest license of 50,000 cm3 to complete its Big House project. As well, the Nation will receive $150,000 in Targeted Training Funds over the next three years.
“We are quite happy with the ground we have been able to gain, coming out of the previous round [of negotiations] in 2009. We’re looking forward to implementing these objectives now.”
Housty said Heiltsuk has had the right to harvest wood for cultural purposes as part of its traditional rights and title. But actually extracting selected timber suitable for creating large projects, such as canoes, totem poles or longhouses, can prove extremely difficult unless it is accomplished as part of a larger harvesting operation.
“That’s one of the key components of our agreements with the forest companies, is that they assist us with access to cultural wood in terms of moving the wood into the water, or transport by boat.
“As part of the agreements, we have boatloads of Heiltsuk people taken out to the sites where they are roadbuilding – where trees have been fallen for road-building purposes. [Heiltsuk crews] can harvest cedar from that. It’s been a very big increase in access to cedar of all types, whether it is the bark or the tree itself. We’ve been able to leverage that into our agreements quite well.”
Historically, a lot of yellow cedar has been felled in roadbuilding operations on the B.C. Coast, Housty noted. Because it is considered a low-value species for milling, much of that wood has been wasted over the years.
Culturally, however, yellow cedar is of immense value. Gaining access to this once-marginalized resource has been a major bonus for Heiltsuk, Housty said.
Langer emphasized that this sort of cooperation is key to the agreement.
“The rules are structured so that forest companies are able to get out a particular wood flow. So there is less logging, but it is structured to be more operable, so that everybody walks away with the possibility that what they are most interested in can happen: business and First Nations having shared opportunities on their land base, and environmentalists knowing that the forests, and the species within them, will be healthy.”
In a Feb. 1 news release, Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said Heiltsuk and its neighburing Nations have a major challenge ahead in both implementing the agreements and monitoring the operations that flow from them at the ground level.
But Slett said Heiltsuk is up to the challenge.
“The agreement on the land use order is an important milestone in self-determination. We are looking forward to a very productive relationship with the province,” Slett said.