A Journey Into the Great Bear Rainforest

Canada's rare temperate rainforest faces threats from logging and oil interests, but it can be saved yet

When we disembarked from our sailboat and onto smaller zodiacs, we were consumed by the surrounding landscape, floating on a still, glacier-formed channel with forested mountains flanking either side. Under the mist, we hummed forward into what appeared to be a closed estuary. Before us, the estuary opened up, exposing fields lush with tall grasses and wildflowers. The thick, heavy rainforest lay beyond. All around, Bonaparte gulls dipped into the shallow areas, scooping up freshly laid salmon eggs in their beaks as the salmon arrived by the thousands from the Pacific to spawn. We quietly floated around in the rain hoping to spot bear, while nearby waterfalls crashed down the mountainsides.

grizzly mom + 3 cubsPhoto by Sara SantiagoA grizzly mom fishes for salmon with her cubs. The Great Bear Rainforest stretches for more than 400 kilometers along the BC coast and is the largest coastal temperate rainforest remaining on Earth.

On this, my first trip to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest along with philanthropists and conservation advocates, the estuary before us felt like one of the most remote and magnificent places I’d ever seen. High in the pines, several bald eagles looked on; the young freckled males chatted with one another from branches above. With so much openness and an abundance of resources, there was no conflict amongst them. After sitting and waiting quietly in the rain for a while, we disembarked from the small boats and headed for the field. As we congregated to walk inland, I looked back and spotted the movement of a grizzly through the mist shrouding the field opposite us. Deeper into the mist, our captain noticed she had three cubs alongside, watching their mother as she assessed the area for salmon.

War and Peace in the Woods:

According to Tides Canada, the Great Bear Rainforest stretches for more than 400 kilometers along the BC coast and is the “largest coastal temperate rainforest remaining on Earth” at 21 million acres. The same Tides report claims: “coastal temperate rainforests have always been rare and are considered more threatened than tropical rainforests.” Sixty percent of them are already gone.  

Amidst an era of global deforestation for everything from timber and paper to clearing land for mineral extraction and palm oil plantations, the Great Bear Rainforest remains an intact and functioning ecosystem, home to endemic wildlife and native peoples. I witnessed this in every turn of a channel and in every land-sea connection: from the plentiful salmon making their way from the sea to spawn upstream in the forest, to the grizzlies and black bears feeding upon them, to the eagles observing from all directions and taking part in fishing, to the massive humpback and fin whales feeding on the rich inlets’ microorganisms, waving their fins in elation.

This area looks the way it does today because of the 1990s War in the Woods, when environmentalists protested clear-cut logging of the Great Bear Rainforest. Activist groups such as Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network organized direct action protests and boycotts against logging companies by targeting their retail customers, like Home Depot and Lowe’s. While some forest companies ignored the protests, others such as current-day Weyerhaeuser and International Forests Products came to the table, suggesting a “cooling off period” in which they halted clear-cutting in certain sensitive areas if environmentalists in turn paused their campaigns to this day. This 1999 agreement created a platform for land use negotiations, which have been ongoing ever since.  

According to Greenpeace, 50 percent of the initially agreed upon conservation goal has been met, though the ultimate goal is 70 percent of the GBR. The Globe and Mail reported that in January of this year, environmentalists (Greenpeace, Forest Ethics Solutions, and Sierra Club BC) and the forest industry came to an agreement on what areas of the Great Bear could be logged versus protected. To hit that 70 percent, however, it is now necessary for the BC provincial government to come to a resolution with the 27 First Nations, who live and subsist upon this area. Part of the original GBR agreement included a “human well-being” element, in which First Nations are calling for skills-training, an end to grizzly trophy hunting, shares in the selective logging, carbon credit offsets, and increased ferry transit for communities. A final deal among environmentalists, industry, First Nations, and governments might arrive soon.

Challenges to Communities and Ecosystems:

estuary view with gullsPhoto by Sara SantiagoThis rainforest is a highly politicized landscape. It’s a place where hunters, loggers, First Nations, governments, environmentalists, pipeline developers, and oil producers all have a stake in its development, or its preservation.

Meanwhile, just east of the GBR in the province of Alberta, “industrial development and forest fires in Canada’s tar sands region has cleared or degraded 775,500 ha of boreal forest since the year 2000,” according to a World Resources Institute’s assessment based on its online monitoring tool, Global Forest Watch. This degradation ultimately threatens the ongoing protection of the Great Bear Rainforest. Extraction and transportation of oil and natural gas from Alberta to BC’s coast poses a new threat to the Great Bear. Its ecosystem and the First Nation communities dependent on the forest for survival are facing the proposed construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, liquid natural gas (LNG) pipelines, and the multitude of tankers that would transport that oil and gas from this glacial fjord land to overseas Asian markets.

When visiting the Gitga’at First Nations community, it became apparent to me that oil and gas transit is a major issue on residents’ minds. Community representatives have been engaging with Enbridge for over a decade, and First Nations have spent millions of dollars resisting infrastructure and development in their territories, funds that otherwise could have supported community development. While fishing with a Gitga’at girl before departing from the Great Bear Rainforest, it was difficult for me to imagine a spill that could decimate an entire salmon population and the traditional livelihoods based upon it. Watching humpback and fin whales feed in Whale Channel, it was impossible to visualize oil and gas tankers crisscrossing through the waterways and islands of the BC coast; they would seem out of place, a foreign stressor in this serene wild.

Continued action for continued protection:

There really aren’t words that can come close to describing the experience of the Great Bear Rainforest. I can say that the rainforest along British Columbia’s coast is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been: A landscape bursting with life and history. In the pervasive calm, it feels as though everything is in its right place, interconnected and interdependent. A place so far removed from city life and so silent, it pushed me to quiet the white noise in my head and forced me to ­­focus in a way I otherwise would not have.

The Great Bear Rainforest is something one has to experience in person, not as a pristine, romanticized landscape of centuries past, but rather as a living and thriving, seemingly endless natural landscape of the present. This forest is also a highly politicized landscape. It’s a place where hunters, loggers, First Nations, governments, environmentalists, pipeline developers, and oil producers all have a stake in its development, or its preservation. Therefore, as a multi-stakeholder coalition edges closer to a collaborative forest conservation agreement in the Great Bear, we must question the potential impacts of not just the logging industry but of oil and gas transport as well.

The answer to preserving this irreplaceable region might, in fact, lie in the Great Bear Rainforest itself. First Nation communities living within this region have gained not only claims to land, but also formal land entitlement through a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in June that requires companies to seek their consent to develop industries within their territories. With this ruling, First Nations are now legally empowered to block industry projects that would have irreversible impacts on the Great Bear Rainforest and beyond. Through First Nations sovereignty and the solidarity of concerned environmentalists and citizens, preservation of the Great Bear without another war in the woods just might be in sight.


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