In a land of thousand-year-old cedar trees and wolf packs that have never gazed upon humans, the Tsimshian people of British Columbia’s north coast tell the story of the spirit bear, a rare white bear that roams among its more common black brethren.

In the Tsimshian’s telling, Raven, the creator, transformed every tenth black bear to white as a reminder of the region’s pristine state and the importance of its preservation.

Now vast swaths of what remains of that original state, long at risk from clear-cut logging and development, have come a crucial step closer to preservation with the Canadian federal government’s January decision to contribute $30 million CAD to protect what is known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

The federal government’s contribution was the final piece of a $120 million CAD initiative that joined an unlikely allegiance of environmentalists, timber companies, indigenous tribes, governments, and private foundations in a grand effort to preserve the Great Bear in perpetuity.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is among more than a half dozen foundations that together will contribute nearly $60 million CAD to create an endowment fund to support conservation management and sustainable economies with the First Nations, as the indigenous communities are known. About 30,000 people live in the region.

The public funds-$30 million CAD from the British Columbia provincial government as well as the newly committed $30 million CAD in Canadian federal funds-will be used for investments in ecologically sustainable business ventures in First Nation territories. This includes the development of ecotourism and sustainable fisheries and forestry.
The Great Bear Rainforest, sometimes called Canada’s Amazon, is located along the north and central coast of British Columbia and comprises fully a quarter of the world’s remaining coastal temperate rainforest. In addition to the spirit, or Kermode, bear, it is home to thousands of species of plants, birds, and animals, including 295-foot Sitka spruce, grizzly bears, coastal wolves, a unique subspecies of goshawks, and 20 percent of the world’s wild salmon stocks.

The complex and groundbreaking preservation agreement will protect an area two-thirds the size of England. It is designed to bar logging on 5 million acres and place an additional 19 million acres under strict-and sustainable-land management rules.

To date, in addition to its $5.3 million CAD contribution to the endowment fund for conservation management in the Great Bear, the Hewlett Foundation has given an additional $25.7 million CAD to the Canadian Boreal Forest Initiative, an even broader effort to protect more than 700 million acres forestland.
Parties to the Great Bear agreement herald it as a new form of collaboration that could serve as a model for other major conservation projects around the world.

“It’s rare for environmentalists, timber industry officials, First Nation representatives, and all the others that were party to this to be able to sit together and negotiate something that serves everyone’s interests,” said Rhea Suh, who has been involved in the effort for six years as a program officer in the Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program.

“The key to it is to view the Great Bear Rainforest not as a commodity to be exploited, but an ecosystem that, if properly managed, can serve both conservation and economic needs,” she said.
But striking an agreement and funding it are only the first steps. Now comes the hard work of making it real on the ground. The Hewlett Foundation will continue to support the Great Bear work to assure agreements to protect it are upheld as rigorously as possible.

The next step is for parties to the agreement to implement ecosystem-based management, changing the way logging is conducted in order to reduce the number of roads built and to decrease the effects on streams and plants of cultural significance. The agreement also calls for fewer trees to be taken in the districts where lumbering is permitted.

The provincial government of British Columbia will need to enact the regulations governing the ecosystem-based management plan, which is scheduled to take force March 31, 2009. The hope, according to participants, is that sustainable lumbering will give wood products from the Great Bear an edge in the marketplace.

Indeed, the marketplace is where the battle to save the Great Bear, once dubbed the “War of the Woods,” began more than a decade ago.

After watching clear-cut lumbering ravage Vancouver Island and the southern British Columbia coast, environmental groups launched The Great Bear Rainforest Campaign in 1995 to protect the land that was next in the path of destruction.

In response to environmentalists’ calls for boycotts of companies using products made from ancient and endangered forests, Home Depot and Ikea announced they would phase out such products. At the same time, German paper pulp producers and magazine publishing associations supported protections for Great Bear lumber and urged the Canadian government and the environmentalists to find common ground.

By 2001, the pressure for a solution moved all those involved to rethink. The parties agreed to the appointment of an independent science team to guide the creation of an ecosystem-based management plan that balanced conservation, economics, and the needs of the First Nations. This effort was nothing less than the creation of a conservation-based economy for the region.

On February 7, 2006, Coastal First Nations, an umbrella group for fourteen First Nations, reached agreements with the provincial government premised on the ecosystem-based management plan, and the $120 million CAD funding deal was announced.

Scott Paul of Greenpeace termed it “the largest integrated conservation investment package in North American history.”

And the spirit bear, to the extent that it symbolizes the struggle for the rainforest, has fulfilled Raven’s promise. A key part of the Tsimshian’s myth is that this white bear would have the unique power to lead special people to special places.