I first visited the wild Canadian Pacific Coast in 1993, when protesters in Clayoquot Sound on central Vancouver Island were making international headlines.
Environmental and native groups were challenging MacMillan Bloedel, a large timber corporation that was illegally logging native lands, clear-cutting the last of the island’s untouched coastal rain forest. Some of the area’s ancient trees — towering 300 feet with a girth of 30 feet at the base — had been seedlings when Jesus walked the earth. MacMillan Bloedel was converting them to paper and boards. Anyone who’d witnessed the spectacular beauty of that B.C. coastal wilderness would have felt compelled to join a fistfight to save it. Predictably, a mass protest sprang up.
Government enforcers arrested 800 people engaged in peaceful protests, 300 alone on one notorious August day in 1993. The Nuu-chah-nulth people who’d lived there for thousands of years banded with environmental organizations to raise international awareness about the logging.
The battle to save Vancouver Island’s remaining old growth soon moved to boardrooms. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations began pressuring high-profile customers of MacMillan Bloedel, including phone-book publishers and The New York Times, to stop buying its newsprint. The protests were, in many ways, successful. In 2000, UNESCO designated large parts of Clayoquot Sound an international biosphere reserve. Much of the area is a protected haven for tourists and boaters wanting to experience the incomparable majesty of the Vancouver Island wilderness.
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Twenty years later that battle is being re-enacted in the vast and spectacular Great Bear Rainforest region of B.C.’s north coast. Roughly 27,000 square miles — about the size of West Virginia — the Great Bear is home to thousand-year-old trees, about 10 First Nations who have lived there for many thousands of years, and globally unique subspecies, including a rare white coastal black bear called the kermode, or “spirit bear.” I visited the Great Bear in 2000 for a longhouse opening near Hartley Bay, home of the Gitga’at people, where much of Ian McAllister’s book, “Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest” takes place.
Talk to anyone in the Great Bear about wildlife, and eventually Ian’s name will come up. His life’s work has been documenting the region’s astonishing biodiversity through award-winning photographs in an undaunting campaign to protect the region he calls home. Ian, co-founder of the conservation organization Pacific Wild, has spent 25 years crawling through thick underbrush, crouching under giant cedars in the driving rain, and sailing through every kind of ocean current to capture his subjects: wild wolves, orcas, grizzlies, and the fascinating underwater world. He knows as intimately as anyone the treasures of this region. And, like other locals, he knows the threat it is facing now.
Ian and I first met during the Clayoquot clashes. In 1997 I contributed a piece to his book “The Great Bear Rainforest.” Since those challenging and often combative days, we have seen remarkable, positive change.
Over the past decade, the B.C. government has signed a series of conservation agreements committing to preserving more than 30 percent of the area. These agreements have made the Great Bear Rainforest a template for responsible resource management and indigenous stewardship. The landmark settlement brought First Nations together as equals with the provincial government to plan local forestry in a way that respected First Nations cultures and title to the land, with the intention of promoting sustainable economic development for the region’s inhabitants.
These coastal communities have been making a vital — and at times difficult — transition from economies based on industrial resource harvesting to sustainable practices. Tourists travel from all over the world to view bears and other wildlife in this pristine landscape, and expanding ecotourism has exposed the fallacy of the industry mantra that pits jobs against a wholesome environment.
But at a time when we should be celebrating the protection of one of the most significant stretches of forest on the planet, trouble is on the horizon. This time the issue is energy.
The Great Bear Rainforest sits between the world’s second-largest known oil reserves, Alberta’s infamous tar sands, and Asia’s hungry oil markets. In-between lies this rain forest of globally rare species and some of the world’s most fiercely independent native people fighting for their way of life.
In 2013 a Canadian government-appointed panel recommended the approval of the Northern Gateway, a pipeline that would carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands to the coastal community of Kitimat, in the heart of the Great Bear. The petroleum moguls would then ship the bitumen down the coast in giant tankers — each hauling 2 million barrels — bound for the United States and Asia, traversing notoriously tempestuous Pacific waters important to many marine mammals, including the humpback whale.
Environment Canada ranks the tanker route among the most dangerous sea passages in the world, making navigation treacherous to behemoth tankers measuring 1,000 feet. Gales and hurricanes can drive wave heights upward of 100 feet.
The pipeline is not the only peril. In 2012 the B.C. government, bargaining the future for the promise of immediate financial gain, announced the export of liquefied natural gas to China as an economic priority. The greenhouse gases emitted by the LNG plants are comparable to that of the coal industry. Water contamination and other environmental impacts associated with the fracking process make LNG as dirty an option as the tar sands.
As they did in the 1990s, environmental groups, First Nations, and concerned citizens are mobilizing to fight these cataclysmic energy transport projects. Continued protests both in Canada and abroad against the Northern Gateway have resurrected passions of Clayoquot. Once again, First Nations leaders are battling the provincial and federal governments over stewardship of their lands.
These aren’t isolated issues, relevant only to small communities in northern Canada. They pose some of the most important questions Canadians have ever faced about their nation’s economy, environment, moral authority and once-vaunted role as a leading global citizen.
Will Canadians allow unbridled expansion of the world’s dirtiest energy projects? Or will Canada reclaim its soul and show global leadership by choosing a path that helps the country make the transition to a clean energy future?
As Ian McAllister shows in this stunning book, through his photos and compelling narrative, this is a battle that pits apocalyptical forces of ignorance and greed against the welfare of our children and the rest of humankind. “Great Bear Wild” vividly demonstrates the high stakes in this battle.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 61, is an environmental activist who co-hosts the syndicated radio show “Ring of Fire.”