The world is celebrating an announcement in Vancouver on Tuesday that the government of British Columbia finally signed on to a new vision for a region of the province nicknamed the Great Bear Rainforest—a vast, nearly roadless forest of cedar and hemlock stretching along the coast from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

A Google News search that night turned up 137 stories published around the world about the announcement, including a front-page piece in the Washington Post (Huge Canadian Park Is Born of Compromise), and an AP story (Canada Unveils Park to Protect Grizzlies), which was reprinted nearly everywhere from Seattle to Fort Worth.

This new phase of land-use planning is about a lot more than a big park for bears. The media who reported it as such should be corrected.

The agreement announced by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell—and built by First Nations who live in this area, environmentalists and logging company representatives,–is being called "A New Vision for Coastal B.C." That’s not just P.R.–it really is a vision, a new way of thinking about and creating conservation that was a decade in the making.

  • In fact, contrary to some of the more romantic news reports, environmentalists and native leaders working on the Great Bear haven’t seen a U-Lock, or even a bullhorn, in at least half a decade. Instead, they’ve logged thousands of hours under fluorescent lights in stale meetings rooms at airport hotels and YMCAs, far from the tall trees and leaping salmon. They got to know people they didn’t necessary like at first—mid-level bureaucrats, loggers, big-box retail executives. In doing so, everyone involved changed their thinking about the forest, their communities and the coastal economy.

    Listen to CBC News for some good interviews with key negotiators (see the bottom of this page), or reporter Clifford Krauss’ audio commentary on the New York Times’ web site for a clearer picture of what happened.

    At the core of the new accord is a vision of sustainability that fosters stong communities and healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in this unique place. This is not a traditional park.

    The entire region will be "zoned" into three tiers of special management areas. More than a third of the region—the "Protected Areas" and "Biodiversity Areas"–will see no commercial logging. However, mining is allowed in the Biodiversity Areas. Tourism is OK too.

    The final two-thirds of the region will be open to logging under another plan, called ecosystem-based management, which is still being hammered out by the stakeholders for implementation in 2009. (It’s not over.)

    What’s more, some 25 First Nations living in this region, in communities like Hartley Bay, Klemtu and Bella Bella, will share management authority with the province. They’ll have access to the Protected Areas for traditional and cultural use—that’s not the case with parkland. They can fish, harvest cedar for carving totems or other cultural activities, and worship at their sacred sites, for instance. It’s a way of thinking about people and place with a long-term vision for sustaining both.

    Not everyone is pleased with the new Great Bear Agreement. Many B.C. environmentalists have criticized the environmental groups who negotiated the deal for remaining involved in the negotiations after the planning tables rejected the recommendations of a blue-ribbon team of conservation biologists. These scientists, who conducted their studies as part of the planning process, concluded that upwards of 70% of the region should remain free from industrial development to maintain healthy populations of large carnivores like grizzlies and coastal wolf packs. The end result was much less, and some say sufficient wildlife corridors are lacking.

    Of course, what logging will look like under the esoteric term "ecosystem-based management" remains to be seen.

    The key to the deal still rests on a gamble. The environmentalists’ winning strategy was a huge $120 million "conservation financing" campaign. In less than five years, they managed to raise $30 million, with the assistance of private foundations, to fund budding entrepreneurs in native communities that agree to embrace sustainability- micro-businesses like eco-tourism, certified forest products and shellfish aquaculture. They double-dared both the province and the feds to match that number. The B.C. Liberals agreed to do so yesterday.

    The newest complication is the recent federal election. Canada now has a Conservative prime minister from the oil fields of Alberta—not exactly a man envisioning sustainability. The immediate step forward is brokering a commitment from Ottawa.

    Well, most British Columbians would never believe that a premier of this province would ever thank Greenpeace—known widely as the "Enemies of B.C." in the 1990s. He did this week. Perhaps Stephen Harper is next.

    (Full disclosure:  Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck worked on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign from 2001-2003. She’s now Tidepool‘s editor.)