The Great Bear: A Gift to the Earth

These are images iconic of BC’s mid coast – a region that’s getting to be known as “the Great Bear”.  The Great Bear Rainforest was established in 2007 after more than a decade of negotiations.  The B.C. government, First Nations, the forest industry, environmental groups and other stakeholders came together to find solutions for people and nature.  WWF recognized the achievement by awarding a Gift to the Earth, our highest accolade recognizing contribution to global biodiversity.
But what is the Great Bear?  It’s not really about protecting land or sea in a park.  It is a relationship, a commitment to change, to work together and to govern how we interact with the environment. The Great Bear is a management area – a 6.4 million hectare expanse of coastal rainforest – in which the decisions about what uses can occur, how and where are made with respect to the living ecosystem, not according to what is economically convenient.  That commitment is truly a Gift to the Earth.
The Great Bear is also actually a bear: the Spirit, or Kermode Bear.  A rare, white variant of a black bear, it is rarer than the panda.  It is also the symbolic mammal of British Columbia.  The Spirit Bear’s home also comprises 25 per cent of the world’s remaining temperate rainforest, some of the most productive waters in Canada, and for millennia, has been the source of cultural well-being for First Nations who call it home.
It takes powerful images to capture the power of this place.
I am at an exhibition of photography, surrounded by dozens of breathtaking images that celebrate the Great Bear.  But what’s this?  Aerial images of oil sands extraction, decidedly less appealing, are among the wolves, salmon, and people of this coast.  What’s the story here?  If you haven’t heard of this yet, you soon will.  This is fast becoming the most contentious development issue ever faced in BC, and likely in Canada.

(c) Mike Ambach/WWF-Canada
A project called Northern Gateway Pipeline is aiming to construct an 1100 km pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the coastal town of Kitimat, BC, where it would be shipped on tankers to the Asia.  It would introduce the continual threat of catastrophic crude oil spills from tankers and pipeline breakages.  Every time the issue of crude oil transport has come up in the Great Bear, people have come together to oppose it.  The consequences of a spill – threats to biodiversity, and to the culture and economies that nature supports – is simply unacceptable.
The images in this exhibition make this point eloquently.  The photographers who took them, like WWF, recognize the power of the Great Bear.  The International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) is a professional association of world-renowned wildlife photographers committed to advancing conservation through photography.  Last year, a group of ILCP members took on the challenge of capturing the beauty and power of the Great Bear through something called a RAVE: a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition.  You can learn more about the Great Bear RAVE project.  ILCP joins the growing number of people who view Enbridge’s pipeline project as a threat to the Great Bear.
The spirit of the Great Bear agreement was a commitment to govern ourselves according to values of stewardship, respect for nature, and a vision for the future based on shared values.  The Enbridge pipeline project undermines that commitment.
It all comes down to power.  At the exposition, I’m looking at these images: on the one hand, an astounding, living ecosystem that has existed for thousands of years with the power to shape our values as Canadians.  On the other hand, irresponsible, risky and unnecessary development, also with the power to shape our values.   And I’m thinking:  What values do we want to leave as a legacy for future generations?  What value do we want to offer the world, Canada?
The Great Bear is a Gift to the Earth… let’s keep it that way.