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COLUMN

US foundations line up to fund the environmentalists

By John Clarke

So much fuss over a figment of imagination, a symbol found nowhere in any official archives or in any authorized survey maps. Yet a stark reality nonetheless in the minds of so many people-aboriginal politicians, environmental lobbyists, some of the largest forest corporations in the country and the new BC government of conservative Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell. 

The Great Bear Rainforest on BC's mid-coast has become the cathedral for a new spirituality, making acolytes even of people who have never been within a hundred kilometres of it. The area is the habitat of the kermode white bear, a mutation species invested with spiritual values by First Nations in the region. Great Bear is one of the last great stands of old growth timber, off limits to logging by agreement of the First Nations, environmentalists, the former NDP government, the forest companies and now the Campbell government. 

When he was Opposition leader, Campbell promised the industry a secure land base for the working forest. With defined boundaries for its resource, the industry could then plan investment over the long term without worrying about the landscape being changed by environmental fiat. So when he took over, Campbell initiated a second look at the NDP-approved deal that turned the Great Bear into a protected area. 

But highly sophisticated boycott campaigns in international markets had become a visible threat to lumber sales. And the environmental lobbies had the support of some of the wealthiest charitable foundations in North America, with a combined treasury of about $10 billion. 

The second look got lost in the mathematical realities. Sustainable Resources Management Minister Stan Hagen has been forced to admit the BC government is no match for such well-heeled pressure which, he believes, has made BC a chosen target. 

Hagen may be showing some innocent paranoia when he says "they've focussed on us and they aren't going away." The foundations-primarily Ford, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Bullitt (Seattle), W Alton Jones (Virginia)-claim a much wider interest than just BC and say they haven't been involved in the Great Bear issue. 

They're also watching such countries as Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and others where forest practices are particularly questionable. Michael Conroy of the Ford Foundation says it is more interested in seeing that the highest standards for socio-economic and environmental forestry are negotiated by the stakeholders involved, than in negotiating specific protected areas like Great Bear.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), one of the Ford Foundation's biggest beneficiaries, has been under pressure to produce such a standards protocol but has run into a lot of difficulty finding a system adaptable to regional conditions. Conroy acknowledges the problem. In some areas, like the Great Lakes States, the process is relatively simple, in others it's more complicated. BC, with its huge forest wealth, broad biodiversity, active industry and environmentalist involvement, is where the process is the most complex. 

The risk to Western Canada is that pressure from the foundations may lead to FSC standards for Canada that are unsuitable in BC. Which is why the industry is resisting an FSC protocol announced on June 13, to be reviewed over the next two years. One executive, who preferred not to be named, calls it too prescriptive, too onerous and too certain to raise the costs of sustainable forestry in a region already burdened by some of the highest logging costs in the world. 

Yet without FSC certification, BC wood will be a hard sell in the US and other markets. "When you see the advertising by the FSC US office in Washington, DC, you are seeing the results of some sustained support by the foundations," says this executive. "With actors like Pierce Brosnan (the latest James Bond) and Jennifer Lopez (the hottest new Latin star) lending high profile support, you see the kind of backing the FSC is getting." 

The people in the foundations are not fools and with their money they can get whatever expert advice they want. But simplistic standards set just to speed up the process could put BC at a great competitive disadvantage. The land use planning that led to Great Bear is far from over, whatever outside influences might otherwise wish. It won't and shouldn't be made any faster than the complications allow. 

There are 17 option areas around the protected forest itself where "additional socio-economic and environmental analysis" is needed "to scientifically determine appropriate management strategies," according to Hagen. One of the strategies will be eco-based forestry, whatever that may mean. But it's something Victoria hopes will "see BC (becoming) a global leader in new forms of forest management". With environmentalists' approval? The foundations aren't spending their money without expecting some say-so on logging standards for BC. 

So the Great Bear is more than a figment of imagination. It's a reality the timber resource will have to come to terms with as it adjusts to the new norms of global trade. Is the FSC, with its foundation backing, just an interference or is it to become an integral part of the land use planning process in Canada? Will the Campbell government be able to guarantee any sort of secure land base for the working forest? 

How much control should a local government expect to exercise over local industrial policy? Hagen is comforted that "this ensures the continued suspension of the international market campaigns". Well, until the next time-when presumably land use planning will meet head-on with well-funded international disapproval.

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