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The Great Bear Rainforest

“The Midcoast Timber Supply Area” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Before the 21-million-acre wilderness on the North and Central Coast of British Columbia was named the Great Bear Rainforest it had a name that evoked far less emotion. If this area was going to be protected, it would need a rebranding.

The Great Bear Rainforest is huge – about the size of Ireland. It stretches along British Columbia’s coast and is part of the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, the Pacific Temperate Rainforest Ecoregion.

In February 2016, the Great Bear Rainforest was officially recognized by the Province of British Columbia and the province announced an agreement of global significance that would see 85% of the old-growth forests in the region protected permanently from industrial logging. This collaborative agreement between the Government of B.C., First Nations, environmental groups, and forest industry was the first of its kind in Canada and set a precedent for endangered forests around the world. Click here for more information on the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. Also in 2016, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, visited and unveiled a plaque in the forest acknowledging its admission into the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy.

Regardless of the name, within this area, the relatively mild climate, high precipitation and limited human development have resulted in a long-lasting ecosystem with a larger biomass per hectare than many tropical rain forests. The region is rich in bio-diversity and a great deal of this richness is due to the connection of the land to the sea. The web of life in the rainforest connects the world below the surface of the water to the world above and here, these worlds help each other to thrive.

A foggy morning in October

The Great Bear Rainforest is characterized by some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth. These coniferous trees get by on less sunlight than leafy trees and can live for more than 1500 years and grow to 90 metres in height. The western red cedar is one of the most iconic trees in the region. Among coastal First Nations it is the most widely used due to its versatility, rot-resistance and light weight wood. Fibres are used to make clothing, wood to build and the fragrant oils are used medicinally. Much of the nitrogen in these massive beauties that grow along salmon rivers comes from the nutrients in salmon that seep into the forest floor as salmon decay after being pulled from the rivers to be feasted upon in these ancient forests.

The lush coniferous forests of the Great Bear are reflected below the surface of the Great Bear Sea in the form of massive kelp forests. These underwater forests produce a huge amount of oxygen and take on carbon dioxide in the marine environment as well as calm the waters of the intertidal zones providing a haven for countless species from the swells and making these forests some of the most dynamic and productive ecosystems on Earth.

One of the most important animals to the health of the Great Bear Rainforest is the salmon. Pacific salmon are made up of 5 species: coho, chinook (spring/king), chum, sockeye, and pink all of which can be found in different parts of the region flooding rivers, creeks and streams every year during the spawn. Their fateful journey from salt water to fresh does not go unnoticed by predators near and far. Whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, eagles, wolves and bears feast on the determined fish as they try to make the journey to spawn in the very waters they emerged from. Some are caught before they spawn, their bodies will feed the forest and its inhabitants, but others make it through the gauntlet to spawn in their home waters. This is where their journey will end as no Pacific salmon make it back to sea. They may stay to protect their nests but soon their bodies will also feed the forest. This is especially important for the most iconic animals of the region: bears. Salmon have very important fat stores that bears will need to make it through the long winter.

Although the Great Bear Rainforest abounds with life and is home to whales, wolves, mountain goats, cougars, bald eagles, mink, deer, sea lions, foxes, and many, many more, no animal is as iconic here as the bear. Grizzly bears and black bears reside in the Great Bear Rainforest but the bear that has become a true icon for the region is the Kermode bear or Spirit bear. This near-white bear is a genetic variation of a black bear and is the official provincial mammal of BC. It can be found only in the Great Bear Rainforest and is very rare and elusive. This recessive gene appears in one in ten cubs in some parts of the region and, thanks to their light colour, make them far less visible in the water and are superior salmon hunters as a result. These sacred bears exist no where else in the world and are a huge reason why conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest is paramount.

For tens of thousands of years BC’s coastal First Nations have occupied the region and been the stewards of this land. Over 27 First Nations groups call the Great Bear Rainforest home and have worked hard to protect and care for the land and sea. The intentional introduction of small pox in the 1860s ravaged coastal communities wiping out whole families and communities along with their stories. Residential schools also plagued the region. Government agents forcibly removed children from their communities and attempted to erase the ancestral languages and cultures of the coast. Many initiatives are now in place to preserve language and culture in coastal communities and in order to protect this way of life, the region must stay protected.

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