Canada Just Protected A Rainforest Twice The Size Of Belgium

Great Bear is one of the last temperate rainforests on the planet.

02/03/2016 05:53 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2016
Barcroft via Getty Images
The spirit bear, a rare subspecies of black bear that is not albino, is found almost exclusively in the rainforest.

Environmentalists are hailing the Canadian government's landmark deal to protect 85 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia from logging and development -- an area more than twice the size of Belgium.

The agreement, struck in partnership with First Nations and logging companies, permanently protects a vast swath of the largest coastal temperate rainforest on Earth.  Commercial logging will be permitted in 15 percent of the region, but under a sustainable plan that won't remove more wood from the area than the ecosystem can withstand.

"This is huge, the fact that this isn't just a conservation agreement, that we've integrated the concept of an economy that can sustain itself within an ecosystem,"said Valerie Langer, a director at ForestEthics, one of the leading environmental groups behind the deal. "Our goal was to [figure out] how we were going to shift our economy so we don't destroy what we live in."

The 26 indigenous groups that live within the area were prime negotiators surrounding the terms of the agreement for the Great Bear Rainforest, which is home to many of Canada's unique species, including the spirit bear, a rare sub-species of black bear with white fur. 

Richard Brooks, forest campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Canada, welcomed the protections that he said took two decades to sort out. For years, Greenpeace staged blockades, protests and hung banners around the forest in an effort to raise public awareness about the plight of the ecosystem.

"In other places in the world, people are fighting to protect 1 or 2 percent [of the environment," he said. "To be able to accomplish something on this scale ... set aside forever, that means the vast majority of the old growth forest will continue will continue to live on."

Jens Wieting, a forest and climate campaigner with the Sierra Club of British Columbia, said the new protections focus on a model "based on science, not bookkeeping" and will hopefully serve as a model for other environmental fights going on around the globe.

"We have very little time to increase protections ... before the impacts of climate change will make it harder for species to adapt," Wieting said. "It should be commonsense, but unfortunately it's not what most of humanity is doing."

But despite the long process towards protections for Great Bear, Brooks said this "really is a good news story," without a "but" attached to the end.

"We have a model now and we have hope," he said. "We need more stories like this -- in the end the forest wins."

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