Canada signs deal with loggers to save ancient rainforest

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Canada is to protect a vast swath of intact temperate rainforest along its Pacific coast, under an agreement unveiled yesterday between the British Columbia government, local indigenous peoples, environmental groups and major logging companies.

The unprecedented plan covers some five million acres, or roughly a third, of the Great Bear rainforest, starting about 150 miles north of Vancouver and stretching as far as the Alaska border.

The area will be turned into a sanctuary for a host of species, including grizzly and black bears, as well as rare white "spirit" bears, wolves and wolverine, and eagles and other spectacular birds of prey. The glacier-etched fjords and rivers of the region are also spawning ground for 20 per cent of the world's wild salmon.

Under the agreement, the logging companies will be allowed to work the rest of the forest, but under strict rules designed to safeguard the region's ecosystem. Even in this semi-open area, specified tracts - key valleys, animal breeding areas and fish rivers - will be spared from the chainsaw entirely. "First Nation" native groups will have an expanded role in management of land that is part of their history and culture.

The deal comes after a decade of protests at the relentless encroachment by the timber industry, driven by the insatiable international demand for wood and paper products. The fate of Great Bear rainforest became an ecological rallying cry the world over. Under intense pressure from local and environmental groups, more than 80 US, European and Japanese hardware and furniture companies, including giants like Ikea and Home Depot, initiated a boycott of Great Bear products in the late 1990s.

The outcome is what both the industry and environmentalists say could be a model for the Amazon and other endangered forests. "The world's last ancient forests need a global network of protected areas to survive - and the Great Bear rainforest is a good place to start," said Greenpeace.

The region accounts for a quarter of the world's remaining stock of temperate rainforest. In an area where annual rainfall can measure up to 15 feet, big forest fires are virtually unknown. This has allowed some of the world's largest and most ancient trees to flourish - among them moss-draped cedars up to 1,000 years old.

But even this wilderness paradise had been threatened by erosion and other side-effects of unchecked logging in adjacent areas.

A feature of the deal is a $120m conservation fund that will finance environmental projects and eco-friendly businesses in First Nation territories. In the part of the forest where loggers are allowed to operate, they will do so according to new "ecosystem-based management" practices due to take effect in 2009.

Even the timber companies - which in the short term at least have the most to lose from the new arrangements - hailed the breakthrough. With the deal "we've started the transition from entitlement to collaboration", an industry spokesman said.

But as they celebrated a hard-won triumph, the environmental groups signalled they would remain on guard. Yesterday's announcement was a first step, said Greenpeace. "But the true measure of success will be signs of change on the ground and in the forest."

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