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How Collaboration Ended the “War in the Woods”

This multi-sector partnership resolved a decades-long conflict in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.

Lessons from the Great Bear Rainforest

Multi-sector partnerships can help solve complex sustainability issues. Partnerships bring together different types of organizations: business, government, non-governmental organizations and/or community groups. Partnerships are vital for complex problems that require many different kinds of skills or resources and involve many stakeholders. Through collaboration, partners can achieve more than imagined.

Network for Business Sustainability’s recent report, Sustainability through Partnerships, identifies partnership best practices. Here, we highlight lessons from the collaboration that resolved a decades-long conflict in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.

The Conflict

The Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada, stretches for 6.4 million hectares along the province’s central and northern coasts. Logging has been widespread for more than a century. For most of that time, resource plans were prepared by experts working for the BC government, with limited public consultation.

Beginning in the 1980s, logging became increasingly controversial, erupting in conflict known as “War in the Woods.” As an academic researcher observed: “Environmentalists’ passion for old-growth forest ecosystems and the timber industry’s desire for trees of great size, durability, and wood quality are directly opposed.”

Multiple stakeholder groups emerged:

  • Environmentalists. Environmental groups involved included the Sierra Club of BC, ForestEthics, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network.

  • Industry. Companies operating in the area included Canadian Forest Products, International Forest Products (Interfor), Western Forest Products and Weyerhauser

  • Government. The provincial government was closely involved because 90 per cent of the land in BC is publicly owned. The federal government’s initial involvement was minimal, although it provided important financial support for the 2006 agreement.

  • First Nations and other local communities. At least 27 First Nations constituted half the area’s population of 22,000. The economy centered on resource extraction and communities — First Nations and others — experienced high unemployment.

From Isolation to Collaboration

Initially, the different stakeholder groups failed to cooperate, instead launching separate initiatives. The BC government initiated two province-wide strategic land-use planning processes (in 1992 and 1996), but was unable to engage key parties. From 1997 to 1999, environmentalists campaigned for a boycott of BC forest products. Ikea, Home Depot and other companies agreed to stop buying these products; as a forest company representative commented, “Customers don’t want to buy their two-by-four with a protester attached to it.”

But gradually, stakeholder groups began to build partnerships. Alliances formed and reformed, expanding the network of cooperation. Coming together to discuss a more conciliatory approach toward environmentalists, forest companies formed the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative in 2000. The separate environmental groups also developed an alliance, the Rainforest Solutions Project, in order to coordinate their activities (2000). These separate industry and environmental groups then formed a shared alliance: the Joint Solutions Project (JSP) (2000).

Agreement on Principles

In the Framework Agreement (2001), the BC government and other stakeholders agreed on two core principles: ecosystem-based management, a holistic approach; and greater inclusion of First Nations in governance. Even with this consensus, turning these principles into action was difficult. It required “five years, over a dozen committees and literally thousands of hours of meetings,” commented two participants.
Key process elements included:

  • Independent science. To provide the scientific basis for ecosystem management, stakeholder groups created and funded the Coast Information Team (CIT). The CIT, composed of independent scientists and practitioners, provided data trusted by all stakeholders. Notably, the team drew on Western science and First Nations knowledge, integrating both types of information into maps that influenced land use decisions.

  • Respect for community needs. First Nations and other local communities challenged environmentalists to develop economic alternatives to logging to facilitate a “new economy based on conservation.” Environmentalists developed the concept of conservation financing, which provides funds to communities to pursue new business concepts that protected biodiversity.

  • Facilitation. Professional mediators played a vital role in keeping discussions on track.

  • Respect for First Nations legal standing. The stakeholder groups developed a novel, two-tier negotiation process. All stakeholder groups including First Nations prepared an initial plan, which First Nations and the provincial government then finalized in a “government to government” negotiation.

Agreement on Action

In February 2006, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements were announced by provincial and First Nations governments. The Agreements banned logging in 33% of the region immediately and committed to ecosystembased forestry management for the entire Great Bear Rainforest by 2009. The Agreements formalized theinvolvement of First Nations in decision making and implemented conservation financing to enable economic diversification. Funds worth more than $150 million were created with money provided by foundations, and the provincial and federal governments.

Two subsequent stages extended the agreements. In 2009, the parties agreed to an interim target of retaining 50 per cent of the old growth timber in the area. After additional negotiations, in 2014 environment and industry groups agreed to a target of retaining 70 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest. The provincial government and First Nations plan to review and approve this final agreement during 2014.

Broad Endorsement

The 2014 agreement brought a positive assessment from representatives of all stakeholders groups. Ric Slaco, chief forester for Interfor, said: “This is not about capitulating. This is about understanding. You know we’re bringing new thinking to an old, traditional issue of conflict.” Art Sterrit, executive director of Coastal First Nations, said: “I do believe we’re going to complete this. There’s no doubt about it.” Steve Thomson, BC Minister of Forests, praised stakeholders for “finding solutions that manage both the environment and local economies.” Valerie Langer of environmental group ForestEthics Solutions said that the agreement “maximizes conservation while minimizing the impact to the timber supply.”


Collaboration is challenging. The process took decades and nearly ground to a halt at multiple points. “It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that,” said Ric Slaco of Interfor.

Collaboration can achieve unimagined solutions. Stakeholders reached a mutually satisfying agreement and created multiple innovations along the way, from conservation financing to a new model for involving First Nations in governance.

See NBS’s report, Sustainability through Partnerships, for

  • Recommendations on what type of partnership you should pursue

  • Tips on how to make your partnerships more effective

  • Additional case studies revealing the outcomes and lessons of different types of partnerships



NBS appreciates the review of this case study by Ric Slaco, chief forester for Interfor, and by Environment Canada staff Marc-Andre LaFrance, Dara Finney and Paula Brand. Environment Canada provided funding for this case study.

Affolderbach, J., Clapp, R.A., & Hayter, R. 2012. Environmental bargaining and boundary organizations: Remapping British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(6): 1391-1408.

Hamilton, Gordon. 2013. Environmentalists, forest industry struggle to complete Great Bear Rainforest conservation plan. Vancouver Sun, January 18. http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/. Viewed on 26 February 2014.

Hume, M. 2014. Stakeholders reach agreement on Great Bear Rainforest. The Globe and Mail, January 29. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/stakeholders-reach-deal-on-great-bearrainforest/article16602102/. Viewed on 26 February 2014.

McGee, G., A. Cullen, & T. Gunton. 2010. A new model for sustainable development: A case study of the Great Bear Rainforest regional plan. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 12: 745-62.

Raitio, K., & Saarikoski, H. 2012. Governing old-growth forests: The interdependence of actors in Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 25(9): 900-914.

Ramsey, H. 2004. Great Bear economy goes after $200 million. The Tyee. http://thetyee.ca/News/2004/11/26/GreatBearEconomy/. Viewed on 26 February 2014.

Saarikoski, H., Raitio, K., & Barry, J. 2013. Understanding ‘successful’ conflict resolution: Policy regime changes and new interactive arenas in the Great Bear Rainforest. Land Use Policy, 32: 271-280.

Smith, M., & Dobell, D. 2010. Place of power: Lessons from the Great Bear Rainforest. Vancouver, BC, Tides Canada Foundation.

Smith, M., & Sterritt, A, & Armstrong, P. 2007. From conflict to collaboration: The story of the Great Bear Rainforest. http://forestethics.org/downloads/WWFpaper.pdf. Viewed on 26 February 2014.

Tindall, D. 2013. Twenty years after the protest, what we learned from Clayoquot Sound. The Globe and Mail, August 12. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/twenty-years-after-the-protest-what-welearned-from-clayoquot-sound/article13709014/#dashboard/follows/. Viewed on 26 February 2014.

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  • Maya Fischhoff

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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