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Simon Jackson

February 12, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight

Spirit Bear Saved

If ever there is doubt that one person can make a difference, Simon Jackson—and his incredible story of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition—puts that doubt to rest. Simon’s quest, at the young age of 13, to save the white Kermode bear gave rise to the world’s first and biggest youth-run environmental movement and the largest land protection measure in North American history. Today, we’re happy to share the below post with you that Simon wrote on the fate of the spirit bear:

Today I awoke knowing that a rare, remarkable and ecologically important bear will forever fish for salmon, sleep in the hollows of ancient trees and walk through the mist shrouded forests it has known since time began. For the first time in two decades, it can be said with confidence that the spirit bear is not just safe, but saved.

On February 1st, 2016, the government of British Columbia announced yet another land use agreement for Canada’s west coast – or what is now officially known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Built upon the 2001 foundational agreement between multiple stakeholders – including the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition – and advanced through a series of subsequent deals, this latest proclamation truly is news worthy, especially as it protects the Green watershed – the final piece of the puzzle needed to save the white Kermode or spirit bear.

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Two decade journey to save the spirit bear

When I began my work on behalf of the spirit bear at the age of 13, I was an impassioned teenager amazed that a creature as unique as the spirit bear could exist in my home province, while equally shocked by the plans to log their last intact habitat, thereby threatening their future. The issue quickly became a hornet’s nest of complex politics, with the spirit bear acting as the pawn for more agendas than one could rationally imagine.

What started, for me, as a high school letter writing campaign grew into the largest youth-led environmental initiative in the world, with the creation of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition and its more than six million supporters. While we were far from being the only environmental advocate involved in this issue, we sought to focus on a few specific, unique strategies that we hoped would add up to saving the bear.

The Youth Coalition united the voice of youth. We changed the tone of how the issue was discussed, allowing for support to grow across ideological lines in BC and across Canada. We helped bring international awareness with initiatives such as making the spirit bear the 2010 Olympic mascot and by cultivating unique media profiles and campaign endorsements. And we worked diligently to advance policy goals through quiet diplomacy with decision makers. Of course, we also made many mistakes.

Two years ago, it became apparent that while we had succeeded with 90% of what we set out to achieve, the final 10% – saving the Green watershed – wasn’t going to happen with the Youth Coalition leading the push. However, if the Youth Coalition left the stage quietly, there would be an opportunity to protect the Green.

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Saving the Green

And why is the Green important? On top of being a remote, roadless wilderness that is home to an incredible diversity of life, this watershed is basically the donut hole in the ring of protected areas around it. Without its protection, sustaining the genetic equilibrium of the Kermode (a subspecies of the black bear that is found only on the BC coast and requires a healthy gene pool to survive) becomes more challenging. Logging the area could displace bears – grizzlies and non-Kermode black bears – and force them into places where the white bear lives, creating an unnatural predator (grizzlies) or leading to the dilution of the gene pool (non-Kermode black bears mating with Kermode black and white bears).

So while the decision to dissolve the Youth Coalition was far from easy, it was the obvious choice if it meant helping truly save the spirit bear for good.

Thanks to the hard work of many stakeholders – some of who stood on stage with BC premier Christy Clark on February 1st – that agreement has now come to pass. The Green watershed and, along with it, the spirit bear, are now saved.

Is it a perfect deal? No, but nothing is. In the premier’s remarks, she said it was the byproduct of compromise, a very Canadian ideal. Yet I’ve never been a fan of compromise, as I believe too often it leads to a politically expedient result that forces too many to sacrifice their bottom lines. I’m more of a believer in balance and though the difference between balance and compromise is small, it’s important. Balance allows for innovation and patience to win the day, and usually ensures bottom lines are upheld. On the whole, this agreement is more about balance than compromise.

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Room for improvement

The agreement failed to protect Gribbell Island – a small island that was left off the initial protected area proposals put forward by various groups, including the Youth Coalition, but has since been proven to have a high density of Kermode bears. But the door is open to its possible protection if the Gitga’at First Nation wish to see it saved down the road. For now, they have been vocal in wanting logging to continue, but are said to be willing to reconsider, given the boom in eco-tourism on the coast and the subsequent jobs it’s creating for their community.

I also know of a few other areas that I, personally, would like to have seen protected, but all areas in this particular ecosystem will be managed with the Kermode in mind, including pledges to protect den sites and retain significant tree canopy. So in many ways, a buffer zone has been established around the core protected land.

And though the premier promised an end to trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest, that’s not actually quite true. The good news is that licenses that have or will be purchased from guide outfitters at market value by First Nations and environmental organizations will be honoured. Up until now, the government could take licenses purchased for conservation away  – without financial compensation – unless a minimum number of bears were killed. This important policy change is one that the Youth Coalition had fought to see become a reality – and one we were told would be in this deal. And it’s a policy change that does help the spirit bear, creating a quasi-sanctuary in the areas we helped to save.

However, the BC government hasn’t taken bold leadership to stop all trophy hunting in this environmentally sensitive region or in the Great Bear Rainforest or in BC, as the premier suggested and as was reported by the BBC and Washington Post. While the government seems to finally accept the concept of wildlife sanctuaries and while they have taken steps to help safeguard the white Kermode from trophy hunting, it falls short of what 90% of the BC public demands and what science dictates should happen for the coast as a whole. This isn’t about being anti-hunting, but about recognizing that while humans should have places where they come first, wildlife also deserves to have their space – one free from human interference and, in this case, flawed management. (You can take action here and here.)

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Bottom line for the spirit bear

Yet there is room to tweak and enhance the vision for the coast now that some of the biggest issues have been addressed, including the newly imposed tanker moratorium in place for the waterways around the spirit bear’s habitat. As the Youth Coalition always stated, the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have triggered tanker travel through the narrow passages of this area, was never going to be built with the current route given the lack of social license, its legal failure to negotiate with First Nations, and the reality that the federal government (who had championed the project) would eventually change.

The most difficult obstacle to saving the spirit bear and creating a successful Great Bear Rainforest agreement, in my eyes, was getting the Green protected. Now that this hurdle has been overcome, it does seem like anything is possible. While it’s rare to get absolutely everything you want, the spirit bear got a balanced deal that delivers what it needs. And then some.

But there was a cost to this success. This agreement should have been reached in 2006 and created more goodwill and established more funds for environmentally friendly economic development projects. Yet because of the actions of a few (and I’m not referring to anyone on stage for this announcement, nor the vast majority working behind the scenes), a decade was lost and instead of using time and funds to create additional wins for nature in other areas of the world, too many advocates were forced to double down to continue fighting for something so obvious to so many. The ramifications of these actions can still be felt by many – personally and professionally – and it diminishes, to some degree, this teachable moment for our world.

Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that what seemed impossible for so much of the last twenty years is now a reality. And while the Youth Coalition is gone, from its ashes has risen two very different projects: CoalitionWILD (which seeks to help emerging leaders to create a wilder world) and GhostBearPhotography.com (an education platform that seeks to use storytelling to inspire people to look at nature differently – and give it a voice). Small chunks of our once vast network linger within these new entities and, for that reason, I want to reach out to you to say one thing: Thank-you.

Simon Jackson/February, 2016