Wilderness Protection…

With good reason, there is a lot of emphasis these days on wilderness protection. As usual, a lot of the attention in the media is on the controversial areas. I wrote this article for the International Journal of Wilderness, Volume 1(2), December, 1995. It provides an overview of the Protected Areas Strategy in British Columbia. I don’t believe there is a more aggresive, representative program to set aside new areas of wilderness in any other jurisdiction.

British Columbia’s Quiet Wilderness Revolution

Amidst the public clamor over logging practices in the Clayoquot Sound rainforest on Vancouver Island a quiet revolution is occurring in British Columbia’s vast remaining wilderness. Simply put, British Columbians are moving to establish new protected areas faster than any other jurisdiction on earth.

Historical Background

Until recent times the rich forest lands of British Columbia’s mountainous terrain were valued mainly for their timber and wildlife. Following World War II the forest industry grew rapidly and was the engine that fueled the post-war boom in material affluence for workers and owners alike. Little regard was paid to environmental impacts other than along salmon streams and even they were often damaged. The timber resource seemed inexhaustible as valleys of big trees stretched from horizon to horizon across the land.
Earlier in the history of the province a system of national and provincial parks had been established. In time-honored fashion these protected areas were generally located where there was little conflict with competing uses such as forestry and mining. The emphasis was on mountains and the surrounding high country, what has become known as “rocks and ice” to environmentalists who seek to include more productive lowlands in the park system.

At the turn of the century less than half of one per cent of the land base of British Columbia was officially protected as parks. In the 1920s this was increased to about two per cent and by 1950 a little more than four per cent of the province was designated as parkland. During the 1950s and 1960s the expansion was reversed as a number of parks were reduced in size or eliminated altogether. At the beginning of the 1970s only three and one half per cent of the province’s land was officially protected from development (Harding and McCullum, 1994).

The shrinking parklands and the growing emphasis on resource extraction came into headlong conflict with the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the early 1970’s. By 1980 there were well organized campaigns by groups such as the Sierra Club, the Valhalla Wilderness Society and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee to increase wilderness protection. In most cases these proposals were opposed by industrial interests. The result was two decades of confrontation and political debate over the future of scores of wilderness areas that had been allocated for resource extraction but were now targeted for preservation by the wilderness lobby. During those twenty years from 1970 to 1990 the protected area was gradually doubled from about three and one half per cent to seven per cent, indicating the strength of the environmental movement in the face of increasingly stiff opposition from forestry and mining interests. This set the stage for the revolution in land use planning and conservation that is now underway across the province.

The Past Decade

In 1986 the UN Commission on Environment and Development published its landmark report on sustainable development, “Our Common Future” (Brundtland, 1986). They suggested adopting a goal of protecting twelve per cent of the global land base from development, triple the amount protected at the time. This was taken up by environmentalists around the world, nowhere more than in Canada and its western-most province, British Columbia. In 1989 the World Wildlife Fund Canada officially announced its Endangered Spaces program calling for twelve per cent of Canada to be set aside as protected wilderness (Hummel, 1989). In 1990 the Canadian Parliament agreed in principle with a unanimous vote calling for the twelve per cent target to be achieved by the year 2000. While the vote itself didn’t result in immediate action it provided government agencies with a goal and set the wheels in motion to achieve it.

The movement to achieve the twelve per cent target is most advanced in the province of British Columbia. When the New Democratic Party (NDP) won the provincial elections in 1991 they came in with a platform to nearly double the area of protected lands to twelve per cent and to do so by the year 2000. They also promised a wide range of legislation to improve forestry practices and settle the land use debate. During the past three and one half years they have delivered on many of these promises. There is now almost no question that the target for wilderness protection will be met.

Since 1992 the government of British Columbia has been legislating an average of about 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of new protected areas per year. This is four times the area of land that is logged each year. All logged lands are either naturally regenerated or planted with native species, mostly from seeds collected in the wild. During the decade of the ninety’s, at least, the rate of protection is far greater than the rate of development. At this writing 103 new protected areas have been proclaimed in BC bringing the total to 8,663,800 hectares (21,400,000 acres) or 9.14 per cent of the provincial land base of 94,780,000 hectares (234,200,000 acres). These range in size from the tiny two hectare (five acre) Haro Woods municipal park on Vancouver Island to the vast 958,000 hectare (2,367,000 acre) Tatshenshini-Alsek provincial park in north-west BC adjacent to Alaska and the Yukon. It includes the world’s largest undeveloped coastal rainforest watershed with the creation of the 317,291 hectare (784,000 acre) Kitlope provincial park on the central coast of the BC mainland. Fully 34 per cent or 48,492 hectares (120,000 acres) of the controversial Clayoquot Sound rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island are now fully protected including three entire undeveloped watersheds. Each of the 103 new parks has its own unique features and add up to a tremendous increase in biodiversity protection and potential wilderness experience for hikers, naturalists and scientists.

Put in another context the additions that have been made to BC’s protected areas in the last three years are greater than the combined State and National Parks in all of California. The total park area for BC is more than two and one-half times that of California, Oregon and Washington put together and are now equivalent in area to all protected land in the US states west of the Mississippi with the exception of Texas (US Government, 1994). When the twelve per cent goal has been reached British Columbia will have as much protected land as the entire lower 48 states with the exception of Florida. If, as is widely expected, the total ends up closer to 13 per cent, even Florida could be included in the comparison. This is the province that has been labeled “Brazil of the North” by some environmental activists for its forest policy (McCrory, 1992), an epithet that many believe is an unfair slur on both jurisdictions.

Ecoscience-Driven Wilderness Protection

Perhaps even more significant than the size of the area protected is the fact that the wilderness system is now based on representative ecosystems. Prior to the introduction of the Protected Area Strategy there had been no systematic plan to ensure that all ecosystem types were included in the protected area system. Parks had been created on their own merits for various reasons ranging from recreation to scenic beauty to unique biological features. In particular, though, there was a lot more rocks and ice than commercially valuable forest lands in the mix. Redressing this imbalance is an integral part of the Protected Area Strategy. A detailed “gap analysis” of existing protected areas compared to ecosystem types was done to determine what was missing from the system. This is a complex task as British Columbia has the most diverse range of climates and ecosystem types of any jurisdiction in North America. Fortunately, the ecology of BC has been well documented through the Biogeoclimatic Zone Classification System developed by the late Dr. Vladimir Krajina (Meidinger and Pojar, 1991). This ecologically-based and highly refined system is now the foundation for both wilderness protection and forest management in the province.
Many of the new parks are specifically intended to fill the gaps and this has resulted in a greater emphasis on the protection of commercially valuable forest lands than was previously the case. Because of this it has been doubly difficult for the forest industry to accept the new reality of increased protection. This leads into the most fascinating part of the story; how did the Protected Area Strategy succeed in the face of such strongly polarized interests?

Implementing “Common Future” Round Tables

Another of the recommendations in Our Common Future was that all national, state or provincial, and local levels of government should establish “round tables” in order to bring people from all interests together to fashion sustainable development strategies for their jurisdictions. Canadian governments were particularly enthusiastic about this approach and by 1991 formal Round Tables on the Environment and Economy had been established by the federal, all ten provincial and the two territorial governments. Although they were constituted somewhat differently they were all variations on the theme of multi-stakeholder citizens groups with a mandate to find consensus on matters of sustainability. In addition, they provided working models of consensus decision-making process. As a group the Canadian Round Tables prepared the definitive document on the structure and process for reaching agreements (Canadian Round Tables, 1993).

The round table approach was found particularly useful for addressing the issue of land-use planning. This field is characterized by a wide range of often conflicting interests that can only be “solved” through a complex series of trade-offs among the competing concerns. Hard-line positions must be softened by continuous efforts to satisfy the real needs of each participant without seriously compromising the needs of the others. Rather than battling it out in sensational media headlines the parties get to sit down together on a regular basis with the help of professional facilitators. They soon come to appreciate each others points of view, even to respect opinions that are strongly opposed to their own. These processes invariably prove valuable in furnishing political decision-makers with a more informed basis on which to finally determine policies that are in the best interests of their electorate.

In early 1991 the leaders of the largest forest companies created a variant on the round table theme with the launching of the Forest Alliance of BC. They realized that public support for the industry was at an all-time low due to their poor environmental record. The Forest Alliance citizen’s board was recruited from a wide range of people from across the province; ranchers, retailers, professionals, mayors and former mayors, academics, labor leaders, and environmentalists. They had in common the belief that what was needed was a balance between the environmental and economic priorities for the forest. They were all willing to help the forest industry if it was willing to improve forest practices and take advice from the new board. This initiative has helped get the forest industry out in front on the environmental agenda by adopting a proactive and progressive stance on a number of issues.

Prior to the creation of the Forest Alliance the forest industry generally opposed additions to forested parks and wilderness for the obvious reason that this would mean less timber for their mills. The Forest Alliance helped convince them that increased wilderness was in the greater public interest and that they would be in a better position to influence the details of new protected areas if they accepted the idea in principle. On another front the industry was on record as opposing a legislated Forest Practices Code in favor of a voluntary scheme of self-regulation. The Forest Alliance took the position that a system of self-regulation would not be credible to the public and that it was in the companies interests to have the “bad actors” disciplined because the whole industry was judged by their worst performer. Most significantly the Alliance drafted the 21 Principles of Sustainable Forestry and had them signed by the CEOs of the 17 member companies (Forest Alliance of BC, 1992). These principles have provided a common set of goals for improvements in forest practice on the ground. Taken together, the initiatives of the Forest Alliance prepared the industry for a more constructive role in the unfolding land-use debate.

When the NDP were elected in the fall of 1991 they moved quickly to establish the Commission on Resources and the Environment (CORE) with a mandate to create land-use plans for the three most contested regions in the province. Central to the process was the determination of new protected areas to satisfy the twelve per cent target. Vancouver Island, the Cariboo-Chilcotin in central BC, and the West and East Kootenays in the south-east of the province had long been the focus of numerous disputes. Most of these involved opposition to cutting areas of old growth that were considered of special value to preservationists. By boldly beginning the process in the most difficult regions the government took the risk of failure in hopes of a breakthrough that would set the tone for the rest of the province. Their gamble has paid off.

Using the provincial Round Table as a model, CORE first appointed regional round tables for each of the regions. These included up to 30 members in order to ensure complete representation of all interests. Some observers and participants felt the Commission was going overboard on this point when a representative for the “All-Beings” was appointed to the Cariboo-Chilcotin table. Nonetheless the regional tables became the focal point for detailed, “get the maps out” discussions and led to reports that recommended a range of options for the government. Full consensus was not achieved at any of the tables but this was due in large part to some basic weaknesses in the design of the process (Moore, 1994). A flurry of post-report meetings and a lot of shuttle-diplomacy eventually resulted in agreements in all three regions and fully legislated land-use plans (Government of British Columbia, 1994 and 1995). In each region the twelve per cent wilderness goal was slightly exceeded with general agreement from all parties.

As an objective measure of the success of BC’s Protected Area Strategy the province received the highest rating for wilderness protection of any jurisdiction in Canada from the Word Wildlife Fund Canada in 1995 (World Wildlife Fund, 1995). The BC spokesperson for WWF stated that “All British Columbians can feel proud of the leadership role that our province is taking to preserve BC’s wilderness and biodiversity for future generations. While there have been tradeoffs, what British Columbia is successfully demonstrating to all Canadians is that a balance can be achieved between jobs and the environment.”

Future Protection Efforts

The task now remains to complete the provincial land-use plan by designating additional wilderness areas in the remainder of the province. This effort is well advanced through the sub-regional Land and Resource Management Plans (LRMPs) that have been established for most of the province that was not covered by the CORE process. There is now little question that the twelve per cent target will be realized by the year 2000. It is less clear whether this will effectively end the controversy over forest development versus protection. Some preservationists who once saw the twelve per cent goal as a distant ideal now refer to “a measly twelve per cent” indicating they will continue campaigning for an even higher level of protection (Husband, 1995). Others, such as the World Wildlife Fund can be expected to declare their agenda satisfied and turn to other issues in other jurisdictions. Whatever the final outcome it is fair to say that British Columbia is doing more than its share to meet to the global challenge of preserving biological diversity for generations to come.

Epilogue, May, 1997

The Protected Areas Strategy has continued apace and there is no doubt that the 12% target will be achieved by the year 2000. It is likely the final figure will be higher than that as in most regions the 12% has been seen as a minimum. Recently the Land Use Plan for the Lower Mainland (the region in which BC’s largest city, Vancouver is located) was announced. The plan resulted in the addition of 23 new parks bringing the protected area up to 14% in the provinces most populous region. Soon to be announced will be the Northern Rockies protected area which in itself will contain about 1.2 million hectares (2.6 million acres) which is about 1.2% of BC’s land area.
As predicted, many environmental groups now claim that 12% is nowhere near enough and are demanding that 40-50% of British Columbia be preserved as wilderness. It appears that as long as logging is still ocurring in original forest there will be a fight to protect it. The summer of 1997 promises to bring a new high in the confrontation between preservation and development.


Brundtland, et al. 1987. Our Common Future, (The Brundtland Report), Oxford University Press.
Forest Alliance of BC. February 1992. Principle of Sustainable Forestry, Vancouver, BC.

Government of British Columbia. The Vancouver Island Land-Use Plan, Victoria, June 1994, and The Cariboo-Chilcotin Land-Use Plan, Victoria, October 1994, and The West Kootenay-Boundary Land-Use Plan, Victoria, March 1985, and The East Kootenay Land-Use Plan, Victoria, March 1995.

Harding, Lee E. and McCullum, Emily (Ed.). 1994. Biodiversity in British Columbia: Our Changing Environment, Environment Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service, Ottawa, Ontario.

Hummel, Monte. Endangered Spaces: The Future for Canada’s Wilderness, 1989. Key Porter Books, Toronto, Ontario.

Husband, Vicky. June, 1995. personal communication.

Meidinger, D., and J. Pojar (editors). 1991. Ecosystems of British Columbia. B.C. Ministry of Forests, Victoria, B.C. Special Report Series No. 6.

McCrory, Colleen. 1992. The Valhalla Wilderness Society, information pamphlet.

Moore, Patrick. January 5-7, 1995. What is a Sustainable Resource Community?, Keynote Address, Communities and Resources – A Special Conference for Resource-Based Communities, Union of BC Municipalities.

Canadian Round Tables. August, 1993, Building Consensus for a Sustainable Future – Guiding Principles.

United States Government. 1994. State and Metropolitan Area Data Book.

World Wildlife Fund. April 1995. 1994-95 Endangered Spaces Progress Report, Toronto, Ontario.

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