Jody Holmes: Ecosystem-Based Management in the Great Bear Rainforest

Jody Holmes, Ph.D., has dedicated more than 20 years to achieving healthy human and ecological systems in the Great Bear Rainforest. In conjunction with First Nations, she was one of the primary architects of the historic Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, protecting the largest expanses of old growth temperate rainforest in the world.

Currently, Holmes is the Project Director for the Rainforest Solutions Project (RSP), a coalition of Greenpeace. The coalition, which included the Sierra Club BC and (formerly ForestEthics) and operated under the umbrella of Tides Canada, won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge in 2016.

We were honored to host Holmes on the main stage for her first-ever Bioneers Conference in 2017. Below is a video and excerpted transcript of her keynote on the ecosystem-based management of the Great Bear Rainforest and the opportunities it has provided the community, in particular the First Nations.

Jody Holmes:

What I want to do today is take us back 20 years in time, when we didn’t know a bunch of the things we know now, and try and harvest some of the learnings that for us, as we started out naïve, young, idealistic women, facing across from some very large men in forestry or logging, as we called them at the time, loggers. I want to take you on a journey back there.

The Great Bear Rainforest is in British Columbia, which is north from you a couple of states, across that very long one-way mirror called the 49th parallel, and it’s approximately the size of four of the Hawaiian Islands. If you took all of Hawaii and multiplied that by four, that’s approximately the size that we’re talking about, so about 21 million acres. Okay? And because J.P. did such a fantastic job of introducing us and kind of telling us what had already happened, I’m just going to kind of play on that and I’m going to start by giving just a very short two-minute video, by Greenpeace, one of the members of my coalition. They did it just as the announcements were made back on February 1st of 2016 about the Great Bear Rainforest agreements. It is going to give you so much of a faster version of everything that happened so you can take it in that way, and then we’re going to go back and get a little bit more mental and think about how things happened.

I can’t watch that without crying. In some way, it’s like it encapsulates 20 years of my life, and in another way I feel like I need to name something before I go any farther, which is the enormous privilege that it is to be able to do this work and actually see something happen at the end of 20 years, because there are so many of us who do this work and don’t. To all of you who will spend your 20 years, sometimes, without seeing anything change.

The other thing I feel like I really need to say, it’s so weird. I’m the kind of person who spent 20 years staying away from the stages and staying away from any public recognition of any kind. I was kind of fanatic about it. Didn’t have a cell phone for a really long time, made absolutely sure that everybody else was out in front. Really nervous about speaking. It’s really weird to hear myself being called a heroine. I don’t think of myself that way, and to be honest with you, the reason that I do this work is for people who I think of as far more heroic than I am. Those are the First Nations who live in these areas—who haven’t done this just for 20 years, but for 150 years have suffered the most unimaginable, state-sponsored, cultural genocide and assimilation. I’m going to say that again—cultural genocide in our country. And it’s sometimes funny to think as a Canadian, I grew up thinking we were such nice people. I really did. Right? You don’t know you’re blind until you find out how blind you are. We were never taught anything about First Nations in school other than the fact that they pulled travois on the prairie, and did things maybe 300-400 years ago pre-contact. That’s all we ever learned.

When I first met First Nations it was a bit of a shock. And when we first started working with First Nations it was a bit of a shock to discover that they weren’t actually all that thrilled to have us come and be there to help, as you can imagine.

I think the other thing I should confess is that I had a little bit of a computer glitch yesterday and my entire talk ate itself, which I think was the universe telling me that I should not take myself too seriously. So I’m not going to take myself too seriously, and I hope you don’t either.

We’re going to start with a bit of appreciative inquiry. We’re being graced by some sea wolves here, which are a genetically distinct population on the coast of British Columbia, and one of the many things that makes this area quite spectacular. It’s interesting how I keep hearing some of these words and I thought I’d made them up myself. They felt so good when I was feeling into them earlier. And then I realized I must have been like tapping in Vulcan mind-meld to the field or something because they’re just happening all around me here.
One of the things that we really learned in the Great Bear Rainforest is you want to make sure you’re clear about where you want to go. A lot of speakers have spoken to this. You want to have a very clear vision of where you want to go. But the simple reality is that when you are going to try and create large-scale systems change, the system is going to resist you like all get out. The best thing that you can do is hold the long vision, but then bring people along in chunks. Bring them along as far as you can get them the first time, and then let them sit there for a bit and feel comfortable there, and then you take them to their next edge, and to their next edge.

When I started this work, only 5 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest was protected, and let me tell you it wasn’t called the Great Bear Rainforest then, it was called the Central Coast Timber Supply area. Okay? And then we did a little increment. We got to 30 percent with protection. And then another increment to 50 percent. And then this last increment in the last five years, and it’s the hardest increment, that last piece is so hard to get. It’s like clawing against chalkboard. We got 85 percent.

At the same time, and this is what’s really important, in parallel, First Nations were working with us and building agreements and making sure that every time we leveraged some more conservation that they were also leveraging more decision-making power, more economic availability, more ability to actually share in the revenue that was generated in this area. We didn’t always do that in a particularly well-coordinated fashion, but at all times, every time there was a new increment, there was an opportunity for both sides to consider what more do we need to get here? How do we piggyback on each other and leverage more? So, that’s a really important part of this process is that when we went to implement an agreement it needed to be generative, it needed to set up for the next increment and the next increment. And we needed to continuously improve.

The best thing about this is I’m going to get through about three slides and there’s 40 of them.

There’s something that you—that we didn’t do in that video, which is that something has happened since. First Nations were really, really instrumental in this. Until very recently grizzly bears and spirit bears were trophy hunted, and the government said, “No problem. We’ve got a lock on this. We know there’s going to be enough bears there, so it’s fine. And by the way, those grizzly bear hunters are paying a lot into our coffers for elections, so, no, we’re not going to stop doing that,” and First Nations have been lobbying for five years really hard, half a million dollars, a whole bunch of research, and early this spring the new government announced an end to trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest.

That was done almost entirely by First Nations. We had nothing to do with it. In fact, they asked us to stand back and let them do it. That’s exciting. That’s so exciting.

Going to speed this up for you. Power—a number of people have talked about this. It’s all very well to have great ideas. I thought that should be enough. I came out of an academic environment. I thought if I just have a good idea, people will do it. Right? That’s how the world should work. No. That’s not how the world works. You need to have a lot of power. So all of that market campaign activity was a really important part of building power on one hand in an environment that was essentially what we’ve been talking about here, ad nauseum, the entire time. An industrial model where companies basically influence the decision-makers and then they make laws that allow companies to get away with a whole lot of stuff. That’s the status quo that we were dealing with. A whole bunch of globally common problems.

What happened in the Great Bear, and what’s different here than almost anywhere else in British Columbia, is that First Nations were running a parallel track of huge numbers of legal challenges. They established, and it took them 20 years to do this, that there was aboriginal title and that it had been unextinguished in British Columbia because, oops, we forgot to sign treaties.

Not only that, but it actually, that title, that unextinguished title was an encumbrance on licenses that the province gave out. This took 30 years, but First Nations were gradually building legal power through all of this time, and then you take that everywhere else in the province they’d been building this legal power, and they haven’t been able to get very far. What happens when you add a markets campaign to that, and you add all of this public attention and global pressure on an area is, all of a sudden, you can leverage that First Nations formal power into something that actually has legs and can get somewhere.

It created so much business and political uncertainty that the province and the industry needed to come and talk to us. They were like, “Whatever it takes, this isn’t working; we gotta make this stop.”

There are a lot of very exciting diagrams, because we’re a little bit geeky and we really love systems, but let’s just leave it at that. We love systems.

We’ve got environmentalists running a track, we’ve got First Nations running a track. All this conflict and uncertainty, and that takes us to a place where we can actually leverage a solution. The important thing here, is in that place, we had to be principled together.

It’s really fun to run markets campaigns. Super fun to do that, but if you get to that place where you’ve got everything stopped, it’s like the wall coming down in Seattle. Then what? We had to agree that there were ways we were going to interact together, and there was somewhere we were trying to get to together, and that thing was what we called ecosystem-based management.

We also had these very unusual groupings of people who got together. We’ve talked a lot about this for the last however many days here. You can do certain things by yourself, but it’s exponential what you can do when you get together with other people. So we had First Nations realizing they’d been divided and conquered for too long, so if they got together into big coalitions of First Nations, all of a sudden they could be strategic together and they had so much more negotiating power. We had two coalitions of First Nations. We had a coalition of the environmental groups who, up until that point, had done a lot of arguing with each other. Coalition of the forest industry, which ironically was called the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative. Then there was actually a consortium of funders, also really unusual, hasn’t happened anywhere else.

And this incredible vision, which frankly is what inspired me and kept me going no matter what and kept a whole bunch of other people going no matter what, which was we would be looking after First Nations title—rights and title; we would also be looking after the environment and all of these incredibly special creatures who lived there; and we would be doing jobs and the environment.

There was a principled approach. That’s a lot of words. Don’t worry about them. There was a principled approach, and what was so important about it was that everybody had their value named and then we had this thing that we called no cherry picking, which meant that nobody could divide you out and say I’ll give you this one thing if you give away all those other things. No cherry picking, very important. It’s like when you work together in big coalitions, it has to be one for all, all for one. It all has to move forward together. That alone really changed the dynamic for us.

I don’t have time to tell you this story, but I used to feel like I was Jake in Avatar. I’d walk into a room and everybody would go, Ah! And they’d run away. And I used to think it was because of me. But it turns out it wasn’t. It was because I had this big, scary markets campaign behind me, which is this thing. Do you remember that scene, where he turns around and it’s like, Oh, it actually wasn’t me. I didn’t make them run away after all.

We got science done by everyone. Now, it’s very easy to discount science when the enviros do it. It’s a whole lot harder to discount it when the First Nations, the provincial government, the industry and the enviros do it together. And it turns out that that information set thresholds for us of 70 percent being required to create low-risk ecological integrity. Unheard of. I thought it was too low, actually, but still, industry was just about wetting their pants they were so terrified about the result that had just come out.

Okay. We’re going to go past this just really quickly.

New economy—I want to say a little about this because it’s really important. In the Great Bear, one of the most important things that happened was one of the First Nations leaders said to us at some point, he said, “You guys have got a lot of good ideas. I can’t feed my people on ideas. You need to put your money where your mouth is.”

He really didn’t actually think we were going to do this—he thought he was safe—he said, “And if you do, I’m going to get a great big tattoo on my ass! Whatever you want.” He’s designing the tattoo now.

One-hundred-twenty million dollars we raised—$60 million raised by the consortium of funders, and then we got that matched by the provincial and the federal government.

We are Queen’s commonwealth for us now. We’ve been recognized by the Queen. We went from First Nations, who basically were living in reserves, and unrecognized entirely to the Queen’s grandson actually came to visit.

Business corporation and economic development—this is a huge part of this story. First Nations economic diversification, having the capacity and the money that would allow them to be able to make choices about how they had livelihoods. A whole bunch of new jobs created. $73.5 million expended. Ten percent of all of the jobs. right now. in First Nations communities can be traced back to those coast opportunity funds and $120 million extra fund was leveraged.

It’s kind of incredible. So, it took quite a long time. It was kind of like an exponential growth thing.

First Nations capacity building was a big limiting factor for a long time. It took us five or six years to get to the point where capacity was built and there was enough business development acumen in communities. But all of a sudden, what’s happened in the last couple of years, is things have started taking off, and it’s so exciting because I thought that we could be 20 years out before this happened. I thought we were really in for a long haul, but it turns out that you just have to give people the capacity to do what they already want and have in their hearts to do and then all this energy gets released. That’s incredibly exciting to me. That’s why I keep coming back and doing this work.

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