Saving the Great Bear Rainforest: Q&A with Ian McAllister

Ian McAllister’s richly illustrated new book, Great Bear Wild, combines stunning photographs of the Great Bear Rainforest with essays that illustrate threats posed to the region by climate change, oil pipelines, and resource extraction. The book’s essays and photographs demonstrate the intimate and delicate connection between the ocean and rainforest—how the marine and terrestrial worlds don’t collide, but support each other: island wolves preying on salmon and seals; herring feeding countless birds and terrestrial mammals; salmon feeding over 200 species in the inshore environment. McAllister masterfully documents this tideline interface in his photographs, while passionately arguing for the preservation of this fabled region accompanying essays. Here, he discusses the Great Bear Rainforest, its most imminent threats, and the importance of conserving this treasured place.

Q: Many readers who pick up your book will be hearing about the Great Bear Rainforest for the first time. Why should readers here in the US be concerned about the Enbridge Pipeline, unsustainable fishing practices, or other threats facing the Great Bear? What can they do to help conservationists and First Nations in their efforts?

Ian McAllister: The Great Bear Rainforest finds itself in the unfortunate position of having become ground zero in a battle that is redefining Canada. We are at a crossroads as a nation and we now have to choose either to expand production of the climate altering tar sands while turning this magnificent coastal paradise into an energy corridor to Asia or to protect this coast and begin a strategic transition toward clean energy.

There is no one on this planet that will be spared impact if these pipelines are built through our rainforest. These projects will lead to exponential growth in tar sands production and the ensuing climate changing extraction process, not to mention the refining, transportation and ultimately the emissions coming out of millions of cars in Asia. If Canada, one of the most prosperous nations on the planet turns its back on dealing with climate change and is willing to sacrifice one of the most fabled wild coastlines on earth just to send oil to Asia then how can we possibly expect other countries to do their part? This is not just about our coast but is hugely symbolic—it is about our ability to be part of a global solution, to regain a leadership role in protecting this planet.

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Photo by Ian McAllister.

We have been successful in the past at achieving large-scale habitat protection for the Great Bear Rainforest but it happened because people around the world stood up for this rainforest. Due to its intensive logging practices, Canada was at one time called the Brazil of the North but international condemnation forced those practices to change here. We need that kind of international pressure again now. First Nations are fighting a heroic battle to protect their traditional territories. The majority of British Columbians want a legislated ban on oil tankers in the Great Bear but we won’t achieve this until more people abroad make their voice heard. I hope this book, these images, and the stories that are told in it help encourage more people to speak out for this fragile and spectacular coast.
Q: The implementation of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline would result in constant oil tanker traffic up and down the regional coast. Why does this tanker traffic represent such a serious threat to the Great Bear Rainforest, even in the absence of a disastrous spill?

IM: Even in the absence of an Exxon Valdez type of oil spill, the sheer amount of oil and gas that is being proposed to move through this coast would irreversibly change everything we know about this place. It is estimated that the combined transportation of oil and gas would facilitate over 3,000 tanker trips a year. This is considered one of the single largest increases in shipping traffic proposed for any coastline on the planet.

We currently have over 300 humpback whales that have been identified using the exact waters that these tankers would be traveling through. We also have fin whales, the second largest animal to have ever lived on this planet, returning in increasing numbers each year. These whales are returning here because of the rich waters full of krill and forage fish but also because they represent an increasingly rare opportunity to communicate and forage without having to compete with the debilitating acoustic pollution caused by shipping traffic. Even if a major spill never happens we will have lost the ecological integrity of this coast just from the chronic noise of these ships—the underwater noise will be the end of this whale sanctuary. Invasive species discharged from ship bilges would cause a cascade of other problems for the animals and humans who inhabit the region, in particular the Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay, whose way of life and ability to sustain themselves in their traditional territory will be forever altered.

Major global concerns are at stake here, from our international commitments to reduce climate altering emissions to ability to protect one of the most important wilderness areas on the planet.

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Photo by Ian McAllister.

Q: Ecotourism has recently become an important source of employment for local communities and also helps raise public awareness of development projects that threaten the region. However, greater public interest can also lead to greater human impact on a delicate ecosystem. What are your views on how to balance the benefits and threats that ecotourism presents to Great Bear Rainforest?

IM: This is a tough one. Clearly if people are not inspired by the beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest and all it represents we will never succeed in protecting it. So, yes, tourism plays a role in building broad support for the collective conservation efforts that are taking place on the coast in addition to providing much needed employment and revenue for coastal communities. However, too much human impact in sensitive areas can have a negative impact on wildlife. As the Great Bear becomes an increasingly popular destination, it is necessary that we more carefully consider how to manage all these visitors.

For example, there are places on this coast where there are daily visits by wildlife viewing companies to watch grizzly bears and what we are finding is that mothers with cubs and sub-adult bears quickly become tolerant of people but large male bears, being less tolerant, are pushed farther up river or to other rivers altogether. Hopefully more management plans will incorporate places that are true wilderness areas where industrial activity of any kind, including large-scale tourism, is prohibited.

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Photo by Ian McAllister.

Q: Your accounts of conservation efforts in the Great Bear Rainforest make it clear that First Nations and conservation activists have the odds stacked against them in battles against corporate interests and the Canadian government. What gives you hope that the conservation efforts might prevail?

IM: First Nations on this coast have been leading the fight to keep tankers off this coast and continue to show strong leadership and unwavering commitment to protect their traditional territories. So, yes, it is very much a David and Goliath situation here. Every single major oil company in the world is invested in the tar sands and they want to see pipelines built to the west coast. What is especially tragic is that First Nations now have to spend scarce financial resources battling the Canadian government and the industry proponents in court. At the same time we are watching our current federal government systematically eliminate our few environmental protection laws in order to pave the road for these pipeline and tanker proposals.

What industry and government have not counted on is the huge and unmoving level of public opposition both from small indigenous communities and the general public across the country, this is where hope lies.

Ian_McAllister(2)Ian McAllister is a cofounder of the wildlife conservation organization Pacific Wild and an award-winning photographer and author of The Last Wild Wolves. Time magazine named him one of the Leaders of the 21st Century.

“Through breathtaking photographs and moving prose, McAllister’s Great Bear Wild presents a compelling case for the urgent need to protect, in perpetuity, one of the most magnificent ecosystems on the planet—the increasingly threatened Great Bear Rainforest.”
Jane Goodall, UN Messenger of Peace

3 thoughts on “Saving the Great Bear Rainforest: Q&A with Ian McAllister

  1. Deirdre Cochran

    I look forward to reading your new book!!! I loved “The Last Wild Wolves.” I am going to visit that magical place someday. Deirdre

  2. Pingback: Photo Essay: Exploring the Great Bear Wild | University of Washington Press Blog

  3. Harrison Davignon

    Hello this is Harrison. How the heck do we stop dirty energy, when I heard the federal government receives 7 billion dollars from the tar sands operation?!!!!! Oil companies are paying politicians all around the world the world so they will support oil. The power of money always seems to out way voices. I would to please like to have those questions answered. The only thing that concerns me about stopping oil is massive layoffs and really messing up peoples lives up and that is why this oil thing is so difficult.

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