It took eight years of bitter haggling between Canadian environmentalists, native Americans, loggers, and miners. But the result is a benchmark conservation pact that protects a vast sweep of virgin wilderness the size of West Virginia.
The so-called "Mackenzie Decision" approved last month by the provincial government, makes British Columbia the only jurisdiction in North America to meet the UN goal of protecting 12 percent of its land base.
Yet conservation experts on both sides of the US-Canadian border say the 5 million acres set aside, combined with 11 million acres already protected in the adjacent Muskwa-Kechika preserve, stand to yield huge dividends for wildlife protection efforts in the US as well.
"I like to think of this as Canada's gift of wildness to the rest of the world," says British Columbia's Premier Ujjal Dosanjh. "We're very proud of what this accomplishes. In effect, it creates the largest protected area in North America and establishes an important precedent."
The precedent, Mr. Dosanjh notes, is the formation of an uncommon alliance, including diverse economic, social, and cultural interests that often have been at loggerheads over the fate of the continent's last significant spread of untouched forest.
The Mackenzie plan does not exclude industry, but carefully appropriates portions of provincial lands in Muskwa-Kechika to specific uses. It leaves alone, for example, sensitive habitat that is important for wildlife while granting logging and mining companies regulated access to other areas.
"This designation represents a potential turning point to ongoing conflict because it proves that local land-use planning can work," says Wayne Sawchuk, a fur trapper and big-game hunter affiliated with the Chetwynd Environmental Society, a conservation organization involved in the negotiations.
"Here, people realized that the frontier mentality which led to virtually unrestricted exploitation of natural resources has taken a huge toll," Mr. Sawchuk says. "The only way we will save what's left is by carefully zoning the land for certain sustainable uses."
The Muskwa-Kechika is viewed as a crucial pearl in a massive greenbelt necklace called the Yellowstone to Yukon bioregion that follows the backbone of the Rockies and transcends the US-Canada border.
"This is a continental home run for conservation," says Peter Aengst, a spokesman for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. "We're talking about protecting an area over seven times the size of Yellowstone and in a landscape that has the greatest diversity of large mammals in North America."
First conceptualized in the 1990s, the Yellowstone-to-Yukon project area is 2,000 miles long and 300 miles wide - unprecedented in global conservation strategy and akin in its scope to a greenbelt extending from the Florida panhandle to the rocky coastline of Maine.
At one end is the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the US's emblematic sanctuary for abundant wildlife populations. Some 1,500 miles north is the Muskwa-Kechika, an area that has been called "the Serengeti of the North."
While the two ecosystems are far apart, they are linked in ways that conservation biologists are just beginning to understand, says George Smith of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
The Muskwa-Kechika is home to a concentration of large animals that last existed in the American West 150 years ago. The amazing array includes roughly three times the number of grizzlies that currently inhabit the lower 48; 1,000 wolves, 27,000 moose, 15,000 elk, 90 percent of the estimated 10,000 stone mountain sheep in the world, 3,500 woodland caribou, 5,000 mountain goats, a herd of free-roaming bison, and thriving numbers of wolverine, lynx, fisher, pine marten, bull trout and Arctic grayling.
Scientists view the Muskwa-Kechika as an important reservoir for many of these species, whose populations have either disappeared entirely or become severely depressed south of the 49th parallel.
This corner of British Columbia, they note, could serve as important "source" populations for future reintroductions of animals in both the US and lower Canada.
Already, transplanted wolves from the region formed the foundation of Yellowstone's successful lobo transplantation program. Thriving Canada lynx and wolverine populations could also be tapped for augmentation.
And in November, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with a plan by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, announced that in 2002 Canadian grizzly bears will be relocated to the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness of Montana and Idaho.
Mike Low, general manager of Abitibi Consolidated Inc., a large forest products company in British Columbia, says that industry was caught up in the spirit of Muskwa-Kechika being an important piece in the Yellowstone to Yukon puzzle which is trying to chart a new approach to conservation along the Rocky Mountain front.
Low, who admits to being initially skeptical, views the Mackenzie agreement as a breakthrough that respects his desire to earn a living from the forest and leave a legacy of wildness for his grandchildren.
Still, having watched the bitter struggle between loggers and conservationists in the American Pacific Northwest, where government intervention to reduce timber harvests was necessary to save the imperiled spotted owl and other species, Low says land users in Canada came together with the understanding they needed to forge their own future on a local level.
"One of the fears we had was that if we couldn't reach consensus then the government would make the decisions for us, and none of the stakeholders wanted that," Low says.
The timber industry wanted to be able to plan sustainable logging long into the future without encountering environmental activists every time they began felling trees.
Conservationists, ecotourism promoters, First Nation representatives, and traditional land users wanted assurances that vital wildlife habitat would be respected and protected.
In the end, the stakeholders who invested eight years of their lives to the process asked premier Dosanjh of the New Democratic Party to approve the accord, rather than having the government rendering a top-down edict.
"It was a horrible fight getting to this point, and it involved many nights of yelling and screaming at each other, but I'm glad we all made a conscious decision to stay together and work out our differences," Low said. "The term we're using now is that this agreement brings peace to the woods."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society