Q&A with Ian McAllister August 2011 Photographer of the Month

An award winning photographer and author, Ian McAllister co-founded the wildlife conservation group Pacific Wild, a leading voice for protection of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.

Ian’s images have been published in four award-winning books Last Wild Wolves, Great Bear Rainforest, The Salmon Bears and The Sea Wolves. He has also been the recipient of a number of awards for his environmental work, including Time Magazine’s “Hero for the Planet” award, Rainforest Action Networks “World Rainforest Award” and NANPA’s “Vision Award”. Ian continues to pursue photography and film work as a cornerstone of wildlife conservation on Canada’s Pacific coast. He lives on a small island with his family in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

Q: What drew you to the Great Bear Rainforest? What is unique about it?

I was fortunate to have been born in British Columbia and formative years included exploring the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. Along the way I met local explorer/photographers like Mark Hobson and Adrian Dorst who were living out of zodiacs and documenting the wild beauty of the North pacific. The passion of these individuals, the contribution they were making to ancient forest protection and the lifestyle they pursued inspired me to forge a similar path. However, it was the brutal clearcut logging destruction of over 80% of Vancouver Islands old growth forests and the realization that the same logging companies were getting geared up to liquidate the rainforests of the BC north coast – a place now know as the Great Bear Rainforest – that really became the game changer.

It was an amazing time to be part of such a significant conservation campaign – but also a challenge to adequately document a coastal wilderness bigger than Switzerland while helping forge a science-based conservation design that would be supported by intransigent governments and timber companies. When I first saw the countless river valleys that formed the temperate rainforests of the BC north coast there was no turning back. Even today it feels like seeing the place for the first time – it is so full of life and beauty and mystery. To find huge tracts of intact ancient forests broken only by wild rivers teeming with salmon, grizzly bears, wolves, whales and so much else. To know that First Nation communities are still living in their ancestral territories and still being provided for by the ocean. It deserves the best kind of protection that we can give, it does not deserve to be a door mat for oil companies.

Q: How would the GBR and the coast of BC be affected if the Northern Gateway pipline and resulting megatanker traffic goes through?

Over the last twenty years it has been inspiring to work alongside so many talented and dedicated environmentalists, First Nations and citizens who have stood up for protecting this place. We managed to keep open net-cage salmon farms from expanding here, over 30% of the rainforest is now in various levels of protection, we bought out some trophy hunting licenses to help protect wildlife and First Nations are driving the conservation vision forward. There is plenty of work left to be done, but progress is being made. The idea of introducing super oil tankers, the noisiest vessels on the planet, to this fragile coast will displace acoustically sensitive marine mammals, such as humpback, Orca and fin whales. Their ability to communicate and forage would become so compromised that they simply will not exist here. If a tanker disgorges its oil after slamming into any one of the countless reefs and islands along the proposed tanker route our coast would be finished. It would cause a cascading series of ecological collapses culminating in the ruin of coastal communities and economies. First Nations with over ten-thousand years of continuous occupation here simply have nowhere else to go. Their way of life would be so fundamentally altered that this pipeline proposal is being described by many as a form of cultural genocide.

Q: If you could choose 5 words to describe the GBR what would they be?

Culturally, ecologically, spiritually – rich and profound.

Q The Spirit Bear clearly is a local treasure. Is it more than a valued anomaly? Does it have magical or shamanistic qualities? What role does it play in First Nation iconography? How do the First Nations protect this region?

The Spirit bear is a worthy ambassador of the mystery and magnificence of this rainforest. Hidden from the outside for so long it has been forced to emerge as an icon to inspire people to protect its threatened coastal habitat. Conservation photography and film work is needed as much today as it was twenty years ago. Case in point. We are being contacted from people around the world who have just read Paul Nicklen and Bruce Barcott’s feature story in the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine on the Spirit Bear and the Enbridge pipeline/tanker proposal. This is conservation journalism at its best because people are simply being shown what a globally unique and rare ecosystem this is and the potential threat it faces. It does not take people long to reach the conclusion that it is a bad idea to be transporting half a million barrels a day of the dirtiest oil in the world across the rocky mountains and the coast mountain range, over some of the worlds most productive salmon rivers and a coastline of rock strewn wave encased reefs where hurricane force wind events are common.

We have every single oil company in the world (they are all invested in the Canadian tar sands) backed by a sympathetic and petro dollar blinded federal government lined up against the spirit bear, the majority of Canadians and a long list of courageous First Nations. If I was an Enbridge shareholder I would be running the other way. In many respects this pipeline is a pipe dream but Canada won’t wake up until more people make their voice heard.

Q: What can readers do to get involved?

It is deeply frustrating to see how few North Americans are aware that Canada has joined the planets elite roster of petro states. The far reach of the Canadian tar sands should be of greater international concern, more people need to look closely at Canadian energy policy and what extracting oil from the tar sands is doing to the health of the planet. Currently our national energy strategy is 100% about rapidly increasing tar sands oil production and selling it to the highest bidder and when a country owns the second largest known oil reserves in the world it cares less and less about international obligations or scrutiny. Does Canada really need to hook Asian economies on the dirtiest most environmentally harmful oil in the world at the expense of one of the last great coastal rainforests?

Visit pacificwild.org. Contact us and we will help direct your support in the best way possible.