For a professional artist, sculptor and goldsmith, Art Sterritt has led a remarkably successful second life as an environmental conservationist.

As the founding executive director of Coastal First Nations (CFN) in British Columbia, Canada, Sterritt led the establishment of the 21-million-acre Great Bear Rainforest, a protected 250-mile stretch of coastline north of Vancouver. The ecosystem accounts for a quarter of the world's remaining coastal temperate rainforests, and CFN has established services within it that allow member nations to create sustainable businesses within the territory.

"The natural capital that has sustained us now requires us to help sustain them," Sterritt said. "We basically have taken 25 percent of the coastal temperate rainforest left on the planet, and we can guarantee that it will be there forever."

On Thursday, Sterritt, the 2014 Stanford Bright Award recipient, visited campus to share his experiences in an evening lecture, and sat down for a lunchtime conversation led by Felicity Barringer, an environmental reporter for the New York Times.

"Art has done remarkable work in helping to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest, and it's one of the great environmental achievements in North America in recent history," said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. 

In addition to raising $120 million from government, corporate and private donations to fund the protection and management of the region, Sterritt has helped usher in practices that will make the program sustainable in the long term.

One of those involves protecting trees and selling carbon offsets. Great Bear Rainforest has 875,000 tons of carbon offsets available annually, Sterritt said, which it sells for upward of $15 a ton to environmentally responsible corporations and governments. That revenue helps fund the management of the rainforest.

"The natural capital of the region pays our people to manage the forests now," Sterritt said. "The area is actually protecting itself. We as people depend on the forests, then for a while the forests depended on us. Now we depend on forests again. We're simply changing the paradigm back to what it had been for a millennium."

This is a dramatic shift from only a few decades ago, Sterritt said, when outside industry threatened to overexploit the forests and fisheries. Commercial logging had been so intense that at one point scientists projected that land set aside for this use would be depleted within 20 years. Now, any business conducted within the park must meet incredibly strict environmental standards, established by CFN.

Marrying modern scientific knowledge with generations of native wisdom has been central to Sterritt's success. He has recruited top scientists to analyze the ecosystem and judge the environmental impact of business plans. Frequently, when representatives from First Nations, governments and corporations meet at the negotiating table, they each bring their own data. Sterritt said he's been so successful in large part because of his novel approach to negotiating: merge the data sets. The negotiating parties then draw upon the communal database to establish an ecosystem-based management and business plan that satisfies CFN.

"There are [people and corporations] that don't quite agree with the result, but they can't disagree with the process, because they're all part of it," Sterritt said.

Although the management of Great Bear Rainforest serves as a model for how indigenous people can preserve their culture and land while co-existing with industry, these dealings rarely work as smoothly as has been the case with CFN. Barringer asked Sterritt for the secret to his success.

"You have to personalize things and get people in the regions to make sure that they understand," Sterritt said. "You have to respect the people. We shared good information with them, and they made the decisions."

When weighing proposals for oil production or pipelines in the territory, for example, Sterritt and other CFN members visited the sites of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills. They learned about how even the latest oil cleanup technologies had barely made a dent in these environmental disasters, and in some case made the situation worse. They reported these findings to their members, and CFN has collectively issued a tanker ban along Great Bear Rainforest, and says that no pipeline will ever cross the land. Recent polls show that a strong majority of British Columbians support these decisions.

The work often takes patience and perseverance, Sterritt said. Convincing fellow First Nations members to make additional forest off-limits to logging in order to sell the carbon offsets was a difficult concept to explain. But once the first payments came in, the people understood the financial benefits associated with preserving and nurturing the land.

Sterritt and his wife, Pat, have 16 grandchildren, all of whom live within Great Bear. This makes it even more important to him, he said, to ensure that the riches of the land will be available for future generations.

"We've been here for 10,000 years, and we'll be there 10,000 years from now," Sterritt said. "Our social safety net is our forest, our water and our air."

The Bright Award, issued by Stanford Law School in collaboration with the Stanford Woods Institute, honors significant achievement in conservation in different regions of the world and is the top environmental award at Stanford. The award was created by a gift to Stanford Law School in 2007 from Raymond E. Bright Jr., JD '59, on behalf of his late wife, Marcelle, and himself. Mr. Bright died in 2011.

Sterritt was nominated for the award by a committee composed of Stanford Law School faculty and students, with assistance from consultants experienced in this year's designated North American region. The dean of Stanford Law School selected the final award recipient. An advisory board, consisting of Michael Bright, George Bright and Alan Markle, helps oversee the Stanford Bright Award. Next year's recipient will be selected from Europe.

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