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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - British Columbia and aboriginal groups signed a deal on Thursday aimed at improving economic conditions in the area that includes the "Great Bear Rainforest" on Canada's Pacific coast.
The province and a coalition of native Indian communities will work together on land use and economic planning, a step both sides said was needed to promote projects ranging from forestry to eco-tourism and alternative energy.
The protocol deal also marks the first time the province has agreed to ensure aboriginal communities receive a portion of revenue from any carbon offsets created by projects in their traditional territories.
The area of islands and rugged coastal mountains running south from the Alaska panhandle to northern Vancouver Island was the focus of a long battle between environmentalists and forestry industry.
Although sparsely populated, thousands of tourists pass through it each summer on cruise ships that run from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska. Green groups coined the name the "Great Bear Rainforest" to describe the area.
The economic protocol builds on earlier deals to protect some of the most environmentally sensitive areas and will allow development that matches those agreements," said Art Steritt of the Gitga'at First Nation.
"It's now time for us to turn our attention to the well being of the people who live within the Great Bear Rainforest," said Steritt, executive director of the coalition of six Indian nations living in the coastal area.
As part of the deal, the federal and provincial governments will fund a C$25 million ferry terminal in Klemtu, British Columbia to improve transportation access to the region, where some villages are accessible only by water.
Private-sector officials have complained a lack of agreements between the province and aboriginal communities over resource ownership and management has created a political risk that hinders economic development.
Aboriginal communities must have their rights respected but they also want economic improve and recognize the need to work with the provincial and federal governments to do that, said Percy Starr, a long-time Kitasoo leader.
"The relationship that I would like to see us develop is beginning to take shape," Starr said.
Many details on how they will share decision-making over development still have to be worked out, but those involving carbon offsets are to be worked out by the end of August next year.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; Editing by Frank McGurty