Forests Forever

Environmentalists and Logging Companies in Canada Recently Inked One of the Biggest Conservation Agreements in History. Can the Deal Stick?


We glide silently on the barely ruffled surface of a deep inlet of Great Slave Lake and guide the canoe behind a bare rock outcropping, the kind that earned this region the name “Canadian Shield.” The only sound is the dripping from our paddles. Then, in the distance, a sora rail insistently sounds its plaintive mating call, a “ker-weeee” descending whinny.

We slide into a thicket of dead horsetail, the ubiquitous reed of the Northwest Territories, and step out of the canoe. It’s May: Winter is over and the ice is receding, but the landscape has yet to burst into a thousand shades of green. Jason Charlwood, a conservation specialist with Ducks Unlimited, pads silently past a thicket of birch and aspen.

photo of a river running through a clearing in a pine forestArpad Benedek

We emerge gingerly from the trees to view hundreds of water birds sitting on a floating slab of ice. There are tundra swans, which I might have seen wintering nearly 2,500 miles away in the Chesapeake Bay, near Washington, where I live; red-faced sandhill cranes, magnificent birds with eight-foot wingspans just returned from winter quarters in New Mexico; green-wing teals, lesser scaups and widgeons, all small, brightly colored ducks; larger ones called pintails (winter address: Panama) and northern shovelers, a duck with a large spoon-shaped bill used for skimming for bugs and plants on the surface of the water. Green-necked mallards are everywhere.

Most of the birds are still, their heads tucked into their wings, their bodies lowered on the ice, legs invisible. “They’re napping,” whispers Charlwood, 36, a nature enthusiast who moved to nearby Yellowknife eight years ago from British Columbia.

This cove on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake, just 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, is in the heart of the boreal forest, one of the last largely intact forest ecosystems in the world. It’s a circumpolar ring dominated by slow-growing evergreens like spruce and pine, densely meshed with peat bogs and shallow lakes and ponds – heaven for waterfowl and also home to caribou, beaver, wolverine, bear, and more than 100 species of fish.

A few weeks earlier, the Tlicho First Nation formally asked the federal government that this spot and some 255 square miles around it be designated the North Arm National Wilderness Area. The process is expected to take three years. In the meantime, aboriginal hunting can take place, but no development activity is allowed that could interfere with the conservation of wildlife.

And what’s so special about this particular spot?

“First, these shallow inlets have a lot of food for migratory birds – plants, shrimp, and insects that they need to eat before they go on to where they nest, farther north,” Charlwood explains. “The second important thing is that the ice covering the inlets melts early in the spring, before the main part of the lake, so the food is available to them when they need it.”

In addition, Charlwood says, some of the birds we’re seeing will stay here for the summer and nest. “This area provides different species with a great choice of nesting sites,” he says.

The effort by Ducks Unlimited and the Tlicho to protect the Great Slave Lake is just a part of what has become one of biggest conservation victories in history, a series of processes that will set aside, for future generations, an area three times the size of California and five times the US National Parks system.

Simultaneously but separately, the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as the Northwest Territories are all working toward the goal of protecting about half of their boreal forest and restricting how the rest can be exploited by loggers, miners, and oil and gas companies. Meanwhile, Parks Canada, which administers the country’s national parks, is in the process of doubling its area. Finally, in the most ambitious and controversial plan, logging companies have agreed to work with environmentalists and Native Canadians in relinquishing up to a third of their leased land for conservation. The deal, along with the Ontario process, includes measures aimed at mitigating carbon emissions – a major consideration in one of the most carbon-rich soils in the world.

The next day in Yellowknife – a small town with some colorful bars, a frontier feel, and too many traffic lights trying to boss too few cars – former Northwest Territories Premier Stephen Kakfwi, 59, a Dene Indian with hooded eyes and a long, graying ponytail, opens the door of his small SUV and takes me on a day-long drive to Hay River, on the south shore of the Great Slave Lake.

In 1996, he recalls, when he was a territorial minister of wildlife and economic development, he brought together a group that would decide which areas needed to be protected and which areas could be developed. The opening of several diamond mines in the territory, some of which occupied prime hunting grounds for the Dene, was one of the triggers for the conservation negotiations.

“The premier asked me to set up a conference to create a strategy,” says Kakfwi, who retired from politics in 2005 and is now a consultant for various environmental organizations.

Kakfwi gave the opening remarks at the conference and then stayed for three days – until he got an agreement for protecting certain parts of the forest. “The way it worked, the Dene elders would mark the areas that had spiritual significance to us, as well as burial sites, the prime hunting grounds, the caribou calving areas and the headwaters of rivers we drink from,” Kakfwi explains. “And the Feds approved them later,” after consulting with biologists as well as mining companies and business groups that might have plans for the areas.

The process was formalized into something called the Protected Area Strategy (PAS), under which the Northwest Territories is in the process of more than doubling its parks area from 10 percent to 23 percent of the territory’s total. “The PAS was the first tool to get everyone to work together,” Kakfwi says as we pass scores of giant wood bison in the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary.

photo of a man, forest in backgroundChristopher PalaFormer Northwest Territories Premier Stephen Kakfwi created a conservation strategy
that protects both the environment and business.

“The PAS opened the way,” agrees David De Launay, an assistant deputy minister of the environment in the Ontario government, over dinner at a pub in Toronto. The PAS established a precedent of First Nations, environmentalists, scientists, and businesses working together to manage the land more intelligently. The template pioneered by Kakfwi to bring together disparate groups is now being used throughout the country to save the boreal forest.

And what started as a trickle has today become a flood.

When the Conservatives started governing Canada four years ago, they pledged to double the area of national parks to 70,000 square miles by 2012. “It’s our gift to future generations,” says Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada. “We’re the last generation that can do that.”

In 2009, the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, committed to protecting an area of wild forest twice the size of France. Half of the acreage will become new parks, refuges, and nature reserves; in the other half, new development can start only if it fits into an approved land-use plan. Meanwhile, Manitoba has passed a law that provides for consultations with First Nations over setting aside another 33,000 square miles.

One of the most ambitious forest-protection programs is happening in Ontario, where, in July 2008, the province’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, stepped into a television studio in Toronto and announced one of his signature initiatives. As a lake appeared to shimmer behind him (it was an effect), McGuinty said Ontario would turn half of its northern boreal region into nature reserves. To set aside 87,000 square miles “for ourselves, future Ontarians, and for the sake of the planet” was simply “the right thing to do,” he said. As in Quebec, development in the other half of the province’s northern boreal region will be encouraged in some areas and restricted in others.

While the conservation area was impressive in itself, McGuinty’s initiative contained an important innovation. Called Bill 191, the law addresses not only conservation of the boreal forest, but also maintainenance of its “ecological functions, including the storage and sequestration of carbon.”

Janet Sumner, president of the Wildlands League, an Ontario non-profit, believes that this is the first time in Canada, and quite possibly the world, where a government is creating a law that intends to protect carbon sinks. “The very communities most affected by climate change may be sitting on the Fort Knox of carbon for the world,” she says. “That’s why we must invest in First Nations planning not only for their prosperity, but as if our life depended on it – because it does.”

According to an often quoted scientific paper, Canada’s forest and peatland ecosystems combined hold an estimated 233 billion tons of carbon, almost one-third of the approximately 775 billion tons now stored in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“That’s a lot of carbon, which is why how we deal with it is such a big concern for climate change,” says Hank Margolis, a professor of forest ecosystem science at Université Laval in Quebec City, who heads the Canadian Carbon Program.

But none of the measures announced by these various layers of government could match the surprise drama of watching Canada’s tree-huggers embrace their arch-enemies, the tree-cutters, at a press conference on May 18 in Toronto’s Convention Center. Under an agreement unprecedented in its scope – it affects an area the size of Texas – the environmental groups and logging corporations pledged to work together to protect forever large swaths of the northern reaches of the boreal forest. In those areas where logging would be allowed to continue, the logging companies promised to adopt more eco-friendly harvesting practices. In exchange, the environmentalists would help the loggers market their products to environmentally conscious buyers and increase their market share.

For Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Environmental Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign, who helped broker the deal, its centerpiece is the loggers’ commitment to set aside most of the caribou habitat – about 100,000 square miles – in the 270,000 square miles for which they hold leases from the government. The iconic, reclusive woodland caribou’s numbers have been declining because of human activity, notably logging, mining, and power lines and fire break construction. Reversing this decline is one of the driving forces behind Canada’s conservation movement. (The population of barren-ground caribou, which live in herds sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands, is also declining, but they live much farther north and are not affected by the agreement).

photo of bison walking by a lakeChristopher PalaThe conservation agreements will help protect the habitat of the boreal forest’s
giant wood bison.

“The goal is for the loggers and us, working with scientists, to figure out exactly which areas need to be preserved for the caribou and then go to the aboriginal and civil governments and ask that these areas be taken out of the commercial logging rolls forever,” Kallick says.

The agreement, the first to involve such large-scale conservation, may not have happened were it not for the economic difficulties that have hit Canada’s wood industry. Over the past five years, the area logged every year in Canada has fallen by a third as a collapsing newspaper industry, a housing downturn, and a strong Canadian dollar have slashed demand throughout the wood business and pushed some companies into bankruptcy. Adopting the strict standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (or FSC, the global environmental standard for forestry exploitation) has allowed some companies to distinguish themselves in an increasingly eco-conscious market. For example, adopting FSC’s standards allowed Tembec Inc. to increase market share enough to stay solvent. At a meeting of shareholders, Tembec CEO James Lopez was reported as saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, if it were not for FSC, we would not be here today.” Some of the remaining logging companies are looking to follow that business success – and inoculate themselves from constant criticism from green groups.

In the last 15 years, environmental organizations have waged one campaign after another against buyers of forestry products. The grassroots pressure (and media embarrassments) led some of the largest (Home Depot for lumber, Victoria’s Secret and the Canadian bank CIBC for printing paper, Kimberly-Clark for tissue and toilet paper) to buy almost exclusively from logging companies that followed the closely audited rules set up by FSC. Today, about 20 percent of the wood cut by the 21 companies that are members of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC, the main industry trade group) is logged according to the FSC standards. Several companies, notably AbitibiBowater and Canfor, are in the process of gaining certification, which would bring the total to 80 percent within a decade. Other logging companies have strongly resisted adopting FSC standards, which they see as an intrusion into their business practices.

The FSC rules require that loggers not only cut trees in the least environmentally damaging ways, but also that they consult – and respect the needs of – Native Canadians, trappers, outfitters, and anyone who works in the forest when they go about cutting trees. In addition, logging companies are required to follow fair labor practices and provide safety training to their staff. The two other industry-designed certifications, Sustainable Forestry Initiative and Canadian Standards Association, mimic the FSC environmental requirements but lack the social ones. Also, the others require one-fifth of the number of auditor days in the field that FSC does.

Under the 72-page Canadian Boreal Forests Agreement announced in May, environmental groups, working with industry, essentially agreed to create a fourth standard, “Canadian World-Leading Forest Practices,” which they say would be as good or better than FSC. Since the deal was announced, however, it has appeared that the two sides understand the agreement differently, raising questions as to whether these differences can eventually be bridged so that the plan can be implemented. For instance, the wording of the agreement suggests that the new standard, which will have its own auditors, will leave out FSC’s social requirements and keep only the environmental ones. In addition, an internal FPAC memo specifies that the new standard will “pull out the best elements from all three standards that best reflect an ecosystem-based approach.”

Antony Marcil, FSC’s director for Canada, says that some logging companies have long been accustomed to not consulting anyone in deciding where and how to cut and will be reluctant to bring so many interests into the process. He worries that some logging companies could give up lands of marginal economic value on the northern fringes of their leases (but rich in caribou and other wildlife), adopt the environmental clauses of FSC, and resist following the social ones. This would allow them to market their products as “equivalent to” FSC-certified products and yet not comply with the social protection clauses of the FSC standards, he says.

“The goal is for the loggers and us, working with scientists, to figure out exactly which areas need to be preserved….”

“If the environmentalists have to choose between supporting major-scale conservation without the social clauses or giving up the conservation and keeping up the pressure on the loggers to adopt FSC, I think they’ll choose conservation,” he says.

If the guidelines do end up focusing on environmental issues at the peril of social ones, some environmental advocates are concerned that the market will perceive companies operating under the agreement as having the blessing of environmentalists. “If so, there may be less incentive than exists at present for forest operations that are not FSC cert-ified to become so,” writes Steve Nowack in the influential Going Green blog.

Kallick of Pew denies this could happen. “We don’t intend to trade off the FSC process for forest protection and we don’t think we’ll be asked to do so,” he says.

Richard Brooks of Greenpeace, one of the environmentalists’ negotiators, says the boreal agreement is not intended to replace FSC. “On the contrary, we urge them to adopt FSC,” he says of the logging companies. Not doing so, or not adopting the social clauses of the FSC standards, would be a huge marketing mistake. “The company could end up in conflict resolution and create controversy and controversy is precisely what buyers want to avoid,” he adds.

Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, which brokered the agreement along with Pew, also says the environmental coalition “won’t let that happen.” And even if it did, he says, it wouldn’t work. “It’s taken many years to create awareness of FSC in the market and there’s no way the boreal agreement can replace it. It’s not designed to do that. If the companies want the competitive advantage, they’ll at least have to operate at the FSC level, including the social clauses.”

Marcil of FSC is not entirely pessimistic. He points to the similar 2006 Great Bear Rain Forest Agreement in non-boreal British Columbia, which sought to create a fourth standard. But after three years of negotiations failed to produce one, they agreed to simply adopt FSC and have already certified 7,700 square miles. “Creating a new standard is more complex than anyone who hasn’t done it could ever imagine,” Marcil says. “They may well eventually adopt FSC just because it’s easier.”

photo of a northern forestBia BortEnvironmentalists are closely following the progress of the boreal
agreement as a potential model for forest conservation in other countries.

While the participation of the First Nations has been prescribed in the other forest-protection processes run by Canadian governments, it was left out of the boreal agreement, which was negotiated in secret over two years without any Native participation.

“It’s an insult to the First Nations,” fumes Larry Joseph, echoing similar reactions from other Native Canadian leaders. Joseph is a member of the Wet’suwet‘en and Carrier tribe and a forestry analyst who sits on FSC’s board. “The FSC had a place for aboriginal people from the beginning,” he says. “But the boreal agreement is going to freeze us out of the process, and that’s a pity because aboriginals usually have a lot more local knowledge about wildlife than anyone else.” Environmentalists deny this, insisting that First Nations will play a key role in identifying which areas to protect.

To compound the tension, the logging companies and the NGO community also disagree about what is expected of the environmentalists. Brooks of Greenpeace says the agreement commits green groups to actively promote wood products only once the loggers have given up large areas of their leased lands for conservation, elaborated the new, FSC-or-better harvesting standards (including the social clauses), and started selling wood harvested under those conditions. That, he says, won’t happen for at least two-and-a-half years.

But an unpublished memorandum of understanding between the two sides obtained by Earth Island Journal asserts that the green groups will encourage FPAC customers “from the outset” – in other words, upon signing the agreement – to “modify the wording of their procurement policies” when these prohibit purchasing from non-FSC companies. While the campaigning organizations (essentially Greenpeace, Canopy, and Forest Ethics) say they have only suspended, not terminated, their activities against companies that don’t adhere to FSC standards, the internal FPAC memo says they are expected to “actively promote Canada as a good place to source forest products as progress is made.” The memo also shows that FPAC staffers are already planning marketing road shows across North America and Europe.

Pew’s Kallick, who is a lawyer, says he isn’t worried. If things don’t work out, “We’ll simply pull out and the campaigns will resume,” he says. “The agreement is not legally binding.”

Brooks is also sanguine. He says the Canadian boreal agreement could be used as a template for similar struggles in other countries. “We hope it will serve as a model not only for Canada, but for the world,” he says. “My colleagues in the Amazon and in Indonesia are paying very close attention. It’s about showing the world that it can be done, that we can stop fighting and work together.”

Christopher Pala is a former foreign correspondent now living in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Oddest Place on Earth: Rediscovering the North Pole.

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