Secretly, with a cast of unlikely players, Canada has taken steps to preserve the largest tract of pristine forest in the world.
Emerging from two years of furtive meetings, environmentalists and loggers stood side-by-side in Toronto on May 18, 2010, to announce an agreement between the often-bitter foes to protect a broad swath of the great Canadian Boreal Forest — covering 1.4 billion acres of wilderness, most of it never-harvested woodland.
The surprising pact promises to end Canada's “war in the woods” between environmentalists and loggers that plagued the nation's timber industry and vexed conservationists for decades. It followed a 2007 promise by the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper that stunned suspicious environmentalists: that his government would move to protect 25 million acres of the forest. In all, the agreement with loggers and earlier preservation plans announced by federal and provincial leaders will protect nearly two-thirds of the Canadian boreal.
“This will make the boreal the largest protected primary forest in the world,” said Steve Kallick, project director of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, who helped broker the agreement among 21 logging companies and nine environmental organizations.
One of the most sweeping forest conservation agreements ever negotiated, the pact covers woodlands stretching from northern British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland in the east. Timber companies agreed not to log 71 million acres deemed prime habitat for threatened woodland caribou. And the industry agreed to follow tough standards for sustainable logging in other areas, in all setting protection for a huge area of 178 million acres. The industry, in turn, won pledges from environmental organizations to vouch for their sustainable “green” lumber, for which the loggers expect to get a premium price.
The boreal has not been in the spotlight like the wild forests of the Amazon, Africa and Indonesia. It straddles Earth's northern tier, from the treeless Arctic down to the more southerly forests in the Northern Hemisphere and stretches across the globe from Alaska to Canada, northern Europe and Russian Siberia.
Partly because fallen trees and needles do not decompose in the cooler north as quickly as they do in the sweltering tropics, the Canadian boreal is the largest land-based vault of carbon, trapped in permafrost and preserved in fallen wood. It also is a key to other natural systems. The boreal holds one-quarter of the world's wetlands and is the breeding ground for up to 5 billion birds each year, including most of the songbirds that migrate throughout North and South America.
The agreement in Canada was all the more surprising because of the angry history between the environmentalists and timber companies. In December 2005, the environmental group ForestEthics had stuck its thumb in the eye of loggers with an advertising campaign depicting models in lingerie with chainsaws. The ads, which ran in The New York Times, shamed the lingerie company Victoria's Secret, which sent out 1 million catalogs a day printed on glossy paper from wood harvested in the boreal. Shortly after the ad campaign, the company ended its Alberta paper purchases.
The aggressive activist group Greenpeace held protests and campaigned against Kimberly-Clark, the world's largest tissue producer, with jingles taunting, “Another box of Kleenex, another forest gone.” A Vancouver ecology group, Canopy, persuaded author J. K. Rowling to demand that her latest megaseller Harry Potter book be printed on recycled paper from sustainably harvested forests, which shook the publishing industry, unaccustomed to environmental demands by top authors.
But timber is one of Canada's founding and keystone industries and its single largest net exporter, with powerful political connections. The decision by the Forest Products Association of Canada to make peace with the environmentalists was as much a shrewd business move as a concession.
By 2008, the recession had badly hurt Canadian foresters, and the shrinking newspaper industry and housing slump had drastically cut orders from the United States, its biggest customer. Moreover, the closely regulated Canadian timber industry could not compete well on a world market with the clear-cutting loggers and huge tree plantations in Africa and Asia.
Further, the political momentum favored preservation. The Harper government in 2007 had already announced a stunning plan to preserve 25 million acres of wilderness — 11 times the size of Yellowstone National Park — in the Northwest Territories. Provincial leaders in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec scrambled for similarly bold preservation moves, competing to be the most environmentally friendly province.
“Everybody could see the future wasn't going to be like the present,” said Avrim Lazar, head of the timber industry association in Canada. “And you don't have to be a prophet to see that the environment was going to become bigger and bigger.”
The new environmentalism suggests the Canadian timber companies are betting on a niche market. They believe they can sell less wood and paper — at higher prices — to customers who want products from environmentally sustainable forests.
“That's part of our long-term business plan — having our brand confirmed by environmental groups as responsible products,” Lazar said. “They will be very welcome partners in our defense. We are getting our forest practices up to a level that the environmental community will consider ‘world leading.’ And they have agreed to be partners in that.”
Still, the business plan is a gamble.
“Right now, there really isn't pressure for environmentally sensitive products,” Lazar acknowledged. “I wish there was. But we are betting that the world is going to be craving, demanding, looking for products that don't do damage to the environmental system.”
— Doug Struck