Coalition aims to save boreal
Natives, environmentalists, industry allied in bid to
preserve half of country's area
By Alanna Mitchell
Canada's legendary boreal forest, the largest intact forest
left on the planet, will come a giant step closer to being
protected today when an influential coalition of industry,
native communities and environmental groups unveils a
startling commitment to conserve the whole thing -- amounting
to more than half the total area of Canada, The Globe
and Mail has learned.
At roughly 600 million hectares, it is the largest conservation
agreement yet made in the world, said Monte Hummel, president
of World Wildlife Fund Canada, the deal's midwife. It
makes up 53 per cent of Canada.
At least half the forest would be exempt from industrial
development of any kind -- including logging and oil and
gas exploration -- and the other half would be open to
development only if tightly controlled to be gentle on
This is a modern incarnation of saving the planet, involving
a two-pronged approach of full protection of some areas
and sustainable use of others, Mr. Hummel said.
The scope of the agreement far outstrips any in recent
decades to halt the destruction of tropical rain forests
and the forests of northern Russia. Some of those are
in the range of 40 million hectares, less than a tenth
of the area covered by this new commitment.
Although the agreement. -- the Boreal Forest Conservation
Framework -- lacks the force of law, it stands to change
the fate of the boreal forest because leading industries
that would be likely to push for development of the forest
are committed to this deal.
"For once, we are coming out of the chute bucking,"
Mr. Hummel said. "We're not waiting to have our back
to the wall and have a crisis."
However, several of the largest companies working in
the boreal forest are not represented on the coalition.
For example, Weyerhaeuser Corp., the largest lumber producer
in the world, with major operations in Canada since it
took over MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., was not involved. Yesterday,
its Canadian spokeswoman, Sarah Goodman, said she could
not say how the company would view the coalition's deal.
The boreal, or northern, forest is an evergreen mantle
running in a thick band from East Coast of Canada to the
West Coast, and made up of pine, spruce, aspen, poplar
and larch trees, interspersed with muskeg and fens. It
is home to billions of birds and vast populations of caribou,
bears, wolves and wolverines. About four million people
inhabit the forest.
The forest represents roughly a quarter of all the remaining
intact forests of the planet. It is so large that it affects
the mechanics of the planet's chemical and water systems.
This agreement occurs just as industries, especially oil
and gas producers, are lining up to develop the area.
Although the fringes to the south, especially in Quebec,
Saskatchewan and Alberta, have been turned into agricultural
land and fragmented with clear-cut logging and oil and
gas exploration, most of the boreal forest is pristine.
The deal to preserve it stands in stark contrast to most
conservation efforts, which attempt to save the remnants
of devastated ecosystems or species.
"We are conserving abundance," said Cathy Wilkinson,
director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, which helped
put together the framework. "We're flipping the paradigm."
Bill Hunter, president and chief executive of the Edmonton-based
Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., one of the largest
pulp mills in North America, said the plan is so large
and so unusual that it's even unsettling for most of those
who struck the deal. He is a key player in the coalition.
"I'm scared," he said. "But if this works,
man, oh, man, what a model it will be for the world."
Paper producer Domtar Inc., forest-products company Tembec
Inc., and oil and gas company Suncor Energy Inc. are the
other businesses involved in the coalition. Mr. Hunter
said the leaders of these companies are interested in
conservation because they have to think not just about
profits but about how their businesses affect the physical
and social environments.
"There is a new wave of CEO thinking about the triple
bottom-line [profit, environment and social effects],"
he said. "It's ethical; it's moral; it's access to
raw materials in the long term. Society should demand
that and will demand that."
The deal was conceived about three years ago after the
Pew Charitable Trusts in the United States realized that
Canada has a massive chunk of the world's remaining virgin
forests and donated $4.5-million (U.S.) to help the plan
come to life.
But of all the heroes in the piece, Mr. Hummel stands
out. The deal bears his unmistakable mark. It is the fruit
of years of negotiation, carefully researched science,
big vision and decades of non-confrontational power-brokering
at the highest levels.
The plan needs the approval of each layer of government
involved, expected to take years but eventually fall into
place. "The collaboration is forcing the issue,"
Mr. Hunter said.
A model for the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework
is a conservation agreement signed in May, 2003, between
the Innu Nation of Labrador and the provincial government.
The Innu spent two years negotiating with the forestry
industry and the non-aboriginal community to strike a
deal that everyone could agree to, said Peter Penashue,
president of the Innu nation and one of the participants
in the Canadian Boreal Initiative.
Once that happened, the government of Labrador and Newfoundland
made it law, he said.
A report by the United Nations Environment Program in
2001 called on Canada and a handful of other countries
to take immediate steps to protect large swaths left.
It found that just 21 per cent of the planet's land area
was still covered with healthy forests, including large
chunks in Canada, Russia, the United States, the Congo
and parts of South America.