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Coalition aims to save boreal forest
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 the environment.

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.

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