Careful Who You Dance With

Commentary, Natural Resources, Robert Sopuck

People who live in rural societies must strive to get along or the whole place collapses. They expect the rest of the world to obey the same rules of co-operation, but that good will is not always reciprocated. The outside world often marches to different drummers.

Manitoba’s forest industry supports thousands of direct and indirect jobs. Communities like Pine Falls, The Pas and Swan River are totally dependent on the harvest, processing and transport of wood products. Increasingly, with devastating effectiveness, Canada’s forestry industry has come under attack by hardcore activists, or perhaps what economist Walter Williams refers to as the “watermelon” environmentalists – green on the outside and red on the inside.

One strategy is called “forest certification.” A company’s forest practices are “certified” by environmental groups as ecologically sound. Trouble is, all forest companies are already licensed by government, otherwise they could not even operate. This prompts the question, “What is the value added by the certification of environmentalists?” Although it’s cloaked in high-sounding rhetoric, that value is primarily political.

To protect their market share, some forest product buyers – craven opportunists in some people’s view – now say they will purchase only “certified” wood. Environmental activists, in this case through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), thereby obtain a direct say in the management of forest companies. To their own peril and that of adjacent rural communities, some companies willingly acquiesce in this blackmail.

Take Tembec, the diversified Canadian forest product company that operates the newsprint mill at Pine Falls. I am familiar with the case because I was the Director of Environmental Programs at Pine Falls for three years, until the fall of 1998. Recently, Tembec and a number of environmental groups made a great show of having five million acres of Tembec’s forest holdings across Canada “FSC certified.” Their April 4, 2003 news release said:

“In January 2001, Tembec and World Wildlife Fund Canada signed an historic accord addressing sustainable forest management. I am extremely pleased to report that we are moving toward the achievement of our common goal,” said Tembec’s President and CEO, Frank A. Dottori. “Certifying the Gordon Cosens Forest, a five-million acre public land, is a remarkable accomplishment, but it is just the beginning. By 2005, Tembec intends to obtain certification of all 32 million acres of Canadian forest under its management. In doing so, Tembec is going beyond regulatory requirements and is making a significant contribution toward protected spaces and the advancement of forest management practices.”

Other forest companies are likely not overjoyed with Tembec for paving the way for environmental activists to invade their boardrooms as well.

Never forget that the ultimate goal of these groups is to put these companies out of business. Period. A representative of the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society provided proof of this in a May 10, 2003 letter to the Winnipeg Free Press that complained about resource extraction policies in Manitoba’s provincial parks. She closed by urging the Manitoba government to adopt as a policy the “…phasing out of resource extraction in our existing provincial parks.”

I know from experience that Tembec’s Pine Falls mill absolutely needs provincial park wood to survive. Without it, the mill would close and over 400 permanent jobs would be lost. This is how Tembec’s environmental “partners” repay an honest, if misguided, attempt by the company to play ball.

Those of us who live south of Riding Mountain National Park have learned through long and bitter experience that animal rights and environmental groups want us off the land, and soon. Rural interests should never forget these lessons and should act accordingly.

As for Tembec, its stock price has dropped to record lows. Coincidence? Perhaps not.