Protect the Boreal Forest From Abundance?

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre

Protect the boreal …

The following two columns are an exchange of two different perspectives that originally appeared in the National Post April 21, 2005.

By Cathy Wilkinson

In November, the World Conservation Union urged Canada to protect its boreal region. In January, 2005, the New York Times ran a full-page ad decrying unsustainable forestry in the region. Neither would have surprised the Canadian Senate, who first called for urgent action to conserve Canada’s boreal back in 1999.

Nationally and internationally, there is a growing recognition that Canada’s boreal region contains a wealth of diverse values¯ecological, cultural and economic¯that are important not only to Canadians, but to life everywhere on the planet.

At 560 million hectares, and 58% of our country’s land mass, Canada’s boreal region is a place of immense beauty and power.

It is home to abundant populations of wildlife, including billions of migrating songbirds and millions of waterfowl, some of the largest caribou herds in the world and the predators who depend on them. Its forests, lakes and wetlands purify our water, produce oxygen and moderate our climate¯vital ecosystem services upon which we depend for life. The region also contains natural resources that sustain thousands of jobs and contribute billions to the Canadian economy.

But for how long? It once seemed impossible that industrial development and human settlement could affect such a vast and abundant landscape. Yet, over the years, human and industrial activities have advanced throughout the region. Land-use decisions in the next five years will profoundly influence its long-term health.

Currently, more than 90% of Canada’s boreal region is open to industrial development. Almost a third of it is already allocated for a particular industrial use. From the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline¯the single largest industrial construction project in Canadian history¯to mineral exploration and mine development in Labrador, industrial development interest in the region is growing exponentially.

Emerging scientific findings are pointing to the need for large-scale conservation to balance human and natural activities across this vast landscape. We need to protect more and larger areas. We need standards to ensure good management where development occurs. And we need to act quickly, while we still can.

Some unlikely allies have set out to do just that. Three forestry companies and an oil company, together with leading conservation groups and First Nations, are part of a ground-breaking conservation solution. Together, they form the Boreal Leadership Council and are signatories to the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework.

The framework is a balanced national vision that calls for greater protection¯up to 50% from the current level of only 10%¯and world-class sustainability standards to govern appropriate development on remaining lands. Through this comprehensive approach, we can meet ecological objectives, uphold the rights and interests of aboriginal peoples and accommodate sustainable economic development.

The framework brings people to the table based on where interests converge, not where they divide. It creates opportunities to achieve together what we haven’t been able to do apart. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a forum to identify and resolve issues before positions are too polarized to move.

Until now, conservation planning has been largely an afterthought to resource development plans. Canada’s boreal region presents an opportunity to put conservation first. Its enormous size and intactness mean that here a proactive approach can yield tremendous results.

Conservation in the framework context is about safeguarding the ecological, cultural and economic values of Canada’s boreal region. It offers new middle ground in a debate previously defined by extremes.

There are still those who would close the boreal for business. Similarly, some still think we’re doing all we can and should do in conservation terms. In fact, according to recent national polling by McAllister Opinion Research, 82% of Canadians feel too much of the boreal is open to development and they would protect, on average, fully three-quarters of the region.

From B.C.’s coastal rain forest to James Bay, Canada has experienced protracted conflict over environmental issues that have cost taxpayers and investors millions of dollars while tarnishing Canada’s reputation abroad. Canadian industry leaders, such as those operating in other areas of global ecological and cultural importance, realize that improved environmental performance is increasingly critical to securing new customers, as well as maintaining current market share. More and more, consumers want to leverage their purchasing power for a better future. The companies involved in the framework recognize and support this growing trend.

The time is right for a new approach that protects our natural environment and promotes economic growth, even the potential for a global competitive edge for Canadian companies doing business in a sustainable way.

Canada’s boreal region gives us the chance to think differently, partner differently and do business differently. If we do, our return on investment will be unprecedented.

And future generations will affirm that we acted just in time.

… from abundance?

By Robert D. Sopuck

Canada’s forests are under pressure from “industrial development,” according to Cathy Wilkinson, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. Naively, I expected her to provide data, numbers, information, perhaps even the odd statistic showing how badly we manage our boreal resources. Silly me.

Is there a real problem? Consider some “boreal forest facts” from Manitoba. Why Manitoba? Because the databases are excellent and because Manitoba’s area is almost half forested, the vast majority by boreal forest, making the province a good proxy for Canada. Besides, the Tembec group, which operates a newsprint mill at Pine Falls, is a prominent industrial supporter of the CBI.

Manitoba’s forest industry employs about 9,000 people directly, with at least as many working in related trucking and equipment industries. In a small province, this is a big deal. Harvesting is regulated by means of forest management licences, which guarantee forest companies access to certain timber stands in return for providing jobs, taxes and investment for the benefit of all citizens. These companies also fund forest renewal and contribute to fire-protection activities. Before they are allowed to harvest “tree one,” they face a comprehensive and public environmental assessment.

The news releases, articles and other stories on the web site of the CBI never mention that boreal forest resource development is highly regulated. This deliberate oversight leaves the impression that harvesting is nothing but a tree-chopping free-for-all. Hardly.

The 2000 State of Canada’s Forests report says Manitoba’s annual allowable cut (AAC) is 9.6 million cubic metres. This is roughly the amount of new wood that grows naturally every year. Only about 2.2 million cubic metres is actually harvested each year, less than a quarter of the maximum AAC. But it must be noted that much of Manitoba’s wood is inaccessible. For what we can reach, we are probably close to being fully balanced between growth and harvest.

But the CBI makes no such distinctions. Instead, it raves on about how the entire boreal forest is in imminent danger of “industrial development.” The horror of it all. In 1999, Manitoba harvested 15,509 hectares out of a forested area of 26.3 million hectares. That represents one one-thousandth of our forested land. Such a wave of destruction.

Forest fires consumed 86,199 hectares in 1999. Much of that was in remote regions, but in that year 11,042 hectares burned in what is termed the “intensive protection zone,” namely the regions where forest industries are located. In other words, almost as much useable forest was lost to natural fires as was cut in 1999.

Furthermore, forests grow back. That’s what happened for millennia as boreal forests cycled through periods of conflagration, mostly from lightning. Whether they are cut or burned, forests regenerate. Why do you think we still have forests after more than 100 years of commercial forestry in Canada?

Deep down, many activists like Wilkinson dislike forest harvesting per se and object to the notion of “managed forests.” But that is merely a value judgment of little use in the real world. I happen to like the young forest, with its own charm and unique species assemblage, which is created after harvesting is complete. Young boreal forests have been springing up since time immemorial. Whether from logging or fire, the effect is roughly the same.

The proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline is slated to become the poster child for the CBI. The pipeline will be subjected to an agonizingly long environmental process and will be built according to the most rigourous standards of the day. But that fact will never see the light of day at the CBI. I was once part of an environmental team conducting ecological assessments in the Mackenzie Valley, and have seen first-hand all of the fish and wildlife habitats the pipeline will traverse. It can be built will little or no environmental impact. The Mackenzie Valley is immense, and the pipeline can be likened to a thread running down a football field. We should build it.

One can understand why environmental groups sign on to the CBI’s positions. They maximize fundraising by convincing a gullible public that our forests are endangered. But why do resource companies co-operate with such a travesty? Do they expect to reap some measure of goodwill to protect their operations? I hate to break it to them, but harassing resource companies is these groups’ bread and butter. They’ll extol every concession made (and every cheque handed over), but they will never leave them be. The more you give, the more they want.

Communities that depend on resource harvesting are particular losers, but the public at large is also harmed. Canadian governments, whose budgets depend on the wealth taxed from our forest industry, use that money to pay for schools, hospitals and social services. Forest companies should tell Cathy Wilkinson and her colleagues that we have an abundance of trees, and show them the door.

Cathy Wilkinson is director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. Robert D. Sopuck is director of the Rural Renaissance Project for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. This exchange originally appeared in the National Post April 21, 2005.