Forging a Landmark Agreement To Save Canada’s Boreal Forest

October 15, 2010

Last spring, conservation groups and timber companies signed an historic agreement to protect a large swath of Canada’s boreal forest. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, the Pew Environment Group’s Steven E. Kallick, a key player in the agreement, explains why the accord is integral to a larger plan to eventually preserve half of Canada’s extensive boreal forests.

Canada’s boreal forest stretches from British Columbia to Newfoundland, covering 2.2 million square miles, an area nearly 60 percent the size of the United States, including Alaska. Much of Canada’s boreal is intact, making it — along with the Russian taiga and the remaining, undisturbed portions of the Amazon — one of three great tracts of forest on the globe.

In recent years, however, industrial activity — ranging from Alberta’s massive tar sands mines, to logging in Ontario, to hydropower development in Quebec — has been nibbling away at the Canadian boreal forest, one of the globe’s most important ecosystems. Composed of a patchwork of woodlands (spruce, fir, birch, larch, pine, and aspen), wetlands, and peat bogs, Canada’s boreal forest sequesters an estimated 22 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon.

In May, with little international fanfare, nine environmental groups and 21 forest products companies signed the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which calls for a three-year suspension of logging in 70 million acres of boreal forest and the introduction of improved logging practices in an additional 106 million acres. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Steven E. Kallick, the director of the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign, which brokered the agreement, says the goal is to make the logging suspension permanent by 2013.

Despite the participation of environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the boreal forest agreement has been harshly criticized by some environmentalists for allowing too much logging to continue in Canada’s forests. But Kallick dismisses such criticism as “beyond ridiculous,” saying it is the result of fringe elements “who imagine a perfect world and then criticize anything that deviates from their perfect vision.”

Last spring’s agreement, explains Kallick, is part of a much larger effort — the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework — whose goal is to bring together industry, environmentalists, First Nation (aboriginal) groups, and the federal and provincial governments to fully protect 50 percent of Canada’s boreal forest from industrial development.

Yale Environment 360: I was wondering if you could describe the scope of this agreement and what you think its importance is.

Steve Kallick: The agreement covers an area approximately the size of Texas, spread out across Canada’s southern boreal forest boundary. It is the largest forest conservation agreement of its kind in history, anywhere

In much of the boreal forest, logging is not the main threat — it’s mining, oil and gas development, and hydropower.”

in the world. These areas were contracted to be logged and the companies involved are proposing to voluntarily relinquish their rights to log some of those areas, equivalent to about 70 million acres — an area almost as large as Montana. We have never, in our experience, seen the forest industry willing to make these kinds of adjustments to their logging plans, particularly for conservation purposes. So it’s very exciting and if the agreement ultimately becomes permanent, as we hope, it will completely change the face of logging in the boreal forest.

e360: I take it you’re saying that the overall agreement of 175 million acres is equivalent to the size of Texas?

Kallick: Yes.

e360: And this 70 million acres where logging is going to be suspended, is it your intention over the next three years to work with the timber companies and the [Canadian] government to somehow make that portion [permanently] protected from any kind of logging?

Kallick: Right. We can’t say with any certainty what the final number will be, although I think it will be very close to the 70 million acres. The areas that were identified and mapped and on which that number is based were determined by looking at the caribou habitat maps that we had available to us. So we have a pretty good indication that those are the areas that are likely to be required for permanent protection in order to sustain and protect woodland caribou populations across that section of the forest.

e360: Were caribou a prime [reason] behind this agreement?

Canada’s boreal forest covers 2.2 million square miles, an area nearly 60 percent the size of the United States, including Alaska.
Click to enlarge (image courtesy of Global Forest Watch

Kallick: Absolutely. And the reason that’s so is because the caribou are an important iconic species, an ecological indicator species, and it is in trouble. Populations have declined significantly and the declines are related to losses of forest habitat. So, there was a very high likelihood that at some point the government would have to step in and act to do something about it anyway. And to their great credit, the companies stepped up and said, “Let’s not wait for government to force us to do something, let’s be proactive and work with our critics and figure out the right thing to do to protect these caribou.”

e360: You mentioned that on the remaining land of 106 million acres, there will be selective logging and that this is a new paradigm for logging in the boreal. Can you talk about that?

Kallick: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is an independent certification body, has recommended standards for us for sustainable harvest. It’s the green seal of approval for logging. The promise of this agreement is that all the companies will meet or beat the Forest Stewardship Council standards… and they’ve agreed that third party certifiers can judge that.

e360: Can you summarize those practices and explain the benefits?

Kallick: The main benefits are public engagement for forestry decision-making. Canada does not have the same laws for public land and forestry decision-making that we do in the United States. There’s minimal public process involved in forestry decision-making. So first of all, the Forest Stewardship Council creates a public disclosure and comment process for the local communities to engage in decision-making. And then second of all, the FSC requires retention in the boreal of a minimum of 10 percent of the land base for other purposes — wildlife habitat, riparian protection, et cetera — and up to as much as 40 percent depending on conditions on the ground, for example, if an area has extensive wetlands.

e360: Now you could argue that 10 percent is not much better than clear-cutting. How would you respond to that?

Kallick: In fact, clear-cutting will continue as an appropriate silvaculture method. They’re not being required to do selective harvest here and, frankly, in the boreal forest, selective harvest is impractical because of the nature of the trees. You don’t have the big kind of coastal old growth forest. What you have is extensive forest of smaller trees. And in

The Canadian boreal forest sequesters a minimum of 25 years worth of current industrial emissions.
Photo: D. Langhorst, Ducks Unlimited

order to be profitable, you need to be able to go in there and take out a significant part of the volume. And ecologically it’s not like clear-cutting in a coastal forest. It doesn’t have the same impact because the boreal forest is a vast, fire-dominated ecosystem where large-scale disturbance is not uncommon. And so, the reason the Forest Stewardship Council does not prohibit clear-cutting in the boreal forest is because it’s not ecologically required.

This is industrial forestry, with improved practices. If it was by itself the only standard being applied, we would not be satisfied. But, combined with the removal of very large tracts of forest from timber harvest and ultimately, we hope, permanent protection of those areas, then we feel comfortable with the Forest Stewardship Council standard being applied in those other areas.

e360: What was the overarching conservation vision of this Boreal Forest Agreement?

Kallick: Well, it tracks very nicely the conservation vision that our institution and other environmental groups and progressive companies and First Nations have been promoting for the last decade, which is the Canadian Boreal Conservation Framework. And that is an overall prescription for the boreal forest of Canada that would protect at least 50 percent strictly from development, as parks and refuges and other nature reserves, and permit development on the remaining land only under stricter guidelines and safeguards for nature. It’s the most extensive conservation vision in the world, and we are about two-thirds of the way to getting it implemented.

e360: Explain what the provinces are up to and how you go from your agreement, which may cover 15 to 20 percent of the boreal, to getting to that overall vision of somehow protecting from logging half of the boreal?

Kallick: Logging and other industrial development. And in much of the boreal forest logging is not the major threat. It’s mining, oil and gas development, or hydropower development. So we look at all of the potential industrial threats to the integrity of the ecosystem in looking to retain at least 50 percent of the forest in a natural state. We are piecing it together province by province. Ontario just passed legislation that puts 110

In only a few places, where the majority of the old growth resides, could you implement a plan like this.”

million acres — roughly another 10 percent of the forest — off limits to development pending a public planning process. Quebec has parallel legislation that it’s considering now. We expect action this fall or winter. The Manitoba government has a smaller scale effort, just 10 million acres. On the east side of Lake Winnipeg they’re looking to create a world heritage site, a new boreal park, and they’re also contemplating an Ontario-like action in their far north where they have about a hundred million acres of unprotected boreal forest. You know, a hundred million acres is about the size of California. It’s incredible, but we’re talking here about a frontier, an intact primary forest that rivals the Amazon in size. So these are the kinds of numbers that are required in order to get it under a conservation plan.

e360: For people who aren’t that familiar with the boreal forest, just briefly describe from a point of view of a carbon storage and biodiversity, why you think it’s so important to preserve half of the boreal?

Kallick: Protecting half in its current state and permitting development in the other portions, under strict guidelines, was a recommendation of a number of scientists. Originally we had several prominent scientists help us develop that formulation, but 1,500 biologists from around the world have endorsed that formulation as what’s required to retain the resilience of the ecosystem, to preserve it in a state very much like its current state, for all time. This is cutting-edge conservation biology that has not been applied anywhere else because there are very few places in the world where it could be applied. Russia and the Amazon Basin are probably the only other two places where you could implement a plan like that, because everywhere else you’ve already lost more than 50 percent of the intact forest.

For example, if you look at some of the areas that we care deeply about as conservationists, like Southeast Asia or central Africa, you have less than 20 percent of the intact forest left. So in only a few places in the world, where the majority of the remaining old growth resides, could you implement a plan like this. Where you have that opportunity, you would not want to wait until you were down to your last 10 or 20 percent because at that point, the only options available are preserving the existence of species, not the abundance of species, and that also sacrifices the ecosystem services.

And in the boreal forest globally, but particularly in Canada, you have some of the world’s densest accumulations of carbon in the soils and permafrost and wetlands. You have twice as much per acre as in tropical forests. The boreal forests worldwide are the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink. The Canadian boreal forest sequesters a minimum of 25 years worth of current industrial emissions.

e360: I would imagine that the threat of warming unlocking some of those carbon stores from peat bogs and permafrost makes this agreement more important.

Kallick: It is. And we’ve had quite a bit of feedback from atmospheric scientists who are relieved that some actions are being taken to preserve the ecological integrity of the forest. Climate change poses a threat, and the last thing you’d want to do under these circumstances is add to the ecological threat by developing these lands and potentially uncovering the frozen soils or draining the wetlands.

e360: Why would these 21 forest products companies agree to such an agreement?

Kallick: Well, first of all, I can’t give enough credit to the leadership of those forest companies. Those CEOs of the forest companies and the Forest Products Association of Canada demonstrated extraordinary, visionary

The Canadian boreal forest is composed of a patchwork of wetlands, peat bogs, and woodlands — including spruce, fir, birch, larch, pine, and aspen.
Photo: Wikimedia

leadership. They’ve put their money where their mouth is, and they’ve demonstrated a real commitment, on the ground, to changing the way that they do business dramatically. The signal it sends to other industries and the marketplace is extraordinary. They decided essentially to aim for a different niche of the marketplace. Now they want to be recognized as the greenest wood products available in the world, and they want to sell in that niche, and they expect us to support them. And we will, should all the parts of this agreement come to pass and be fulfilled. And they consider that to be a better future for their industry than trying to compete with very low-cost, ecologically insensitive logging operations in other parts of the world. They make an extraordinary case that this is the future of the timber industry in the 21st century.

e360: Would they have come around to this position if not for pressure from groups like Greenpeace, which is calling for a boycott of timber from a lot of the Canadian boreal?

Kallick: That was exactly what was happening. Some of the conservation organizations that are parties in the agreement had been for several years raising concerns about the forest practices in Canada and pointing fingers at these companies in the marketplace, so that it was affecting their sales, and customers were asking hard questions of the companies and the companies felt unfairly accused. They did feel that their practices were not as bad as Greenpeace had said they were. I think there was an interesting soul-searching within the industry when they were under fire in the press, and demonstrations were being organized and banners were being hung from their ships and things like that. They looked at what they were doing and said, “Well, what can we do better? How can we prove to the world that this isn’t true?”

The Canadian industry [also] saw what happened in the United States with the spotted owl situation, where endangered species laws are a blunt instrument and you don’t have any choice in the matter. And it can be devastating to an industry if there’s no time to adjust and to plan for change, but it’s forced on you by the courts or by politicians. I think they were also deeply concerned here about getting into that situation. They wanted to get out in front of the change and help guide it.

e360: And what did the conservation groups give up?

Kallick: Well, we’ve given up public campaigns criticizing the industry. We are now cautiously praising the industry. You know, cautiously in that there’s a lot of work to do ahead, but we have no indication that they’re not serious and in fact they’ve done so much over the last three or four months

We don’t get to live in a perfect world. We have to live in the real world and work with parties with different views.”

to demonstrate how seriously they are taking this. They’ve delivered on their commitment to suspend logging in areas that they promised to suspend logging. The majority of the Forest Products Association’s budget has now been committed to implementing this agreement, whereas before it was committed to promoting how green their products were in the marketplace. Now they’re actually committing to proving it on the ground. The CEOs of the company are doing everything in their power to line up the governments to help us and to go along with this agreement. Utimately, it’s critical to have the governments and the First Nations approve whatever recommendations we collectively make.

e360: It’s obvious this was an agreement that involved a lot of compromise. I know that some environmentalists have been very harshly critical of this agreement, basically saying that you sold out. How do you respond to those environmentalists who think this agreement is a disaster?

Kallick: I find these criticisms beyond ridiculous. This is a voluntary agreement. The companies are voluntarily giving up legal rights they have. And we have given up nothing except our criticism. Should these things become permanent, we have promised to promote the products of the companies as being responsibly managed and I defy anyone to show me an industry anywhere else in the world that would be doing the things that these companies are promising to do — not now, but if it becomes permanent. So we’ve had two parties that have voluntarily agreed to do something extraordinarily different, and yet there are people that act as if somehow we have given something up. It is really the most ludicrous criticism I’ve ever seen and I’m having a very hard time understanding the nature of it. For those critics who have said there’s nothing in this agreement that’s legally binding, it’s true, and that’s not the point. The point is that this is a voluntary agreement that could be suspended at any time. But we are working in good faith toward goals that will be permanent.

I mean there are so many people out there who imagine a perfect world and how things should be in their minds, how the world ought to work, and then criticize anything that deviates from their perfect vision, without ever engaging in actual discussions with companies that have the legal rights to do things they don’t like. You know, we don’t get to live in the perfectly envisioned world. We have to live in the real world and work with the parties that have different views than we do and different interests, and we have to try to find ways to change how they behave. I’m almost incredulous over the vehemence of the criticism.

And we can’t justify a complete cessation [of logging] because this is not a place that’s uninhabited. It’s a place where communities reside and aboriginal people have legal rights and governments have to serve all interests, not just the interests of the environment. So the option of zero logging has never been on the table and never will be.

e360: If this overall vision of protecting 50 percent of the boreal comes about, could there be another enormous tar sands project, like there is in Alberta?

Kallick: Development of the tar sands by itself is not necessarily inconsistent with our grand vision, but it certainly puts a serious burden on, for example, the province of Alberta, to come up with other areas to protect to make up for the areas that are being destroyed by the tar sands mines. In the case of Alberta, they probably can’t meet that burden, because there’s not enough wilderness left in Alberta. So for Alberta it poses a challenge and we’re talking to the government of Alberta right now about that. They are not going to be able in their province to get even close to what we expect overall in the boreal forest. At this point they are a conservation laggard and going in the wrong direction. Now, other provinces will probably far exceed what’s expected, and we think overall we will meet or beat the [50 percent] goal, but that remains to be seen.


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