Canada acts to protect 1.3 billion acres of forest - Large-scale plan to guide land use would safeguard a billion birds


Dec. 1, 2003

One of the world's biggest forest-protection initiatives is being announced today in Canada -- a pact involving environmentalists, First Nations peoples and timber companies who want to keep logging and development out of an area seven times the size of Washington.

The subject of the agreement is Canada's northern forest, stretching from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean and covering just over half of Canada's land mass. Half the 1.3 billion acres would be put off-limits to logging and development. The rest would be open to only carefully planned, eco-friendly "sustainable development."

The forest shelters more than a billion birds, many of them migratory species familiar to bird-watchers in Western Washington and elsewhere in the United States. It also provides a lot of the paper, wood and other forest products consumed in this country.

This northern, or "boreal," forest of Canada represents about one-tenth of the remaining forest on Earth -- one-third of the globe's boreal forests and one of the largest intact or nearly intact ecosystems anywhere. About a third is covered by wetlands, and it includes some of Canada's largest rivers.

Today's announcement involves timber and energy companies and tribal interests whose activities touch about one-sixth of Canada's boreal forest. They emphasize the importance of such a huge tract of greenery in slowing down global warming as well as providing clean air and water.

"It's the first real national vision for the boreal that's ever been produced, and really it's the starting point for further conversations," said Cathy Wilkinson, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. "It's a very important first step just to have a national vision, because so often environmental conflicts are characterized by conflict over even what the goals are."

The initiative has its roots in the bitter fights over logging here in the Pacific Northwest, including the 1990s civil disobedience challenging logging around Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound that sparked hundreds of arrests. "It's an unprecedented and unlikely group of partners," said Monte Hummel, president of World Wildlife Fund-Canada. "The idea was, could we for once head off the train wrecks and not just get involved in this when crises occur?"

The businesses involved in the new initiative are Suncor Energy Inc., a major oil and gas producer; Domtar Inc., one of Canada's biggest paper and lumber firms; Tembec Inc., a $3 billion-a-year timber company; and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., a smaller paper and pulp company based in Alberta. Suncor and Domtar are counted among Canada's largest 100 companies.

"It's a group of like-minded people who want to ensure there's a collaboration and a win-win for a sustainable environment and sustainable economy at the same time," said Bill Hunter, president and chief operating officer of Alberta-Pacific. "It's a very, very novel approach."

Joining with three First Nations bands and four environmental groups, the companies hope to persuade other firms, bands and ultimately the federal and provincial governments to sign on.

The initiative's sponsor is the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts philanthropy, which has been closely allied with green groups in this country and provided $4.5 million to support the Canadian Boreal Initiative.

In British Columbia, the head of a timber trade group said he had not yet heard about the initiative, but he has been following the debate over the boreal forest.

"It's the next place where the environmentalists want to see some different management issues," said John Allan, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Forest Industries. "They started in your part of the world and then moved to our coastal forest, and now they're moving inland."

The initiative seeks to influence a series of decisions about the boreal forest to be made over the next five to seven years by Canada's federal, provincial and territorial governments.

One of those is a land-use planning process affecting 50,000 square miles just east of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, an area about the size of Louisiana. There, Ron Thiessen of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee hopes today's announcement moves the talks in the direction of conservation.

"It has a great potential to affect it," Thiessen said. He said the initiative's environmental groups "have a lot of influence and a lot of strength. I hope it's going to have a lot of influence on the logging companies."

The initiative comes at a time when Canada's government is re-examining how its policies mesh with environmental and economic sustainability in an effort known as the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

Aside from the World Wildlife Fund, the environmental groups involved are two mainstream organizations: the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Seattle is the home base for a related campaign, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, which points out that many of the birds seen in Washington are dependent on the boreal forest, including dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches and several warbler species. Some live here in the winter, and others fly through in the spring and fall on migrations to points south, said Marilyn Heiman, director of the songbird campaign.

The boreal forest "is right in our back yard, and we're so connected to it, not only through the resources we use, but also the birds that fly here," Heiman said.

"You have all these cumulative impacts, and that's what really affects birds. ... It fragments the forests, and then they have no place to go. They lose the large patches, and they don't feel they have safe places to go."

The initiative advocates adherence to the "sustainable forestry" principles of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is backed by The Home Depot and Lowe's, among other businesses, and seeks to assure consumers who buy FSC-certified products that the wood, paper and other products they buy are from responsibly managed forests.

Today's announcement comes as the Washington's Board of Natural Resources wrestles with whether to embrace FSC certification, or some other form of certification, as the state plans timber-cut levels on state-owned forests over the next decade.

"We're no longer talking about clearcutting like in the old days," said Peter Penashue, president of the Innu Nation in Labrador and Newfoundland, one of the First Nations involved in the Canadian initiative. "We're talking about sustainable development. We recognize that we all live on one planet and we all have to do our share."

Canadian environmentalists hope to influence American consumers through the boreal initiative because "we need to make sure that companies that are breaking ranks and stepping forward like this are getting ahead in the marketplace," said Hummel of World Wildlife Fund.

"There's a growing recognition that American consumers have a significant role to play," said Wilkinson, director of the initiative. "We're linked by both ecology and trade."

P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or


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