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Saving Frozen Forests Is Hot

Canada's northern boreal forest, 15 percent of B.C., has become the sexy new frontier for global conservation efforts.

By Daniel Gawthrop 25 Jan 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The Tyee.ca

You know you've arrived as a forest ecosystem when the rock stars line up to support you. When the Brazilian rainforest campaign kicked off, it was Sting leading the way. When Clayoquot Sound was in the headlines, it was Midnight Oil. Now, with the Canadian boreal forest entering the eco-activist "big league", it's Tom Cochrane.

Cochrane was one of 25 prominent Canadians who took part in last summer's Boreal Rendezvous, a nationwide media blitz to raise awareness about our fragile northern forest ecosystem. The event featured a series of paddling expeditions through some of Canada's most breathtaking landscapes. It was one of the highlights in a banner year for the boreal.

On December 1, an unlikely alliance of environmentalists, aboriginal groups and resource companies capped things off by unveiling the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework (BFCF), an agreement to save the whole thing from extinction. Suddenly, the frozen forests are on everyone's radar.

Boreal forests have been described as the earth's northern lungs. A mixed evergreen mantle of coniferous and broad-leaf trees including jackpine, spruce, aspen, balsam fir, poplar and birch, the Canadian boreal forest and its wetlands stretch from the rocky Newfoundland coast to the mountain valleys of northern BC and the Yukon. Its stands aren't as towering as the sexier temperate and tropical rainforests to the south, nor as dense as Russia's Siberian taiga forests immortalized in Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. But its peat bogs absorb carbon dioxide and purify the air we breathe.

Covering more than half of the Canadian land mass and fifteen per cent of British Columbia, it's a large enough ecosystem to affect the entire planet's chemical and water systems.

Cleared faster than Brazil

The problem is, much of it has already been plundered without the Canadian public's knowledge. While environmentalists in the Eighties and Nineties were busy with "south of Sixty" issues, the Alberta boreal was being cleared faster than the Brazilian rainforest. By the late Nineties, nearly three-quarters of it was leased for logging, drilling and mining--or a combination of all three. Things weren't much better to the east, where logging companies in Ontario were drooling at the prospect of hundred-year leases on huge chunks of Crown land.

So it's no wonder there was so much hype surrounding last month's announcement of the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. Heralded as the largest environmental protection agreement ever reached, the BFCF covers roughly 600 million hectares--about a quarter of the world's remaining original forests. Under the agreement, half the forest would be completely excluded from industrial development, while the other half would be open to resource exploration strictly controlled for minimum environmental impact. (Up to now, only 10 per cent of the forest had been preserved.)

All that remained was for the various levels of government to sign on--a crucial factor, since more than 90 per cent of the boreal region is under public ownership.

The most striking part of the deal was the composition of the 11-member Boreal Leadership Council that signed it. The group is a diverse collection of traditional adversaries: Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Deh Cho First Nations, Domtar Inc., Ducks Unlimited Canada, Forest Ethics, the Innu Nation, Poplar River First Nation, Suncor Energy Inc, Tembec Forest Industries and the World Wildlife Fund of Canada.

"A lot of environmental efforts are rooted in conflict, so we knew we were going to have to make it happen with different allies than we had before," explains Cathy Wilkinson, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI), the umbrella group that developed the Framework. Wilkinson says the final result depended on two goals: "supporting conservation efforts on the ground and building a dialogue around what a national vision might look like."

Framework too modest, say critics

In the days following the agreement, there were a few raspberries for that "national vision". One of the first came from Liberal MP Charles Caccia, chairman of the Commons environment committee. Caccia blasted the CBI as a US-funded organisation--it was developed with $4.5 million in funding from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts--and said the Framework would "squander the heritage of future generations." The preservation target should have been 80 per cent, not fifty, he said, adding that it was "the task of elected governments and not of private sector business and organizations to produce [such] a framework".

Next up was a National Post column by Lawrence Solomon of the Urban Renaissance Institute. The December 3 column interpreted the Framework's use of the phrase "economic incentives for sustainability" to mean government subsidies to resource-hungry multinationals.

Such sniping is unlikely to make a difference. Co-management is the way of the future and, as the new year began, the CBI was using last May's agreement between the Innu of Labrador and the provincial government to expand the Framework endorsement. Once the various levels of government are onside, newspaper headlines such as "War in the woods" may finally become a thing of the past.

War of the photo-ops

Meanwhile, the war for public opinion is shifting toward conservation, thanks to great photo ops like the Boreal Rendezvous.

Imagine NHL Hall of Fame goaltender and Toronto Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden, sitting at the bow of a canoe steered by David Suzuki as they paddle through Alberta's spectacular Athabasca River.

Or public intellectual John Ralston Saul, conferring with the caribou and the peregrine falcons as he passes through the northern Yukon's Snake River on a 300-kilometre journey through a post-card mountain range that takes him from an altitude of 4,200 feet to 300 feet.

"You quickly learn that such a trip is not about competition or heroics or beating the river," Saul concluded, at the end of Boreal Rendezvous. "It is about finding the eddy line - the natural, true line down the river, with the river, with the flow of nature. It is a metaphor for civilization - that is for societies that live a long time precisely because they learn how to live with their place, rather than brutishly attempting to defeat it."

Can't argue with that.

Daniel Gawthrop is the author of Vanishing Halo: Saving the Boreal Forest (Greystone/David Suzuki Foundation).  [Tyee]

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