Environmentalists, loggers seek consensus as Boreal Forest Agreement hits reset

OTTAWA – “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

In her rush to explain the promise and the peril of the three-year-old Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, Janet Sumner doesn’t even pause to consider her unintended pun.

Sumner, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, is among those heralding a “reset” in a ground-breaking co-operative experiment between environmental groups and the forestry industry.

The agreement, known as the CBFA, could serve as a model for industry and environmental groups that shout past one another while polarizing their constituencies and solving nothing. But the agreement has to be shown to produce real results and so far those have been hard to come by.

“We all share that frustration,” Aran O’Carroll, the group’s interim executive director, said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“We set out a very ambitious and aggressive set of milestones.”

The 2010 agreement, which currently includes 19 forestry companies and seven environmental organizations, was coming apart at the seams last spring after two major environmental groups quit and negotiations with Resolute Forest Products reached a stalemate.

“This summer all the signatories sat down, reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement and we’ve been working hard over the summer to recalibrate our work plans, identify priorities for our work and set new milestones,” said O’Carroll.

A series of agreements will be announced this fall and winter, said O’Carroll.

And the CBFA is still waiting on the province of Ontario to sign off on an agreement in northeastern Ontario that has been approved by local communities, First Nations and non-signatory forest companies. The proposal protects over 800,000 hectares of forest while increasing harvestable timber by 20 per cent, thus protecting local mills.

However negotiators were simply unable to get a satisfactory agreement on the vast, top priority “phase one” forest areas in Quebec and Ontario, Sumner said in a phone interview.

Talks had been “bubbling away” in other regions and the focus has shifted to those more productive discussions, she said.

“For (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) very specifically, we’re working in Newfoundland, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and seeing those conversations with those companies really starting to bear some fruit.”

And that has advocates of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement back on a public relations offensive this fall.

Bruce Lourie of the Ivey Foundation, which helps fund the participation of a number of environmental groups in the agreement, says neither conservationists nor industry want to go back to the days when they warred over forestry practices.

“This is clearly the right way to do things,” said Lourie, who joined O’Carroll and former forestry executive Avrim Lazar in pitching CBFA’s merits Wednesday.

“It’s just more complex than anyone imagined.”

Canada has about a third of the world’s boreal forest; getting co-operation on its management between environmentalists and loggers is seen as a potential model for other resource sectors, including oil and gas.

Lazar contrasts the “tug of war” over the oilsands — “I’ll get my billionaire to beat up on your billionaire,” he says — with the forest talks.

“You have grown-up humans sitting in a room together with a map.”

A hard-won agreement among the CBFA signatories on scientific methodology is “a small miracle of consensus building,” said Lazar.

The modelling shows how much habitat woodland caribou require. Logging maps reveal how much timber a community mill — and the community itself — needs to survive.

The CBFA is designed to use that common methodology to map out agreements that environmentalists, forestry companies, First Nations and local communities all can live with.

Sumner said in her talks in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, “I feel like we’re just light years away from where we were with other industrial sectors.”

But some key environmental groups have walked away from the agreement.

Both Greenpeace and Canopy, an advocacy group for sustainable forestry that was involved in the CBFA’s creation, bowed out last spring, citing a lack of progress.

“Our assessment coming up to the third anniversary, when there was not a single hectare protected on the ground, or even jointly recommended to governments for protection, was that it just wasn’t the most effective vehicle,” said Nicole Rycroft, Canopy’s executive director.

“Success is ultimately measured by results on the ground.”

Sumner argues that it’s better to have environmentalists “inside the tent” seeing industry and government data and understanding the trade-offs that can be made.

But the environmental campaigner agrees the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement was in serious trouble this summer.

“Oh yeah,” Sumner said, emphatically.

“We’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve got to produce some results. Otherwise, we’ve just agreed on a bunch of process.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version described Sumner as the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

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