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Industry, First Nations, eco groups agree to save vast boreal forest

Source:  Copyright 2003, Canadian Press
Date:  December 1, 2003
Original URL: Status DEAD

VANCOUVER (CP) - An alliance of environmentalists, First Nations and industry is attempting an ambitious end-run around conflict, hoping to preserve Canada's vast boreal forest.

If it works, the Canadian Boreal Initiative would see at least half the boreal forest preserved through a coast-to-coast network of interconnected protected areas. The rest would be open to development using sustainable resource-management techniques.

The area covered by the agreement is huge - 529 million hectares or 53 per cent of the Canadian land mass.

It amounts to 90 per cent of the country's remaining large, intact forests - spruce, pine, aspen, poplar and larch - and about 25 per cent of the world's intact forest.

It ranks with the Amazon rainforest and Siberian taiga as one of the largest intact natural regions in the world.

The 11 participants so far include environmental heavyweights such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Ducks Unlimited, as well as the Northwest Territories' Deh Cho First Nations and Labrador's Innu Nation.

It also includes major forestry players such as Quebec-based Domtar Inc. and Tembec Inc. and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., as well as energy producer Suncor Inc.

Governments were not part of the initial partnership, although 90 per cent of boreal forests are Crown-owned.

"Our next step really is now to reach out to other sectors and to governments and that's what's going to be our priority over the next six months," initiative director Cathy Wilkinson said Monday from Ottawa.

Over the last two decades, Canadian forests have been battlegrounds, with environmentalists mounting blockades and international boycott campaigns against logging practices seen as harmful.

The companies environmentalists invited to the table already had initiatives underway to preserve boreal forests. Wilkinson said the partners realized it was better to tackle problems pre-emptively.

"I think there's been a recognition on all sides that the traditional approach to environmental issues and conflicts really isn't productive," she said.

"Where it's possible, it makes good sense to come to the table and work proactively to avoid those conflicts before they happen."

Ducks Unlimited Canada, with about 150,000 members, came aboard because about a third of the boreal forest is wetlands and water, including more than a million lakes.

"Next to the Prairies, it's the No. 2 breeding area in the whole continent," said Gary Stewart, its manager of boreal region conservation programs. "It's a lot cheaper to save it now than restore it down the road."

The companies involved see themselves as guinea pigs.

"This isn't going to happen overnight and this isn't law," said Bill Hunter, president of Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc. of Edmonton.

"It's a behaviour more than anything else."

Alberta-Pacific, a Japanese-owned pulp and paper company, has access to six million hectares of Crown forest in Alberta. Its harvesting techniques emulate natural disturbances such as fire and insects.

Agreements like this are important because a company's customers are increasingly sensitive to the source of forest products from tree to store shelf, Hunter said.

"People can know that the chain of custody through the consumer product line has that environmental stewardship at the end of the supply change," said Hunter.

Domtar Inc., with nine million hectares of forest land in Ontario and Quebec, said the partners each have vested interests in seeing boreal forests preserved.

"Our reason is one of ensuring the future of our fibre supply and ensuring the sustainability of our company," vice-president William George said from Montreal.

"We're struggling for the same goal. We may have different reasons to see that area conserved, but at the end of the day if we listen to each other we could probably help each other out."

The amount of protected boreal forest may vary from region to region.

"People really shouldn't get hung up on the numbers that are used in this," said Hunter. "If there's a dream that 50 per cent is what it could take, we work towards that."

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