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There's a Fight Brewing Over a Really Important Forest in Canada

A longstanding dispute over the largest undisturbed boreal forest on earth began to heat up this week when 13 American environmental groups wrote the governments of Ontario and Quebec urging them to support new conservation efforts.

by Jake Bleiberg
Jan 15 2016, 8:15pm

Photo via Flickr

As oil prices continue to drop towards an uncertain bottom, tensions between environmentalists and industry are mounting around another natural resource: Canada's forests.

A long brewing dispute over the largest undisturbed boreal forest on Earth, nearly 2-million square miles of pines and firs stretched across northern Canada, began to heat up this week when 13 American environmental advocacy groups wrote the governments of Ontario and Quebec urging them to support new conservation efforts.

The letter comes in response to earlier lobbying by the Québec Forest Industry Council, which represents nearly half of Canada's $20-billion timber industry, warning the government against new measures proposed by a watchdog, the Forest Stewardship Council. The new measures would threaten thousands of jobs and the communities that rely on them, the industry group warned in an October letter to Quebec's minister of forests.

Oddly, both the lumber industry and the American environmental groups are vying for support from the provincial governments — even though the forestry standards in dispute are entirely voluntary and not issued by the government.

Rather, it is issued by Forest Stewardship Council to logging companies for responsible forestry practices. To receive certification, the FSC requires that, among other things, companies respect indigenous land rights, take measures to reduce the environmental impact of logging, promote reforestation, and maintain forests with special social or environmental value. Canada has 50-million hectares of FSC certified forest and more than half of this is in Quebec. But changes to the certification process has the Quebec industry threatening to drop the certification — a move that environmentalists say would be disastrous.

Related: A Record Amount of US Forest Went up in Flames Last Year

"What's at stake here is one of the world's last great forests," said Danielle Droitsch of the Natural Resource Defense Council, which is among the signatories to this week's letter. "It's incredibly important that actors from all over weigh in to ensure its protection."The environmental advocacy groups argue that changes to the FSC certification, unanimously adopted in 2014 under the title Motion 65, are essential to safeguards of animal habitats, including that of the Woodland Caribou, the land rights of Canadian First Nations, and the wellbeing of a forest that rivals the Amazon in size.

Implementation of Motion 65 would require companies seeking certification to set aside new swaths of the Canadian boreal for conservation, in addition to the 42 percent of continuous boreal forest that lies north of the area where Quebec allows forestry for the purpose of supplying mills. 

The industry sees this measure, which was originally proposed to the FSC by Greenpeace, as so restrictive that it would nullify the value of maintaining certification.

"If companies have to choose between maintaining FSC certification and maintaining their wood supply, they will prefer to keep their wood supply. A mill can operate viably without FSC certification, but not without wood supply," the Québec Forest Industry Council wrote to minister André Tremblay in its October letter, which was endorsed by the province's 29 major lumber companies.

Were Quebec's industry to drop out of the FSC certification en mass, it would count as a major blow to the watchdog. FSC Canada president François Dufresne toldLe Quotidien in November that he sees the Québec Forest Industry Council's statement as a negotiating tactic. However, Dufresne also said that his organization would work to implement Motion 65 in a way that will not cause plant closures in the province.

'What's at stake here is one of the world's last great forests.'

Nearly two-thirds of Canadian lumber is exported to the United States and some large America buyers — including Kimberly Klark, the makers of Kleenex, and Procter & Gamble — prefer to use FSC certified wood. In their own letter to the Quebec government the American environmental groups suggested that dropping the FSC certification might be costly for the industry. "The United States is a major consumer of FSC-certified products, particularly from Canada," the letter states. "Increasingly, customers around the world are making social and environmental values a priority in their purchasing decisions." FSC certified woods generally retails for a higher price than does non-certified lumber, but it only makes up a small share of all American purchases.

Pressure on the Quebec lumber industry from environmental activists and native groups has heightened in recent years. Last July, Greenpeace and the Waswanipi Cree descended on Quebec City to protest a new forest management agreement between the government and the nine bands of James Bay Cree. The agreement was the result of a lawsuit brought by the Cree against the provincial government, but some bandleaders have come to see it as a raw deal and negotiations are ongoing.

For the industry, uncertainty abounds and tensions are high. One Quebec company, Resolute Forest Products, has been pursuing a defamation lawsuit against Greenpeace Canada, and the close relationship between the advocacy group and the FSC may be another reason why Quebec companies have soured on the FSC certification.

But Greenpeace USA and the other 12 American environmental groups that signed this week's letter, see the issue differently. "Company threats – that either FSC halts efforts to strengthen conservation standards or they will abandon the certification program – undercut the compact between forest products companies, environmental groups and the social sector that has made the FSC the remarkable success it has been to date," the letter states.

Correction: This article previously misstated the percentage of Quebec forest legally designated as protected. Although logging is prohibited in a much larger area, only 9.16 percent of Quebec's forest land has protected status.

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @jzbleiberg

Photo via Flickr