Canadian forestry practices are under fierce attack

GLEN ALLEN December 16 1991


Canadian forestry practices are under fierce attack

GLEN ALLEN December 16 1991


Canadian forestry practices are under fierce attack


The four-wheel-drive pickup truck bounced over a rutted logging road deep in a hardwood forest in eastern Ontario’s Lanark County, about 100 km northwest of Ottawa. Martin Streit, the 31-year-old provincial government forester for the area, pulled to a stop in a clearing. Then, on foot, he picked his way through a mixed stand of maple, oak, pine, birch and basswood trees. A few hundred metres into the 200-acre lot, a piece of provincially owned Crown land that is being logged under contract by André Poirier of Lancaster, Ont., Streit walked up to a towering yellow birch and pointed at a bundle of twigs and sticks. It was the nest of a rare red-shouldered hawk. Streit said that because a government survey crew had found the nest there, the Ontario ministry of natural resources had limited Poirier’s logging rights within a 25-acre buffer zone around the nest so that it would not be disturbed. “The forest has many uses,” said Streit, who supervises harvesting and environmental standards for 50,000 acres of forest in the county.

“We hope we’re doing good timber management, but we are also trying to do good red-shouldered hawk management.” He added: “What we have here is essentially a balancing act between one and the other.”

The balance between the harvesting of timber and the recreational, environmental and spiritual values inherent in Canada’s vast forests has soared to the top of the public agenda.

In a Decima poll in June, six in 10 Canadians said that more should be done to protect the environment, even if it costs jobs. With $49 billion in annual sales, the forests provide the nation with its largest, most economically important single industry. But the forests are also an enduring emblem of Canadian nationhood and, lately, a cause embraced by environmentalists in Canada and abroad. Some European and American environmentalists say that the rate at which Canadian firms are clear-cutting forests and cutting down stands of old-growth trees rivals the devastation in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. International critics, some of whom have threatened to try to organize a boycott of Canada’s $23-billion forest-products export trade until the nation’s forestry practices improve, argue that the Canadian forests are vital

to the well-being of the planet. Said Michael Pilarski, director of the Tonasket, Wash.-based U.S. environmental network Friends of the Trees Society: “Your management up there is far worse than anything in the United States, and we’re bad enough.”

Still, government and industry spokesmen and other forestry experts say that Canadian forest management is changing to meet the challenges posed by growing environmental concerns. Said Paul Griss, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Nature Federation, an association of 145 affiliated conservation groups: “People are starting to wake up

and realize that our logging affects our songbird population, our soil, our water quality, everything.” Said Jag Maini, assistant deputy minister of Forestry Canada, the federal ministry charged with working with the provinces and the forestry industry to conserve the resource: “We are evolving from mining our forests to managing them. A very crucial shift is taking place.”

Imperceptible: But if such a shift is occurring, it is apparently almost imperceptible to such forest-protection advocates as Colleen McCrory, an environmentalist from New Denver, B.C., who acts as spokesman for a New Denver-based organization called Canada’s

Future Forest Alliance. In 1989, McCrory travelled across Canada documenting capitalspending projects by pulp-and-paper mills. She says that she found that at least 20 mills were being built or expanded, largely in Western Canada, at a total estimated cost of more than $13 billion. In Alberta alone, the provincial government has in the past four years set aside a forested area about the size of the United Kingdom to supply raw material for new or expanded mills. And in Manitoba, a single company, Montreal-based Repap Enterprises Inc., acquired timber-cutting rights in 1989 to one-sixth of the province’s total area.

But spokesmen for the forestry industry say that they are behaving more responsibly in the area of environmental concerns. And even many environmentalists acknowledge that major changes are under way in the controversial forestry industry, which employs one in every 14 Canadians. Forestry Canada’s Maini says that the industry is gradually accepting the concept of sustainable development. “We started out in this country with a pioneer mentality when the forest was an enemy,” said Maini. “Then we saw it as a commodity. We harvested and sold it. And then we started realizing that this resource is not as limitless as we thought it was.” As a result, Maini says, everyone in the industry will be compelled eventually to see the forest not only as a source of timber, but as wildlife habitat and as a natural resource that interacts with soil and water and plays a role in maintaining the planet’s ecological health.

Forestry Canada’s own figures show that only 3.6 per cent of the 600million-acre forest land considered

“productive” is off limits to logging,

while Pilarski at the Friends of the Trees Society argues that at least three to five times that amount should be set aside. And clearcutting, in which loggers cut down all trees from a forested area regardless of their age, size or species, troubles many environmentalists. They contend that clear-cuts, and the logging roads that lead to them, can destroy soil cover, promote erosion, eliminate animal habitats—and even alter the climate.

Still, many scientists contend that the disappearance of forests is directly related to climatic changes. They say that the buildup of manmade carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere promotes global warming, and that the process

could be accelerated by the destruction of forests, which in the past have helped to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Photographs taken from space satellites show that areas of previously cleared forest, including an expanse in Northern Ontario of about 200,000 acres, have become prominent features of the Canadian landmass. “We have not always been very gentle,” says University of British Columbia forestry professor Frederick Bunnell.

Neglected: While forestry firms that cut trees on provincial land are usually required to reseed or replant the harvested areas, advocates of sterner measures say that reforestation programs are sometimes neglected or carried out unsuccessfully. Indeed, a report published by Forestry Canada in April, 1990, estimated that the number of trees cut down in Canada between 1976 and 1986 outstripped regeneration programs by 12 million acres, an area equivalent to two per cent of Canada’s productive forest land. Said Forestry Minister Frank Oberle: “We are harvesting perhaps more than we should.”

Even many of Canada’s professional foresters, the men and women who are experts in forest management, also express concern over the rate at which forests are being levelled. A Forestry Canada survey of 4,500 foresters published in January showed that fewer than three in 10 rated the condition of forests in their province as “good” or “excellent.” More than three-quarters of those surveyed said that there was a growing scarcity of timber in some parts of Canada, and nearly half of the foresters surveyed in British Columbia said that the prospect of maintaining a supply of wood at current harvesting rates was “poor.”

As well, some critics say that even when cut areas are reforested, logging companies increase efficiency by planting faster-growing but less desirable tree species, or by planting only a single species. Scientists say that when an old-growth forest is replaced by a single species, a wealth of biological diversity in the form of plants, animals and birds may be lost. Said Glen Blouin, executive director of the Canadian Forestry Association, an Ottawabased federation of provincial forestry associations: “There have been a multitude of cases of mixed-wood stands being harvested and then replanted with single species. That’s not good.”

Challenge: There are signs that the challenge is being taken up by an industry that, even in the grip of a recession that has seriously slowed overseas sales, is the economic mainstay of 348 Canadian communities. Said Pierre Lachance, a spokesman for the Montreal-based Canadian Pulp and Paper Association: “The industry believes it is managing for sustainable development both of forest resources and other resources. We’re doing all kinds of things to make this happen.”

Indeed, at Weldwood of Canada Ltd., a foresting, pulp and sawmill operation employing 800 people at Hinton, Alta., 250 km west of Edmonton, company officials said that keeping

a sharp eye on the environmental and social values of the forest has become an article of faith. Weldwood, which recently spent $500 million on new mill facilities, has had tenure on about 2.5 million acres of forested land in the area since 1954. After more than 30 years of cutting, only 250,000 acres of that land has been logged, according to company forest resource manager Donald Laishley. And almost all that has been cut has regenerated either naturally or through techniques such as planting or plowing the logged land. Thinning of trees on lands originally cut more than 30 years ago is scheduled to begin in another decade.

The same kind of concern has emerged in other parts of Canada’s forested lands. In central Nova Scotia, two local forest companies have joined forces with the federal and provincial governments and community groups to direct what they call a “multi-stakeholder sustainable project” in the St.

Mary’s River area. Anne Camozzi, an environmental educator in Antigonish,

N.S., who has worked on the project, says that the effort includes biologists counting birds and measuring indications of environmental disturbance before and after timber harvesting in the 383,000-acre forest.

The objective, she says, “is to come up with techniques so that there would be less of an impact.” Added Camozzi: “Projects like this are the wave of the future.”

There are other indications that forestry companies are prepared to be more careful about forestry practices. The Pulp and Paper Association’s Lachance, for one, said that an increasing part of the money being spent on capital projects in the forestry business is dedicated to environment-related improvements. Lachance said that in 1989, an average of nine per cent of firms’ capital budgets, totalling $525 million, was devoted to environmental measures. In 1990, the figure rose to 16 per cent; it stood at 27 per cent this year and is projected to increase to more than 30 per cent in 1992. Said the Canadian Nature Federation’s Griss: “The cynics don’t agree, but what you’re seeing now is a phenomenal change coming over forest companies. They realize that they are going to have to change the way they do business.”

Standards: Meanwhile, governments, foresters and an industry already in the grip of recession face a future filled with challenge and change. First of all, governments are now demanding higher standards for pulp-mill effluent. Indeed, Environment Minister Jean Charest announced last week that pulp mills must change their processes to prevent the formation of two toxic compounds, dioxins and furans, by January, 1994, or face penalties under

the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The cost of the change is estimated at $560 million, most of which will be used to install more efficient—and more expensive—emission-control equipment. As well, governments will clearly monitor harvests more closely in the decades to come. Said John Carroll, a forestry industry analyst with the Toronto brokerage firm of Loewen, Ondaatje, McCutcheon: “They are all looking at harvest levels that can be sustained into perpetuity.”

Carroll also predicted that in the future, “clear-cut areas will be smaller and they will leave bigger boundaries around cut areas.” In addition, aboriginal claims to forested land may reduce forest areas available to be cut. Meanwhile, domestic and international pressure may force reductions in the harvest of old-growth areas and in the practice of clear-cutting. And with increasing interest in products that are

recycled, the forest industry may have to undergo expensive retooling to provide recycled wood-fibre products. Recycling, the use and reuse of wood fibre for towelling, tissue, egg cartons and other materials, will play a greater part in the forestry industry in the future, experts say.

As a result of such developments, costs to consumers, industries and the communities those industries support will grow. Even where the industry can adapt to new technologies and higher standards, “a massive amount of capital will be diverted from other areas,” said one Toronto forestry analyst, who asked not to be identified. Consumers as well as companies will bear the burden of those higher costs.

There are other signs that such change is taking place. According to Forestry Canada, about one billion trees were planted in harvested areas of Canada last year—a fivefold increase from 1979. In April, the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, expressing concern that some firms were not fulfilling their contractual responsibilities, called for “open, unbi-

ased” audits by third parties of the logging practices of member companies for purposes of control. And on Sept. 25, Oberle announced that Ottawa would commit $100 million towards roping off up to 10 “model forest” areas in ecologically distinct regions.

Forestry professionals point out that some of the criticisms of their practices, in fact, fall wide of the mark in a land where the forest is as diverse as Canada itself. Indeed, many experts say that clear-cutting is appropriate in areas where the technique mimics natural disturbances, such as fires and insect infestation. Said Gordon Baskerville, professor of forestry at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton: “The only way we will change the forest significantly is with things like selective cutting, which in fact is not natural.” As for replanting, Baskerville said, “There is absolutely no need of planting every acre that is cut.” Baskerville points out that in New Brunswick, “82 per cent of the cut-over area regenerates naturally, and only 18 per cent is replanted.”

Exaggerated: While agreeing that basic changes are needed in the way Canadians use their forests, some experts argue that the claims of some environmentalists are exaggerated. Said Griss: “Things aren’t as rosy as the industry would like us to believe, and they’re not as bad as some of the more alarmist environmentalist groups would have us think.” As £ well, some experts say that z the analogy with the deïï struction of the Brazilian 5 rain forests is unwarranted. Said Weldwood’s Laishley: “I have worked in the Amazon and this is not ‘Amazon North.’ The problem there is that 40 million people are starving to death. Their only livelihood is going out to cut trees down and put in some agriculture to feed themselves.”

For his part, the Canadian Forestry Association’s Blouin says that environmental activists have “been able to focus a degree of public attention on our forests that we have never been able to do.” Now that the issue has become more widespread and action is being taken, most experts say that Canada will be able to strike a healthy balance between the needs of the forestry industry and the imperatives of conservation and preservation. Said Griss: “If we can’t achieve sustainable development in this country, then nobody can.” Clearly, both Canadians and a concerned international community will be closely monitoring the activities of the nation’s forestry industry and governments alike as they confront the daunting challenges that he ahead.

GLEN ALLEN in Lanark County