The other morning, my wife saw a yellow Wilson's warbler perched in the old, cracked apple tree in front of our house. When she told me she had seen the bird, I thought north to the Canadian boreal forest where it had probably fledged, and to a third-floor office in Seattle's 1913-vintage Securities Building.
It's in that Seattle office from which the Pew Charitable Trusts have engineered a deal that may be a giant step toward saving huge swaths of that forest. At the end of May, Pew, eight other environmental groups and the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) announced an agreement covering 180 million acres of boreal forest, which has been called the largest conservation agreement in history.
For the next three years, forest products companies will defer cutting key habitat, while they and the environmental groups try to work out the many details of saving it. During that period, the environmental groups will not campaign against sales of the companies' products. The parties can extend the agreement for more than three years.
Critics point out that the agreement doesn't permanently protect all that land, that it merely allows more negotiation, and that in the meantime, the industry is free to cut a whole lot of trees. They see the glass as at least half-empty.
Steven Kallick, who leads the Pew Environment Group's International Boreal Conservation Campaign from that Securities Building office, basically argues that without an agreement of this kind, the glass would be — and was — just about all empty. Global Forest Watch found in 2003 that less than 10 percent of Canada's boreal forest was protected.
When Pew started its campaign, Kallick says, the conservation biologist Reed Noss told it that one could preserve the boreal ecosystems without saving the whole forest. One could succeed by saving only half — but it had to be the right half. Defining and preserving the right half — or more — will be the greens' objective over the next three years.
Critics complain that the agreement has been painted with a broad brush. Kallick agrees. He says that now the parties must figure out exactly where to draw the lines.
On Kallick's office wall hangs a picture of the Ketchikan, Alaska pulp mill being dynamited in 1999, two years after he started working for Pew. Before coming here, Kallick spent 20 years in Alaska, where, as director of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign, he worked on saving the Tongass forest, which was being logged partly to supply the pulp mill. The mill wouldn't have been economically viable without de facto subsidies, but was protected for decades by Alaska's congressional delegation.
People write of the Tongass' vast unbroken tracts of forest, but Tongass roadless areas cover, in total, approximately 9.3 million acres "and most of the remaining tracts are under a million acres each," Kallick says. In contrast, he says, "The scale of wilderness in the boreal dwarfs that, with 1.1 billion acres of remaining roadless areas, and protection proposals on the table covering hundreds of millions of acres." According to Global Forest Watch, he says, seven of the world'ês 10 largest remaining old-growth forest tracts are in Canada'ês Boreal Forest.
The boreal isn't a 'êcathedral forest," marked by majestic trees. Kallick explains that the impressive thing about it is not the size of individual trees but the size of the whole. It goes on and on, from the Yukon (actually, from Alaska) to Newfoundland, forming the largest intact forest in in the world.
Up to 5 billion birds breed there, according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative, which occupies part of that Seattle office, including 73 percent of the continent's Swainson's thrushes, 74 percent of its common loons, and 68 percent of all the ruby-crowned kinglets in the world.
The birds share the forest with a host of mammals including the imperiled woodland caribou. Woodland caribou are very sensitive to habitat disturbance. Roads let in predators. Clearcuts increase the populations of deer and elk. Once deer and elk proliferate, cougars show up to eat them, and the big cats aren't averse to dining on caribou as well.
The woodland caribou has become the spotted owl of the campaign to save the boreal forest. The analogy isn't exact. But just as protecting habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl drove the campaign to save old-growth forest in the Northwest, protecting woodland caribou habitat has provided a spur and a template for the boreal forest deal.
Woodland caribou inhabit northern latitudes all around the globe. And all around the globe, they're in trouble. The trees among which they live are valuable chiefly as raw material for small-dimension lumber and the pulp that goes into junk mail and toilet paper. Nevertheless, logging and milling pay the bills in many northern communities, and Canadian provinces have given forest products companies renewable 20-year leases to cut virtually all of the remaining caribou habitat, plus a lot of other trees. In 2004, Canada listed woodland caribou as threatened under the nation's Species at Risk Act, but SARA offers little protection for listed species' habitat.
The Canadian government "assembled some of the world's top woodland-caribou scientists for advice on the habitat needed to save the threatened animals," Martin Mittelstaedt reported last year in the Globe and Mail "and then it rejected their suggestions." The scientists created a rough map of woodland caribou habitat but, Kallick says, the forest products industry persuaded the government not to make it public.
Environmental groups knew the habitat map existed, though, and the industry knew they knew. Kallick suggests that the forest products companies realized that if they ignored the evidence documented by the map, they 'êwould have caribou blood on their hands."
"They don't want that,'ê Kallick says. So it was time to talk. "We actually used the same maps produced by the government panel in our deliberations," he notes.
The forest products industry was running out of options. The Canadian industry faces competition from Siberia, where loggers are liquidating boreal forest at a rapid clip, and a declining world market for pulp. Environmentalists have urged people not to buy its unsustainably harvested products. The industry needed a Plan B. It has decided to create a new niche for itself by going green.
Discussing the agreement, CBC News reported that Avrim Lazar, the president and CEO of the industry group described the plan in terms that amount to a business strategy. He told CBC, "We know that tomorrow's jobs are going to go to those who can see that the future depends on environmental progressiveness, and that's the race that we plan to win."
As part of the agreement, the industry will defer logging in 29 million hectares of caribou habitat. (A hectare equals 2.47 acres, so we're talking more than 70 million acres.) Critics say that number reflects a lot of smoke and mirrors. "It would have been wonderful if (the agreement) really had protected 29 million hectares," says Eric Reder, Manitoba Campaign Director for the Wilderness Committee, which calls itself the largest citizen environmental group in Canada. But "only 72,000 hectares of caribou habitat were protected," Reder says. The remainder weren't going to be logged in the next three years anyway.
"I dug a little bit further into the 72,000 hectares . . . (and) 40,000 hectares were in a logging operation that we've been working on for years," Reder says. Subtract that acreage and "then we're down to 32,000 hectares. . . . That would have been telling Canadians the truth.'ê
Kallick explained recently that the "short-term deferrals, for the life of the agreement, cover about 3.1 million acres in total (most of which is continued from previous agreements) and allow continued logging of about 700,000 acres. He continued, "Some critics are focusing on the continued logging and saying this is a weak agreement. I have to say that this critique makes no sense. The companies voluntarily agreed to defer some of their logging plans in the short term. There was no other way to get those concessions. It's all a gain over what we had before."
'êWe want legislative protection for caribous habitat," Reder explains. The Wilderness Committee's "position is that we just have to keep working" for a Species at Risk Act "that actually has teeth and is enforceable."
Reder says he hopes that the voluntary agreement leads to something substantial, but for the time being, it's not what was advertised. 'êCautious optimism is one thing,'ê he says; 'êcelebratory is not where we're at.'ê
Kallick certainly does not argue against a stronger Species at Risk Act. He does say that about 95 percent or more of the woodland caribou habitat that's subject to logging contracts. "Taking 70 million acres of forest out of existing logging contracts is unprecedented in the world and if we can make it permanent, it will be an amazing achievement," he says.
Kallick notes that the agreement isn't the only way that forests are being or may be saved up north: Pew has worked with First Nations to set aside large tracts as part of their land claims settlements. Kallick explains that most First Nations communities, which haven't yet seen much development, want two-thirds of their land set aside. Pew has helped them with both expertise and money, paying chiefs, for example, to act as lobbyists. So far, land claims settlements have preserved some 40 million acres.preserve
Legislation in Ontario and Quebec may more. The premiers of Quebec and Ontario have said they'll protect half the northern forests in their provinces. The Ontario plan focuses on carbon sequestration and secondarily on preserving habitat for caribou and other species. The Quebec plan has been less explicit. Both plans target 50 percent of forest lying above a line drawn somewhat farther north than some people would like. Kallick says Pew has been "actively engaged in the advocacy for the plans and now for their faithful implementation."
Until recently, the boreal forest has lain out of sight and largely out of mind. When the campaign started, a poll that Pew commissioned among Canadians found that only 10 percent realized there was a forest up north.
Kallick says he personally started thinking about the north when he was only 17, just out of high school. Through connections, he landed a job working on the Trans Alaska Pipeline. He went to Fairbanks, saw the off-duty pipeline workers indulging in an orgy of drinking and drugs, and figured that if he lived in that milieu, he wouldn't live long. He didn't take the job. Instead, he went to college and eventually to law school at Lewis & Clark College. But first, he traveled in the Yukon Territory.
With a friend, he drove to the end of the road at MacMillan Pass, which marks the boundary between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Beyond the road's end lay a vast, open landscape with rivers, no roads (actually, in those days you could drive a few miles beyond the pass, if your vehicle had enough clearance to ford a river), and no sign of people. He realized that was what the whole continent used to be. The image has stuck with him.
When the Canadian boreal forest campaign is all over, Kallick says he just may head north again, back up to Alaska. After all, he says, "15 percent of the boreal is in Alaska, and nobody's doing anything about it."