TREE huggers from Halifax to Vancouver are organizing to limit the cutting of Canadian forests in what amounts to a national grass-roots movement.
Yet this environmental groundswell is butting up against the $33 billion (Canadian; US$25 billion) Canadian forest products industry, which employed 289,000 people nationwide last year in logging, pulp, paper, and lumber production and is vital to the nation's economy.
Canada has more forest than any nation except Russia. Half of Canada, just over a billion acres, is covered with trees - including a temperate rain forest on the Pacific coast where some trees are 250 feet high and 1,000 years old.
Nonetheless, many Canadians are worried that their forests, particularly old-growth forests with the largest trees, are fast disappearing.
In Canada, trees are far more popular than politicians. Polls show that most Canadians would even be willing to pay higher taxes to protect more trees. Already, 56.3 million acres or about 5.5 percent of Canada's forest lands are protected by law, according to the federal government. The nation's forest industry has long thrived on what environmentalists contend is a diminishing reserve of high-quality, easily accessible old-growth trees.
With less and less room to navigate between the two factions, the nation faces a nettlesome question: Is Canada's forest heritage being squandered for short-term gain by provincial governments catering to the interests of large timber companies?
After years of crunching harvest and forest inventory numbers, Ray Travers, a forestry consultant in Victoria, British Columbia, has concluded that it is.
``World demand for wood products has increased, and [Canadian provincial] governments have responded by allocating ever-increasing amounts of wood, paying little if any attention to sustainability,'' Mr. Travers says. Brazil of the North?
Travers's concerns are echoed by Canada's Future Forest Alliance, a coalition of 18 environmental groups that has labeled Canada the ``Brazil of the North.'' Canadian companies cut down more than 2 million acres of forest each year - about one acre of forest every 12 or 13 seconds, they say, while Brazilian farmers burn an acre of Amazon rain forest every 9 seconds.
``Long-term forest management agreements [to cut trees] have been signed for large areas of Alberta, Quebec, and Manitoba, as well as parts of Saskatchewan,'' says the federal government's 1991 State of the Environment Report. ``In many parts of Canada, the opportunity to establish protected natural ecosystems has already vanished.''
The issue has gained greatest prominence in British Columbia, where half of Canada's timber is harvested. The provincial forest ministry, which oversees most of British Columbia's forests, has allowed the timber harvest to soar in recent decades, reaching levels as high as 90 million cubic meters of wood annually (in 1987). This is far above the level forest advocates say is sustainable.
``The policy of our Ministry of Forests has clearly been stated - that they are to cut every marketable tree in the province,'' Travers says.
But John Cuthbert, the provincial government's chief forester, says the annual cut is already coming down. Last year the province harvested 74 million cubic meters of wood. Moreover, the allowable annual cut on public lands is likely to drop ``15 to 20 percent ... fairly soon,'' Mr. Cuthbert says, due to new forestry practices and British Columbia's plan to boost protected land from 7 percent of the province currently to 12 percent.
That is too little decrease in cutting and too late to satisfy protesters on Vancouver Island, a 12,000 square-mile mecca for tourists that is the most intensively logged part of the province.
Here in Clayoquot (pronounced ``Clack-wit'') Sound, Pacific waves roll in toward looming mountains, some blanketed by ancient temperate rain forests, others stripped by timber-company clear-cutting that has left only a vast moonscape scarred by logging roads.
More than 600 people have been arrested since July 6 for obstructing the arrival of workers from MacMillan Bloedel, the largest timber company in the province.
Their aim is to protect more of Clayoquot's 648,000 acres than the one-third sealed off in April in a land-use decision by the provincial government.
On one typical day last month, more than 300 people gathered in pre-dawn darkness on a dirt logging road several miles from the ocean.
``We are not against the use of wood, but we are against the rape of the forests,'' said one protester stationed in the middle of the road. Moments later she and 21 others were escorted by police into a charter bus with the ironic name ``Forest Bus Tours.'' The other demonstrators, not risking arrest, cheered from the roadside. ``Clayoquot summer''
Selling T-shirts proclaiming a ``Clayoquot summer,'' environmental groups spawned protests in 11 cities worldwide in July. Last month police arrested more than 40 Clayoquot demonstrators on the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange. In August, Canada's top international environmental diplomat warned that Clayoquot risks replacing Canada's global reputation as an environmental steward with that of an ``environmental outlaw.''
While Clayoquot is the most intense conflict, it is not the only forest battle in Canada. Other hot spots - where community activists have confronted companies and government over clear-cutting - have popped up from Alberta and Saskatchewan to Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland. In each case, natives and others are watching what happens in Clayoquot Sound between the government, environmentalists, and industry, looking for a solution they can model.
Dwindling public confidence in government's ability to impartially decide forest resource allocation is a key hurdle.
``There was a time when the biggest difference between Canada and America was that we trusted our government,'' Travers says. ``We've grown up with the tradition that the Queen can do no wrong, therefore her [provincial] premier can do no wrong - and her deputy forester can do no wrong. There are no checks and balances in the system.''
In British Columbia, the provincial government legally owns $50 million worth of stock in MacMillan Bloedel, which environmentalists say is a clear conflict of interest highlighted by the fact that some of the stock was purchased before the April decision on Clayoquot Sound.
An appeals court in Victoria ruled, however, that the stock purchase by the Ministry of Finance did not affect the land-use decision. Cuthbert of the Forest Ministry says government ministries operate independently from each other and that the Finance Ministry's aim is simply ``to invest the province's funds in a productive manner.''
Other questionable government practices exist in other provinces. Alberta's provincial government in the late 1980s leased almost all of the province's productive forest land and spent hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing new pulp and paper mills. Most decisions were made out of public view, says Lorraine Vetch of the Alberta Forest Caucus.
In response, the public is increasingly demanding that forest resource decisionmaking be made a public process that includes public-use and environmental concerns as well as timber company needs, observers say.
``There is no question that governments, both federal and provincial, are racing to catch up with public opinion on the issue of forests,'' says Brian Gardiner, a member of Parliament from Prince George, British Columbia. ``Due process and public input into decisionmaking on public forest will soon be the rule.''
At the heart of the debate are the words ``sustainable development'' and different interpretations of what practices are necessary to sustain both nature's ecology and man's economy. Environmentalists argue that clear-cutting, by fragmenting what remains of the old-growth forests, threatens a loss of ``biodiversity'' - the genetic variety of plant and animal life that develops over the millennia in specific regions. In North America, Clayoquot Sound and two other unprotected regions on Vancouver Island are ``in a class by themselves'' in having substantial intact areas of biologically rich coastal rain forest, the Sierra Club says.
Chief Forester Cuthbert acknowledges that some concerns about the timber-harvest threat to biodiversity are justified. ``There are problems in certain areas, and Vancouver Island ... is one of the hot spots,'' he says.
Travers puts it another way: ``Basically what's happened on Vancouver Island is that 90 percent of the high-quality old-growth areas have been cut. We're now down to scrapping over the last half dozen unlogged valleys or so, and three of those are in the Sound.'' Local residents' views
Even though protesters get most news media attention, many Vancouver Island residents applaud the government's recent land-use decision for addressing biodiversity concerns while also protecting timber jobs. That decision emerged after the failure of a four-year attempt at building consensus among interested parties.
Under the land-use decision, about half the Sound's land will be open to logging, subject to new guidelines that provide for smaller clearcuts of no more than 100 acres. Protected area has more than doubled, and includes all of the largest remaining old-growth watershed on the island.
Environmentalists are crying foul, though, because the province has delayed implementation of the new guidelines for another year. They also say more of Clayoquot forest should have been protected, given that only about one-third of the entire island's ancient forest remains, according to satellite mapping done by the Sierra Club. At present cutting rates, all unprotected rain forest on the island will be gone by the year 2022, the Sierra Club says.
``The opposition has just begun,'' says local blockade organizer Valerie Langer, director of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound.
Under growing pressure from its green wing, the province's ruling New Democratic Party is also worried about the loss of jobs. Forestry employment has fallen in the province even without land protection from about 95,000 in 1979 to 75,000 in 1991.
Environmentalists say job losses could be prevented by promoting tourism and using labor-intensive ``ecoforestry'' in which relatively few trees per acre are harvested.
Tourism employs more British Columbians than forestry, drawing almost 700,000 people a year to Clayoquot Sound (pop. 2,000) alone. The forest sector, however, is twice as large in terms of dollar contributions to the provincial economy.
Larry Rewarkowsky, an official with the timber union IWA Canada, is sympathetic to forest companies, saying the use of ``ecoforestry'' would be uneconomical. Without clear-cutting ``the cost of the wood that you brought out would be horrendous'' and jobs would be lost, he says.
Environmentalists say the government should do more to foster secondary processing of wood into furniture and other products. British Columbia employs only about one person per thousand cubic meters of wood harvested, where Oregon and Washington State employ two per thousand, Travers notes.
To the charge of shipping logs to Japan and elsewhere rather than processing them at home, MacMillan Bloedel's Paul Pashnik says those customers ``rely on us.... You can't just phase them out.'' About 10 percent of the cut, he adds, is reserved for small-business use, with half of that earmarked for value-added processing. Canadian Awakening
Despite the growing furor over Clayoquot, protesters have not yet stopped the cutting of a single tree in the area under dispute. Yet Karen Mahon, a Vancouver-based organizer for Greenpeace International, says more is at stake than just Clayoquot trees.
``Sure, it's about the state of Clayoquot Sound,'' Ms. Mahon says. ``But it's also about Canadians' fear of losing their forests.... Forests are integral to the Canadian identity and Clayoquot Sound has come to symbolize the last Canadian stands of old-growth forest.''
Colleen McCrory, founder of Canada's Future Forest Alliance, which advocates a massive reduction in cutting, sees rising national concern.
``A few years ago we saw the same familiar faces at rallies and conferences,'' Ms. McCrory says. ``Now it's a very powerful movement in communities across the country and among natives. There's an awareness that's grown by leaps and bounds over the last five years. People know the nation's forests are in trouble.''
Government appears to be awakening to the force of the forest issue as well. Last year the federal and provincial governments, along with forest industry groups and others, signed a much ballyhooed ``National Forest Strategy'' to increase the number of forested parks and do more research into forest issues.
But environmentalists say the national forest plan lacks teeth. Indeed, the federal government in April eliminated all forest-related agreements between it and the provinces as part of cost-saving initiatives.
In a further streamlining move, new Prime Minister Kim Campbell in June eliminated the federal ministry called Forestry Canada, which had only in 1989 been created to oversee forest issues. Both moves burned important bridges between the provinces and federal government, Mr. Gardiner says.
Prime Minister Campbell - who hails from Vancouver and has support from corporate interests that include large timber companies - is in the middle of a national election race. The last thing she needs is a black eye from the Clayoquot controversy and has taken a hands-off approach. Growing pressure
Yet pressure is building at the federal level. At the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro last year, Canada was a major proponent of sustainable harvesting of forests, pushing third world countries and others to use their forest resources more carefully.
Arthur Campeau, Canada's ambassador for environment and sustainable development, told forestry officials from NATO countries last month that the Clayoquot conflict ``is causing us damage greater than we [Canadians] are prepared to admit.... We should make sure that anything that is done in Clayoquot Sound will stand up to international scrutiny.''
But for McCrory, there is a broader message.
``I just hope something happens where the government wakes up and starts representing the people,'' she says. ``The best kept secret in Canada is the give-away of our forests.''