In what may well represent a landmark agreement, nine environmental groups and 21 major timber companies have inked a deal on the beginnings of a conservation and sustainable forestry plan for large expanses of Canada's boreal forest.
The companies involved have government-issued logging rights to some 178 million acres – an area about the size of Texas – in this environmentally important forest. The holdings stretch from British Columbia to the Maritime Provinces on Canada's east coast.
Over the past decade, boreal-forest preservation has increasingly been seen to be as vital as tropical-forest preservation in efforts to combat global warming. Although tropical forests cover more of Earth's surface than boreal forests, boreal forests store nearly twice as much carbon, mainly in their soils.
Under the pact, for the next three years the companies will suspend logging on 72 million acres – covering nearly all the caribou habitat that falls within their lease holdings.
In another 1.9 million acres within known caribou habitat, the companies will shift nearly 180,000 acres worth of logging activity to holdings outside the habitat.
The environmentalists and timber companies "have pulled off something really pretty spectacular here," says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham, N.C.
The aim is to give parties that have been at loggerheads for years a timeout that will enable them to cooperatively develop and implement a set of long-term, sustainable forestry practices. These practices would ensure the ecological health of the forest while also meeting demands for forest products.
The parties aim to delineate the practices by the end of the year and phase them in by Dec. 31, 2012. Provincial governments and First Nation groups also would play key roles in formulating the practices.
In May 2008, Quebec announced it would protect nearly 4.5 million acres of forests and wetlands in 23 new areas, 15 of which fall in boreal forests. Two months later, Ontario announced it would set aside nearly 56 million acres of boreal forest for tourism and for use by First Nations. That's about half of the boreal forest falling within Ontario's boundaries.
The two-year talks that led to Tuesday's announcement resulted from a kind of battle fatigue, participants acknowledge.
"Who wants to live in a world of constant tension between environmental and economic interests, when we all know that our future is making a whole cloth of those interests?" says Avrim Lazar, who heads the Forest Products Association of Canada, the trade group for the timber companies involved.
For the timber industry, he adds, the agreement holds the promise of a competitive advantage, since consumers increasingly demand forest products that come via sustainable forestry practices.
The agreement’s emphasis on preserving caribou habitat stems from the animal's heavy reliance on a healthy boreal habitat, explains Ronnie Drever, a Nature Conservancy ecologist. Caribou, in fact, turn out to be sensitive barometers of the state of the boreal forests.
Some argue that caribou require vast protected areas. Others hold that some herds are robust enough to withstand the additional disturbance that logging brings.
Researchers will test those extremes, Dr. Drever says, by reviewing a large body of science that already has accumulated on caribou and relating it to the landscape that the agreement covers.
Over the long term, several participants in the agreement say they hope the approach can serve as a model for other members of the forest-products industry, as well as for energy and mining interests that operate in the boreal forests.
The agreement holds "exciting possibilities,” he says. “There are elements of the agreement that are implemented immediately. But at the end of the day, people are going to look at our results. We want to be judged by the results."