Negotiating with former adversaries comes with a unique set of challenges.

by Julee Boan

In the early 1970s, a popular bumper sticker read: “If you are cold, hungry and out of work, eat an environmentalist.” At the time, and for many years after, an “us versus them” mentality dominated the discourse between tree huggers and corporate interests. The environmental community relied on a predictable bag of tricks to express opposition to destruction of habitat and wildlife that nearly always included a blockade along a logging road when forests were in jeopardy.

This approach proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could be quite effective. The blockades in Clayoquot Sound during the 1990s saved significant old-growth rainforest in British Columbia. On the other hand, environmentalists were accused – not without some justification – of paying little or no attention to the subsequent spike in the unemployment rate when big operations or projects were cancelled. Even in cases where environmental safeguards have had no economic impact, environmental groups routinely are considered responsible for industry’s economic struggles. The result has been the false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment that unjustly forces communities to make tough choices.

As the historic Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) demonstrates, however, times are changing. Today, the new face of environmentalism has us rolling up our sleeves with industry, to figure out if and how we can have our cake and eat it too. In that agreement, nine environmental groups and 21 member companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) negotiated a ceasefire that will result in careful planning for 72 million hectares of boreal forest licensed to FPAC members. Moreover, through the agreement, members of FPAC are committed to high forest management standards in logged areas, while conservation organizations are committed to publicly recognizing and supporting the forest industry’s efforts.

After the agreement was signed, national organizations approached provincial environmental groups to assist in the implementation of the CBFA goals. Ontario Nature is one of the provincial organizations engaged in this challenging process, an undertaking that is not without its critics.

The fact is that, in northern Ontario, responses to the CBFA range from cautious hope and interest to fear, even anger. The concern is that big interests (environmental and industrial) mostly based in the south are making decisions that will affect northern residents without our involvement. Once again, the criticisms merit a hearing. When environmental groups partner up with former adversaries, do we risk losing meaningful connections with local concerns and grassroots support?

Some environmental groups are also skeptical of the process, arguing that the CBFA simply makes the consumption of wood products more palatable. The process appears to promote consumerism rather than straight-up forest conservation.

There are no easy answers. Nevertheless, while mounting blockades and waging “Do Not Buy” campaigns may create much-needed space for improved dialogue on forest values, they cannot deliver solutions. On the contrary, threatened woodland caribou that depend on the boreal forest have undergone population declines for decades – they are the harbinger indicating that forest management is falling short of our societal goals. An agreement like the CBFA provides market-based incentives for better forestry practices, an option well worth pursuing when direct opposition to logging has, in many respects, been insufficient.

In addition, the boreal ecosystem spans 750,000 square kilometres, an area so vast it can absorb some development. Rather than issue a blanket demand that logging stop, we can think in terms of thresholds – research indicates that caribou will persist where habitat disturbance affects less than one-third of their range.

Ontario Nature and other conservation groups know that we need agreement from First Nations communities – who have constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights – for any initiatives that involve changes to the landscape to be successful. We are already talking to several First Nations and listening to their priorities for lands and waters.

Here’s what Ontario Nature hopes to achieve: fully functioning boreal ecosystems that support strong and healthy communities. Already the CBFA can boast some significant achievements: industry has agreed to stop logging caribou habitat in portions of the southern boreal forest at least until 2013, creating opportunities for new approaches to forestry.

These types of negotiations – involving more than a dozen groups in Ontario – are neither quick nor straightforward. But we believe that with patience, persistence and goodwill, the goals set out in the CBFA can be achieved.

julee_boanJulee Boan is Ontario Nature’s boreal program manager. She lives in Thunder Bay.