Poised to deliver big results, the nearly four-year-old Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement continues to rely on the co-operation of former foes
By Fraser Los with photography by Tobin Grimshaw
(Photo: Tobin Grimshaw)
AT THE RADISSON HOTEL’S 12 resto bar in downtown
Winnipeg, a collection of foresters, environmentalists, scientists
and First Nations representatives huddle around a long
table and shake off the early October chill. Seated together, they
couldn’t be a truer reflection of the Canadian wilderness —
equal parts “hewers of wood” and tree hugger, conservation
biologist and northern hunter.
The group has negotiated monthly for more than three years,
crafting a plan to protect and sustainably harvest a massive tract
of boreal forest roughly 500 kilometres northwest of here (see
map). Managed by Tolko, a forestry company based in Western
Canada, the region covers much of central Manitoba,
from north of Swan River to the southwest, and along the
Saskatchewan border, to just past Thompson in the northeast.
It’s hard to believe these people are collaborating. Even harder
to believe is that this is just one of several regions across the
country — with similar collaborations — set aside for protection
by the landmark Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.
Signed in May 2010 by nine environmental groups and
21 forestry companies (the latter all members of the Forest
Products Association of Canada), the CBFA is based on a truce: environmentalists
who agreed to protect
key regions of intact
boreal habitat and
commit to sustainable
else. Covering more than 73 million hectares (three times
the size of the U.K.), it’s the largest conservation
agreement ever signed, anywhere.
The CBFA has grown into something
even more groundbreaking, however. It
promises a new paradigm for resource management
that would reconcile economic and
environmental concerns. To reach that goal,
though, planners must engage (and convince)
a much longer list of interested parties, including First Nations
and local residents who depend on the land for their livelihoods.
They’ll also need full buy-in from provincial governments
to make their conservation plans into policy reality.
TO MOVE FROM LOFTY IDEALS to on-the-ground action, the
CBFA’s leaders created a complex and unprecedented organizational
structure and framework for planning that now
involves more than 120 scientists, foresters and administrators
working from Newfoundland to British Columbia. The signatories
appointed national working groups, one for each of the
agreement’s six key themes (forestry practices, protected areas,
endangered species, climate change, local economic prosperity
and marketplace recognition). They also created regional planning
groups to negotiate effective management plans based on the distinctive characteristics of their local areas.
The planning area in northwestern Manitoba, called Forest
Management Licence-2, features a host of local factors to consider,
including six caribou ranges, 10 First Nations communities
and vast stretches of intact forest. The stakes are high for
a positive outcome here. At nine million hectares, it’s the
largest forest tenure in the world, and perhaps the best opportunity
yet for the CBFA to prove it can make a difference,
especially as pressure mounts for its signatories to produce
“This job takes time if you want to do it right,” says
Manitoba working group co-ordinator Chanda Hunnie, referring
to the time-consuming research and analysis, relationship
building and consensus-based decisions involved in each
plan. Echoing many others in the CBFA, Hunnie suggests the
original timelines for completing regional plans were too
ambitious, which may have set the stage for unrealistic
By the pact’s second anniversary, those expectations had led
to growing impatience. In December 2012, Greenpeace left the
agreement, accusing industry signatory Resolute Forest
Products of building roads in no-harvest zones in Quebec.
Resolute was later absolved, but Greenpeace maintains it would
have left the CBFA anyway, given the lack of progress. A second
group, Canopy, left the following spring for similar reasons.
That dust-up featured the same divisive rhetoric the agreement
has sought to overcome. It also brought a wave of
negative press, which tested the resolve of signatories. To stay
on track, planners had to remind themselves (and the public)
that their objectives were still laudable — and within reach.
“THIS IS A VERY AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING,” says Aran
O’Carroll, who took over as the CBFA executive director in
March 2013. An obvious choice for the role, O’Carroll was
involved in the early discussions that led to the CBFA, and
helped craft the original agreement.
“It’s seven provincial governments, over 600 First
Nations and a vast amount of territory. It’s about transforming
the entire forestry sector,” notes O’Carroll. It’s simply
too large and too complex to be implemented quickly, he
insists. “Their central frustration was about lack of progress,”
says O’Carroll of Greenpeace and Canopy. “But every
signatory shares that frustration; we just disagree about the
legitimacy of our challenges.”
O’Carroll is convinced the agreement’s key objectives
are simply too promising to fail. “The outcome we want is government adoption,” he adds, “so we know damn well we have
to put something on the table that people will rally behind.”
The CBFA has been close to getting government buy-in. The
Kesagami Range Caribou Action Plan, announced in June
2012, provides recommendations for sustainably managing
about three million hectares of the Abitibi River Forest area
north of Timmins, Ontario. If implemented, it would permanently
protect 835,000 hectares of intact boreal woodland caribou
habitat and ensure sustainable forestry management in all other areas. It’s exactly what the CBFA promised to deliver;
a regional strategy based on multilateral consensus.
Ontario planners did almost everything right: they based the
plan on credible science and collaboration between conservationists
and foresters. Then, after some early delays, they
received blessings from the Moose Cree, Wahgoshig and
Taykwa Tagamou First Nations, as well as area mayors.
But the Ontario government has yet to sign the plan into law.
The frustration of waiting for this final step has made it clear
to planners that they would need to engage government earlier
on for timely success.
AS THE MANITOBA GROUP finalizes negotiations, they’re
taking Ontario’s lessons to heart. “We’re updating the government
monthly,” says group co-ordinator Hunnie. She’s confident
the frequent outreach will help them get a quick decision
once their final plan is announced.
Unlike Ontario’s Abitibi pact, where conservation
groups and foresters hatched a bilateral plan
before sharing it with local communities, the
Manitoba team brought First Nations into negotiations
from the beginning. “Whatever we come
up with, it won’t go anywhere without First
Nations,” Hunnie says.
Five communities agreed to participate,
including the Cree Nations of Nisichawayasihk, Norway House,
Pimicikamak and Chemawawin, as well as the West Region
Tribal Council, which represents eight bands in northern
Manitoba. “We want people to understand how the logging
industry is operating in their lands,” says Tom Scott, who sits
at the negotiating table on behalf of Pimicikamak Cree Nation,
where he’s a councillor.
Keeping their communities informed about the CBFA,
however, is an ongoing challenge and there are many hurdles
to overcome, he says. The first is trust. Many are skeptical about
outsiders’ plans to manage their lands. “A lot of traditional knowledge was taken for granted,” Scott says, referring to
strained past interactions in Manitoba with resource companies
Those trust issues extend beyond Manitoba. A few highprofile
aboriginal leaders criticized the agreement early on,
charging that First Nations should have been more involved.
But many CBFA leaders argue that industry and environmentalists
had to make their own peace first before dealing with
other complexities, especially since aboriginal concerns will
vary in different regions and communities.
“Every plan will need endorsement from First Nations,” says
CBFA chair Chris McDonell. “But we have to engage them at the
community level.” As manager of aboriginal and environmental
relations for industry signatory Tembec, McDonell has worked
closely with First Nations since 1997. “You have to give relationships
time to develop,” he says. “You can’t just blow in there and
say, ‘tell me everything about your community.’ It’s about understanding
their story. That’s the most critical step in gaining trust.”
THE CBFA’S OVERARCHING OBJECTIVE is to prove, in one
of the largest intact ecosystems on Earth, that industrial development
and conservation aren’t mutually exclusive. Its ultimate
success will be determined by the gritty details of regional
planning and the diverse interests of local stakeholders.
In Manitoba, those interests have been brought to the negotiating
table. Every group member has taken the time to listen
to and understand everyone else. After more than three years
working together, poring over maps, learning from each other
and slowly building consensus, they’ve shed their preconceived
ideas enough to trust each other. Now, a sense of excitement
pervades the group.
Ask anyone in the CBFA if they are optimistic about its
overall success, and they reflect that same enthusiasm. “It’s
a feeling that hits a group when they’ve achieved that ‘sweet
spot’ of negotiation,” says O’Carroll, the agreement’s executive
director “That’s what we’re striving for, and I think a critical
mass have felt it.”
To learn more, watch how the different groups came together to form the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, read about the initial signing of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement and discover the boreal forest giant floor map.
To hear more about the CBFA and the work of the Manitoba Regional Working Group, listen to the interviews below:
Interview with Chanda Hunnie
Coordinator Chanda Hunnie talks about the Manitoba Regional Working Group’s current work and future plans
Interview with Ron Thiessen
The executive director of the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society’s Manitoba Chapter talks about how the CBFA balances the forest industry and environmentalists’ interests