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Trees get a big hug

This is looking like a good month for forests. Today, the Oslo Forest Climate Conference is expected to mark another step on the road to a comprehensive deal on tropical deforestation. And last week, an unlikely-seeming collection of forest-products companies and environmental organizations announced the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which should drastically change the way in which huge areas of Canadian forest are managed.

The forests wrapped around the planet at high northern latitudes (boreal forests, also called taiga) are second only to tropical forests in total area, and account for as much as 200 billion tons of stored carbon. About a third of the ring is in Canada, which has some 1.4 billion acres of boreal forest: only Russia boasts more. Only about 13 percent of that land is subject to the new agreement — but that is still an area greater than that of Spain and Portugal. The parties to the agreement, 21 companies that make pulp, paper and other wood products, and between them hold 70 percent of the boreal timber rights in Canada, and nine big environmental groups, ranging from the uncontroversial Nature Conservancy to firebrands like Greenpeace, say this is the biggest conservation deal in history.

The plan calls for an immediate three-year moratorium on logging on 7.2 million acres while conservation plans to protect woodland caribou are developed; the goal is eventually to distinguish those lands that can be logged using sustainable techniques and those that cannot be logged at all. In return environmental groups have agreed to cease campaigns against the forest-products companies and to work with them to determine which lands should be protected permanently. Canada's provincial and First Nations governments, which own these lands, are not party to the agreement, although some have made statements in support of it.

The agreement is the final result of a decade of clever campaigning. In the 1990s protests by environmental groups upset about forestry practices — especially about logging in old-growth forests — were focused on the forest-products companies themselves. Inventive, rowdy "actions" in which protesters chained themselves to logging equipment or hung huge banners from highly visible landmarks surprised and embarrassed the companies, but did little to change actual practices in the woods.

Around 2000, a few environmental groups began to switch their aim, no longer targeting the people making the pulp and paper that account for two-thirds of the value of Canadian forest-product exports but instead going after the people consuming them. Four-fifths of Canadian boreal forest products are consumed in the United States, and most of the purchasers there had given little thought to their paper's origins. The emergence of alternatives like recycled paper and paper from sources certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council made it pretty easy for big paper users to switch to a supply that the environmentalists were happy with, so they had little reason to resist the environmentalists' demands. "We shifted hundreds of millions of dollars of paper purchasing," Todd Paglia, director of ForestEthics, one of the environmental groups behind the agreement, said last week.

In 2007, at the urging of Canopy, another of the environmental groups involved, Scholastic, a publisher, printed all 12 million American copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on eco-friendly paper. The decision meant little more than feel-good greening to Scholastic, but at 15,000 tons it was one of the largest single paper orders in history, with a value Nicole Rycroft, Canopy's director, estimates to be about $20 million. Victoria's Secret, a lingerie brand that sends out around 400 million catalogs each year, switched to alternative paper for its catalogs and took a public stance on caribou conservation. "If you want to talk to the logging company they will laugh you out of the room in two minutes," says Paglia, "but if you bring Victoria's Secret, Office Depot, or Staples, everything changes."

At the height of the boycott campaigns, Avrim Lazar, the head of the Forest Products Association of Canada, a trade group, began to make private overtures to some of the foundations and advocacy groups that eventually became party to the agreement. "There was a general feeling," he recalls, "that our differences in reality were smaller than the differences we presented in the public debates. We had fallen into cultural role-playing that wasn't getting either side the outcomes we were looking for."

How much of this agreement can be replicated elsewhere is hard to say: Canada combines a big forest-products sector with green sensibilities, and the environmental groups involved, for all their sometimes rowdy tactics, are mature and disciplined negotiators. Lazar notes that in the United States timber companies and environmental groups are usually busy suing one another.

Nonetheless, there do seem to be some clear lessons. One is that calling on government to approve the deal only after the fact, rather than having it involved throughout, made the process more palatable to both industry and environmentalists. In the past, mediation by governments constrained by political considerations had left nobody satisfied. This approach requires that environmentalists work on the basis of a smart analysis of the economy of influence, finding companies that can make decisions that matter, but for which the issue is not of primary importance. But it also required an industry clear-eyed enough to understand when the game had changed.

For the trees: In 2007, Scholastic, a publisher, printed all 12 million American copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on eco-friendly paper. At 15,000 tons it was one of the largest single paper orders in history, with a value of about $20 million. Meanwhile, Victoria's Secret, which sends out around 400 million catalogs each year, switched to alternative paper for its catalogs.

Trees get a big hug 05/26/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 6:58pm]
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