Saving forests, species

Tiny songbirds the size of your little finger or smaller, some weighing less than a penny, helped play a role this week in opening the eyes of Canada’s logging giants.

Tiny songbirds the size of your little finger or smaller, some weighing less than a penny, helped play a role this week in opening the eyes of Canada’s logging giants.

On Tuesday, Canada’s top pulp and paper companies, and environment groups that spent years fighting them over devastating logging practices, united in an unlikely alliance to protect 178 million acres (72 million hectares) of threatened northern forests.

Dubbed “the world’s largest conservation agreement,” the Boreal Forest Agreement will help halt the degradation of boreal forests in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario.

The dramatic decline of such fragile species as songbirds and woodland caribou has been blamed on human intrusion and logging. Rich pickings for the forest industries, these sensitive woodlands are home to two-thirds of the country’s estimated 140,000 species of plants, animals and micro-organisms — including 60 per cent of all land birds breeding in Canada.

Last week, Bridget Stutchbury, a professor at Toronto’s York University and one of Canada’s foremost experts on disappearing song birds, issued a terse warning.

Author of Silence of the Songbirds, Stutchbury said the numbers of disappearing birds are “shocking . . . so shocking they are almost hard to believe.”

She called the boreal forests a bird nursery for the continent and said “there are dozens of species on a straight-line trajectory to zero.”

Environmentalist David Suzuki, in a documentary on CBC’s The Nature Of Things, told viewers that songbirds are flying down a dead-end street.

And in 2008, a report by the Canadian Boreal Initiative sounded similar warnings, including about dwindling herds of the woodland caribou.

Environmental groups waged a long campaign to change logging industry practices.

Environmentalists launched fierce ‘do not buy’ campaigns to hurt the logging industry financially. Groups such as Greenpeace, Canopy and ForestEthics lobbied paper retailers Staples and Office Depot, publishers such as Random House and Scholastic, and fashion house Victoria’s Secret against buying paper from Canadian companies.

Buckling under the weight of lost profits, the industries finally conceded that the nine environmental groups involved in the fight had won.

“Old think was to say it’s either the environment or the economy, that kind of distinction just doesn’t hold anymore,” said Avrim Lazar on Tuesday. Lazar, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, added: “We’re all saying both have to happen. Mills have to run, people have to earn a living, and at the same time, we have to have sufficient protection (for the environment).”

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement was three years in the making in negotiations between industry and environmentalists.

While still in its early stages of implementation, under the agreement, forestry companies on Tuesday ordered an immediate stop to new logging on about 71 million acres (29 million hectares) of forest.

In turn, the environmental groups are suspending ‘do not buy’ campaigns.

It’s a fair tradeoff for now. But for the sake of nature, the forestry giants must be kept under a watchful eye.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.