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Environmental, Campaign & Website News > Destruction of Canada's Boreal Forests for California

Destruction of Canada's Boreal Forests for California

Date : 28th April 2003, Source : Sacremento Bee

State of Denial Chapter Two: Scarring the Boreal

A detailed report in 4 parts in the Sacramento Bee by Tom Kudson.

Ten years after the historic battle to protect spotted owls and old-growth forests, California's woods are quiet, almost churchlike.

The chain saws and logging trucks that once shattered the symphony of birdsong and muted the music of mountain streams have disappeared from many places - stilled by environmental lawsuits, public opinion and increasingly strict regulations about timber harvesting.

Since 1990, 62 lumber mills in California have closed. The volume of timber cut from national forests has dropped 80 percent. At no time in state history have California forest ecosystems enjoyed such sweeping protection.

Yet there is a trapdoor to this turnabout, one that opens a passageway to more environmental trauma: The logging never really stopped; it just moved to Canada.

In throttling the harvest of wood from its own back yard, while continuing to devour forest products, California is not merely turning to America's largest trading partner, Canada, to fill the gap.

It is buying wood from a nation where up to 90 percent is harvested through clear-cutting - the controversial mowing down of entire stands of forest - and where two-thirds of the cutting occurs in old-growth stands. And it is buying wood from a country where logging is moving more deeply into one of the planet's most important ecosystems: the boreal forest.

Circling the globe like a jade and emerald crown, the boreal, named for Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind, is home to a mythic array of wildlife, including timber wolves, woodland caribou and - in Russia - Siberian tigers. It also plays a critical role in regulating the Earth's climate, helping protect it from global warming.

But in Canada's boreal zone, which sweeps across the country in a wide arc from Newfoundland to the Yukon, logging is proceeding so rapidly that some scientists fear the forest's vital ecological functions may be in danger. Already, some species of wildlife are in decline and native cultures, for whom the boreal is both pantry and medicine chest, are struggling to maintain their way of life.

"This is a classic example of not taking a holistic view," said Richard Thomas, an environmental consultant in Edmonton, Alberta.

"You do the cosmetic stuff at home," Thomas said. "You minimize your ecological footprint in your own back yard. And here in Canada, you get away with murder. It's out of sight and out of mind."

California's hunger for Canadian forest products is part of a larger national appetite. In 2001, a record 18.5 billion board feet of Canadian softwood lumber was imported to the United States - enough two-by-fours, plywood, doorjambs, siding and other products to build a city the size of San Diego.

Lots of Canadian paper was shipped south, too: 26.8 billion pounds, to be precise. That is roughly equal to the weight of every man, woman and child in America. Most arrived in two forms: newsprint (13.2 billion pounds) and printing and writing paper (9.4 billion pounds).

Track that wood and paper back to Canada and you are in for a jolt.

A sheet of Canadian siding from a Roseville Home Depot, for example, will lead you to Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta, where the forest is so shredded by cutting that only thin wisps of trees remain - old-growth confetti.

"The boreal is under attack," said Dave Donahue, a gray-bearded trapper who lives nearby with his wife and oldest son. "This is not progress. This is mass destruction."

Deeply religious, the 59-year-old Donahue moved to Alberta in 1972 after watching his native New Brunswick forests fall to logging.

"You don't even see a rabbit track anymore. There's no shelter for them. And caribou -- they're gone. There are just too many clear cuts." Alberta trapper and outdoorsman Dave Donahue walks through a clear cut in a part of the boreal forest where he once trapped marten, squirrel, lynx and other animals.

"It's heartbreaking," he added. "I'm a firm believer that God gave us the responsibility to be stewards of the land. This is not about stewardship. This is about greed."

Canadian trapper Dave Donahue says much of the wildlife in the forest suffers as a result of clear-cutting. Listen as he speaks to reporter Tom Knudson.

View transcript

Following is text from part of an interview Bee reporter Tom Knudson conducted with Donahue:


Donahue: In the process of clear-cut logging, the squirrels are gone, the marten are gone, the fish, all those animals that are part of that system that feeds on the squirrels are gone. I've noticed a big shortage this year of the falcons. Now, you'll figure, how can clear-cuts affect falcons? Well, when these big clear-cuts are taking place, the nests are knocked down for one thing. These falcon nests are gone forever. They nest in the same areas year after year. Falcons depend on a lot of other birds, the songbirds and stuff. When the songbirds are gone, and all the rest of these birds are gone, the falcons are gone. The hawks -- everything. The whole system is chaotic right now. Our bird population, I felt last winter that the bird population was down by 50 percent, and I talked to the bird specialist, and these days they say yeah, we found this out now. Now, where did they get their information? I don't know if they've done some studies. But I know right now that the bird population is gone by 50 percent, even maybe more.

Last spring, as outrage welled up inside him, Donahue wrote an essay titled "Americans Wake Up," hoping it might appear in the pages of an environmental newsletter in the United States. It never did.

"Americans are not even vaguely aware of what is happening here in Canada," he wrote. "Every tree that is of any value is cut by means of clear-cut logging and any tree that is of no use is knocked down and left to rot. The lungs of Mother Earth are being RIPPED out. ... Wild animals are being destroyed at a fantastic rate."

Not long ago, some siding made from the boreal forest Donahue calls home was being nail-gunned to the roof of a new home in Highland Park, a Roseville subdivision. A sign out front read: "Building America's Neighborhoods - Sold."

"This is hard to believe," said carpenter Ruben Centeno when shown photos of the Alberta clear-cuts. "They should find some other way to make this stuff."

"Environmentalists say nature will take care of itself. But because ... of insect outbreaks, if we let nature take care of itself, there probably won't be much wood left." Left, Abitibi Consolidated employee Lorena Mueller inspects wood chips used to make newsprint in Mackenzie, British Columbia. Abitibi supplies about 6 percent of the 55,000 to 65,000 metric tons of newsprint The Bee consumes each year. The company's environmental policy reads: "We know that the mill's long-term viability is dependent on the sustainability of the natural resources in our care."

Pick up a newspaper at any Northern California convenience store and you find roots that reach deep into majestic stands of old-growth forest in northeast British Columbia. Trees in that Rocky Mountain region feed a mill owned by the world's largest newsprint maker - Abitibi Consolidated Ltd. - which sells paper to several U.S. dailies, including The Bee.

From its Mackenzie, British Columbia, mill, Abitibi harvests pine, spruce and balsam across a vast wilderness that not only is home to some of the continent's most impressive species of wildlife, including grizzly bears, but also is inhabited by the indigenous Kaska Dena people, many of whom still survive by hunting wild game.

Although conflicts between indigenous people and timber and paper companies are common in Canada, Abitibi and the Kaska Dena are working together to develop environmentally sensitive kinds of logging. Abitibi has even helped the Kaska Dena form their own logging company.

When asked why, Abitibi forester Wayne Lewis said, "They live here. We respect that. They should be a part of the process."

Dave Porter, chairman of the Kaska Dena council, praised the company's efforts but added: "There is still a long way to go."

A barrel-chested man with curly black hair, bushy beard and wire-rimmed glasses, Porter folded his arms as he spoke of desperate living conditions around the Kaska Dena community of Fort Ware.

"The road to the outside world is one of the worst excuses for a road anywhere," he said. "We're hooked up to diesel generators with a history of blackouts and shutdowns - in the winter.

"How many millions of dollars are taken out in profits and how much is put back into indigenous communities?" he said. "A pittance."

Speaking broadly, Porter said U.S. consumers "have an inherent responsibility to ask questions" about forest products from Canada.

"This is not just about the environment. It's about people. Aboriginal people and their cultures (in Canada) are as endangered as endangered species. And that should be known."

Fifteen hundred miles east, Steve Fobister - a former grand chief of the Ojibwa nation - kicks the dust in a gaping clear-cut in Ontario. Trees there also supply an Abitibi mill vital to U.S. newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune - owned by The Bee's parent company, The McClatchy Co.

Staring at a moonscape of stumps and bare ground stretching for more than 10 square miles, Fobister said: "This is selfish. This is devastation."

Nearby, someone has spray-painted the word "PROPAGANDA" across a timber company sign about reforestation.

That someone, Fobister said, is him.

"You can't even hear a bird in a clear-cut. You can't even find an insect," he said. "Everything is dead."

But in Montreal, Abitibi spokesman Marc Osborne defended the company's logging. "We adhere to sustainability," he said.

Rich in forest resources, Canada has been cutting trees for years. But as demand for wood has jumped worldwide, the nation has stepped up its level of cutting: from 1.6 million acres in 1970 to 2.5 million acres in 2001.

In recent years, that increase has ignited a trade dispute with the United States, which now assesses a stiff 27 percent duty on Canadian lumber imports to this country. The environmental side of Canadian logging, which is largely overseen by its provinces, has drawn less attention.

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, which leases provincial land to timber companies, said Canadian-style logging actually is healthy because it mimics the natural rejuvenating force of forest fire.

"A clear-cut is not the end of the forest," said ministry forest policy officer Joe Churcher. "It's the beginning."

Many in the industry say concerns about cutting are overblown.

"We're certainly not running out of trees," said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the Alberta Forest Products Association, a trade group. "We're as concerned about the environment as anybody."

(In Grassy Narrows, Ontario, where indigenous Ojibwa are protesting logging, Pine and spruce in this region are made into newsprint for U.S. dailies, including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.)

To environmentalists in the United States, the spotted owl in the 1990s became a symbol of the vanishing of old-growth forest and - through the U.S. Endangered Species Act - a legal tool to halt and slow timber cutting. To many Canadians, though, it was a business opportunity.

As the harvest of wood from federal forests in California, Oregon and Washington plunged 4.8 billion board feet during the 1990s, Canadian imports to the United States shot up 6.2 billion board feet.

"You can put a fence around a particular forest. But you can't put a fence around all the forests in the world," said Roger Sedjo, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

At the same time, wood consumption in the United States catapulted to a record high: 68.3 billion board feet in 1999. Per capita wood consumption in the United States is 2.5 times higher than in other developed nations - and 3.4 times the world average. Americans also use more paper than anyone else in the world - about 718 pounds per person per year.

Wood consumption figures for states aren't available, but experts say California, partly because of its size and growth, devours the biggest share of lumber - an estimated 10 billion board feet a year. That is nearly 15 percent of the national total, the equivalent of 70 two-by-fours for every person in the state. About a fifth comes from Canada, up from 6 percent in the 1980s.

The numbers make some Canadians uneasy. "If we brought everybody in the world up to California's standard of living, we would need four or five Earths," said Thomas, the Alberta environmental consultant.

The international impact of the United States' forest conservation is hardly ever covered by the mainstream press, but it is starting to surface elsewhere.

"Reducing domestic production (of wood) with no corresponding change in consumption simply requires other parts of the globe to supply the resources," said a 2002 article in Harvard Forest, a Harvard University publication. "Consequently, well-intentioned environmental activism may generate unanticipated environmental degradation. ... A new effort is needed to expose this illusion of preservation."

Boreal forest losing its shroud of obscurityControversy is no stranger to Canada's forests. Until recently, however, outcry has focused on the rich rain forests of British Columbia, the nation's largest timber producer.

As more of those coastal forests are set aside for conservation, the battleground is moving inland, to the boreal forest.

The first thing you notice about the boreal is its size. Thirteen times larger than California, Canada's boreal is the world's largest contiguous wooded wilderness and part of the planet's largest ecosystem. Yet it is a landscape few know well.

Punished by long, cold winters, Canada's boreal can't compete with the dazzling diversity of species that endear environmentalists to the tropics. Its spindly stands of spruce, pine, larch and aspen are no match for the coastal redwoods that crane necks and inspire awe on the California coast.

Yet the boreal has its own magic. In the brief, frantic summers, its silvery panorama of lakes, ponds and puddles quivers with 40 percent of North America's nesting waterfowl. Its thick canopy is home to more than 1 billion nesting migratory warblers. Endangered whooping cranes raise their chicks there.

Much of the year, though, the boreal is barren and brooding - haunted by the howling of wolves and the restless rasping of wind across snow and ice.

Its greatest gift may be climatologic. Like all forests, the boreal helps the planet breathe, filtering out and storing more carbon - the primary spark for global warming - than any other forest on earth.

As threats to Canada's boreal grow, its obscurity is lifting. Last June, National Geographic devoted a story to the region. And environmentalists have launched a campaign to scale back logging and set aside large tracts of the boreal as wilderness, arguing the health of the planet is at stake.

"If you care about wild forests, if you care about migratory songbirds, waterfowl and combating climate change, then you need to care about Canada's boreal forest," said Stewart Elgie, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Trust, an Ottawa environmental group.

Canada's timber companies say such concerns are exaggerated and that the environmentalists - having succeeded in the rain forest - are merely revving up another money-making, alarmist campaign.

"You've got to justify your existence somewhere," said Rick Alguire, woodlands manager at Tolko Industries Ltd., which makes siding and sheathing in High Prairie, Alberta. "The boreal is the next big target. We are a target. Every mill in Canada is a target."

Target or not, some companies are moving away from large, industrial clear-cuts to a quiltlike "mosaic" of smaller cuts that more closely resemble the natural progression of fire.

"Are there impacts? Of, course there are. We've never denied that," said Kirk Andries, director of external affairs at Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, Al-Pac, which harvests trees for pulp - ground wood fiber - the primary building block for paper products.

But, he said, Al-Pac - which is the largest timber company in Alberta and 70 percent owned by Mitsubishi - has invested in "a staggering amount of science" to make sure those impacts are kept to a minimum and the boreal remains healthy.

Elgie, the environmentalist, agreed Al-Pac is doing a good job. But, he added, "On the whole, most wood and paper coming from Canada's boreal is not being cut with adequate environmental protection."

There is one thing environmentalists and loggers agree on: Opening the boreal to logging, oil and gas drilling, mining and other activities at the same time is not ideal.

Al-Pac is a good example. Under a long-term "forest management agreement" with Alberta's government, it is entitled to log trees across a nearly 15 million-acre swath of the boreal. Much of that land also is leased to oil and gas companies. One area may hold as much oil - in deposits called tar or oil sands - as Saudi Arabia, and is being feverishly tapped. (Most of Canada's oil and gas ends up in the United States too.)

"I'm comfortable with our own activities," said Al-Pac's Andries. "But when you start layering stuff - energy, agriculture, forestry - on the landscape, you wonder, 'Gee, maybe this needs a little more thought.'"

There also are concerns about accountability. Across the boreal, government environmental monitoring often is limited and sometimes left to industry. Even federal inventories showing that forests are growing faster than they are being logged rely in part on industry data.

Charles Caccia, who served as environment minister under Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the 1980s, said the reports cannot be trusted.

"There is no established manner to verify the data," said Caccia, now a member of Parliament. "In the absence of a reliable inventory, we do not know - and cannot claim - that we are on a sustainable path."

Starting in 1996, a Canadian Senate subcommittee spent 2 1/2 years examining boreal conflicts. It staged a dozen hearings and field trips and heard testimony from about 175 witnesses. Its report is a stark account of over-cutting and mismanagement.

"There is ample evidence to show that current forest management practices are destroying our legacy, that we are cutting too many trees over too large an area," the subcommittee reported.

And it added a warning: "There is a sense of urgency that, at least in some parts of the boreal forest, time is running out for saving some vital functions, such as wildlife habitat, watershed protection and carbon sinks."

One place the subcommittee stopped was Winnipeg, Manitoba, not far from a part of the boreal forest Randall Bird knows well: his "trap line" - 10 square miles near his native Ojibwa village of Hollow Water.

Bird, now in his 50s, has worked the area since he was a boy - laying out traps each fall, checking them by snowshoe and snowmobile, sleeping wrapped in fur blankets in remote cabins. Most years, he would harvest a pile of pelts - from beaver to lynx, weasel to wolf - now worth $10,000 to $15,000 Canadian ($6,500 to $9,750 U.S.).

Then, in the late 1990s, the Pine Falls Paper Co. began clear-cutting in the area.

Walking through a recent cut, Bird was quiet. A few patches of aspen remained, but large stands of black spruce and jack pine, from which newsprint is made, had been leveled. It looked like a bomb had exploded.

"Everything's gone," he said.

Bird inherited the trap line from his father, who inherited it from his father. He had long planned to pass it on to his sons. But now Bird says it won't be worth it.

"You won't get anything now. Fishers, martens - those animals like trees. They have no place to go now because it's all open," he said.

Last summer, Bird joined his fellow tribal elders inside a large tepee. They sat in a circle and smoked a sacred pipe as Garry Raven, a traditional healer, prayed for help.

The logging industry "has killed off our rabbits, our porcupine, our otter and lynx," Raven told the Creator. "Most of the forest roads are blocked off. There are big gates on them so you can't get in."

Pine Falls Paper has since been sold to another company, Tembec, which plans more logging on lands where Ojibwa trap and gather herbs. But Tembec official Bob Yatkowsky said the cutting can be done without hurting the land and that he is proceeding cautiously.

"You don't want to end up with standoffs and roadblocks," he said.

Others have less patience. Asked about Ojibwa concerns, John Bulmer - a former superintendent who leads mill tours - said, "That's all fine and dandy. But what are we going to live on in the meantime? We can't live on nuts and berries. We can't turn the clock back."

Winding his way through a maze of stairwells and industrial machinery, Bulmer vigorously defended Tembec logging. "It's a system that works," he said. "We plant trees. We cut trees. And we keep a lot of people employed."

Tembec's newsprint is not just made from trees. A lot of recycled newspaper is mixed in, too. Over the years, the amount of newspaper born again as newsprint has grown dramatically. But newspaper companies generally prefer to publish on newsprint with some virgin wood fiber because the paper is whiter and photographs reproduce better.

Environmentalists say that leaves plenty of room for damage. And while most U.S. newspapers, The Bee included, routinely write about forest conservation and editorialize on its behalf, seldom if ever do they examine the environmental price of newsprint.

"The amazing lack of coverage is no coincidence," said Todd Paglia, campaign coordinator at Forest Ethics, a San Francisco environmental group. "When their own bottom line is on the line, newspapers tend to shy away from coverage that would reveal their complicity."

Bruce Meissner, who manages The Bee's press room, said four of the company's five largest newsprint suppliers make paper with 40 percent or more recycled content. "At times, they go 60, 70, 80," he said.

Only one supplier makes newsprint 100 percent from virgin old-growth trees: Abitibi in Mackenzie, British Columbia, which supplies about 6 percent of the 55,000 to 65,000 metric tons The Bee consumes annually. The paper is actually made from chunks of wood left over from cutting logs into two-by-fours and other dimensional lumber.

But even with 100 percent old-growth fiber, the Mackenzie paper has problems. "It tends to tear easily," Meissner said. "If I had my druthers, I wouldn't use any."

Why, then, does The Bee use it? The company, Meissner said, prefers a mix of manufacturers to ensure a steady supply of newsprint and to get a good price.

The subject of newsprint was on the mind of U.S. Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth when he addressed the Newspaper Association of America, which represents the nation's newspaper publishers.

A transcript of Bosworth's October 2001 speech, released by the Forest Service, contains the following passage:

"Newsprint comes from wood and wood comes from forests. Just to produce the Washington Post takes the equivalent of three or four square miles of clear-cut forest per year. Multiply that by all the newspapers and magazines in the nation and you get some idea of the demands on our natural resources just to produce newsprint."

Tom Croteau, a senior vice president for the association, said Bosworth's statement was misleading.

"It suggests that all newspapers and magazines are printed on paper that has been manufactured from forests that were clear-cut," Croteau said. "And that's not true."

North of Edmonton, near Lesser Slave Lake, trees are falling not for newsprint but for "oriented strand board."

Sold in 4-by-8-foot panels and used widely for roof sheathing and siding, oriented strand board, known as OSB, is a relatively recent boreal forest innovation. And industry officials say it's environmentally friendly, as well, because it is made from fast-growing aspen, not century-old pine and spruce.

Last summer, sheets of Canadian OSB were sailing out of the Stanford Ranch Home Depot in Roseville at a rate of about 2,500 per week. Stacked 15 feet high, each panel was stamped: Tolko, Made in Canada, High Prairie, AB.

The price: $5.99, about $4 cheaper than plywood.

"This was a special buy for us," said Home Depot lumber and building department manager Kathleen Johnson. "And we are passing the savings on to our customers."

Back in the boreal forest near High Prairie, trapper Dave Donahue said those savings are savaging nature.

Slowing his pickup, he pointed to a clear-cut where he said a logging crew working for Tolko had leveled a stand of aspen, from which OSB is made.

But it wasn't the clear-cut he was pointing at. It was an igloo-shaped mound of sticks near a bog.

"You see that beaver den?" Donahue said. "After they logged it, those beavers died out. Beavers need aspen to live."

Donahue said that in the winter, when a lot of logging takes place, heavy equipment sometimes crashes through snarls of debris where bears are hibernating and nursing their cubs. When that happens, the cubs freeze to death and the mother starves.

"It happens with all the denning animals," he said. "The logging companies know this is going on."

Tolko's Rick Alguire said he knows of no such thing.

First, he said that although Tolko logged the area in 1998, the cuts Donahue pointed out may not have been Tolko's - because other companies work there, too.

About beaver, Alguire said: "I can tell you honestly we do not encroach within their food supply. We just legally cannot do it."

A few wispy trees remain on a swath of land being clear-cut near Grassy Narrows, Ontario, Canada, in the boreal forest where the timber industry is expanding rapidly.

About bears, he said that in two decades of logging he has seen bears disturbed only twice - once by oil and gas crews and once by Tolko. On both occasions he said the animals "crawled back into their dens, safe."

Logging for OSB is very forest-friendly, Alguire said. "There are areas coming back like a green carpet," he said. "It's beautiful. The moose populations are just booming."

A March 1998 report by Alberta's provincial government found something different: a landscape shredded by logging and also crisscrossed by 45,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines and 88,000 miles of access roads. Alberta's boreal is experiencing "a massive increase in industrial activity - timber, hydrocarbon and mineral extraction - unprecedented in scale," it said.

Consultant Richard Thomas, who wrote the report, said such fragmentation is happening across Canada - and beyond.

"These problems are international in scope," he said. "The boreal is much more important to the global community left standing than exploited, simply because of its carbon storage.

"Messing around with the boreal the way we are, it's eventually going to affect everybody on the planet."

Document last updated on Wednesday 01 August 2018

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