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 would stop negative campaigns against foresters who agreed to protect key regions of intact boreal habitat and commit to sustainable harvesting everywhere 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 tangible results.
“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 expectations.
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 and government.
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