Reporting from Seattle — In one of the largest forest conservation agreements ever negotiated, a logging moratorium was announced Tuesday that will suspend timber harvests on more than 111,000 square miles of Canada's northern forests.
The agreement covers nearly 278,000 square miles of woodlands stretching across the continent from northern British Columbia all the way east to Newfoundland. The pact largely ends the conservation wars over wildlife and climate change that have plagued the Canadian lumber industry. It guarantees survival ranges for threatened caribou and helps give struggling timber producers a leg up in a troubled market by providing a path to green certification for their wood products and a steady supply of timber to rural mills.
Much of the attention in the discussion of climate change in recent years has centered on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. But the boreal forest — the coniferous forest between the treeless Arctic and the more southerly rainforests in the Northern Hemisphere — stores more than a fifth of the total carbon banked in the Earth's land surface.
Logging releases stored carbon into the atmosphere, where it magnifies the greenhouse gas effect that most scientists believe is warming the planet.
Conservation groups have mounted increasingly successful do-not-buy campaigns against the logging industry in Canada, where a third of the boreal forest is located. The groups have also said that logging threatens the survival ranges of migrating species such as caribou and the habitat for grizzly bears and wolves and the breeding grounds of 450 species of birds.
The agreement covers publicly owned land licensed for private timber harvest. It imposes a three-year moratorium on new logging on nearly 40% of that land, and commits major companies such as AbitibiBowater Inc. and Weyerhaeuser Co. to stringent environmental standards on the remainder.
Avrim Lazar, president of the Forest Products Assn. of Canada — an industry group that signed the pact with nine major environmental organizations — said conservationists have pledged to promote a steady supply of wood to lumber mills from noncontroversial woodlands and to help the industry win green certification, an increasingly important marketing edge as growing numbers of lumber and paper buyers refuse to buy anything but sustainably produced wood products.
"The forest business has been pretty bad for a few years now," Lazar said. "And during the recession, one of the things we did was ask ourselves, when markets return, how are we going to ensure that we're more competitive than the others?"
The industry in Canada took other steps to generate revenue, he said, including increasing sales to Asia and getting into the biochemical business. But opening the boreal forests and obtaining green certification was key.
"We started talking to some of the more aggressive environmental groups," he said. "We asked them, 'Are you willing to put keeping jobs at the center of your agenda if we're willing to put protecting the boreal at the center of our agenda?' "
Ultimately, winning green certification will bring Canadian suppliers higher prices in niche markets and access to customers they might not otherwise be able to reach, said Michael Armstrong, director of the global forest, paper and packaging practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Vancouver. "It's the standard nowadays, what you need to be able to sell your product," he said. "And stopping the war in the woods, that will be very important."
Conservation groups said the agreement stands to protect one of the last large, intact wild areas on Earth.
"The importance can't really be underscored enough, because it represents a new way of working through difficult issues that have always existed," said Larry Innes, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. "What this agreement allows us to do is identify a number of shared goals around sustainability, around practices on the ground, particularly in relation to the protection of threatened and endangered species, and the protection of other forest values."
Industry analysts said the three-year moratorium would not likely have an immediate effect on lumber prices, especially because the pact calls for mills, where production has already been ramped down about 50% because of the housing downturn, to continue to receive a steady supply of timber now that housing starts are beginning to inch back up.
"Too much supply vs. demand will be the likely story for the next year or so," said Russell E. Taylor, president of International Wood Markets Group in Vancouver, but he said a widening outbreak of mountain pine beetles and rapidly growing sales to China could shrink the supply of Canadian lumber to the U.S.
"And finally you have this new agreement. I expect it's not going to have a huge impact on the supply, but it will have some impact, I'm sure," Taylor said. "One of the big questions we have is: Where will the U.S. get its lumber at the end of the decade?"