As public relations coups go, it doesn't get better than the deal finalized last week by the B.C. government, industry, environmentalists and First Nations to protect all but 15 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest from commercial logging. Years in the making, it's being hailed as a mature approach to sustainable development that has already paid huge dividends in feel-good publicity.
Just don't call it a model. For were the costs, restrictions and obligations embodied in the agreement extended to all of Canada's $60-billion forest industry, much of it would have to be shut down. And for what? The false notion that Canada's vast forests and the wildlife species that depend on them would otherwise be doomed? Yet that is the notion environmental groups have peddled to put mounting pressure on governments and industry to cave – or else.
The "or else" refers to environmental NGO campaigns to get customers to boycott the products of Canadian forest companies, doing serious damage to corporate reputations and threatening the livelihood of countless communities across Canada. Indeed, the Great Bear Rainforest deal is a case study in how one such campaign did so much damage, capitulation became the only option.
This is not to suggest there is not great social and ecological value in preserving most of the GBR, which holds about a quarter of the world's intact temperate rainforest. It provides some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet. But it was never threatened under the previous forest management rules, and most of it would have remained untouched by humans under any scenario.
Modern ENGOs (environmental non-governmental organizations) are sophisticated lobbies with a business model built on PR campaigns that capture attention and attract donations. They pick their battles to maximize exposure and fundraising. The GBR, with its stunning vistas and all-white spirit bear, is an enviro-marketer's dream.
It was the ENGOs, not First Nations, that renamed the 64,000 square kilometres known as the mid-coast timber supply area as the Great Bear Rainforest. As former Greenpeace campaigner Tzeporah Berman explained in 2011: "We wanted people to hear the name and be mad as hell that anybody could turn it into toilet paper."
It's doubtful many, if any, of the trees harvested in the GBR ever went down the crapper. Most of them are turned into premium fir and hemlock timber used in building homes, ensuring their carbon remains stored for decades to come. Wood construction is as green as it gets, and trees are a renewable resource. Second-growth forests are often more productive than old-growth ones.
In exchange for a decade of peace, however, the five forest companies that harvest and process logs from the GBR have agreed to the most stringent forest management practices anywhere. The new ecosystem-based management (EBM) rules adopted under last week's agreement include more than 8,000 ecological and cultural targets the companies must meet.
Compliance promises to be so onerous that the companies can no longer afford to have their forestry practices certified by the German-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a designation that is a more valuable (in the global marketplace) badge of sustainability than any photo op with ENGOs.
"We didn't have a choice around EBM, but when we looked at our workload, we decided we couldn't do everything and decided to let the FSC certification lapse," explained Karen Brandt of the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative, which represents the companies.
From an economic perspective, the GBR agreement is a small deal. The 2.5 million cubic metres of timber that companies can harvest annually in the GBR represents barely 3.5 per cent of the more than 70 million cubic metres harvested each year in B.C. and about 1.6 per cent of the more than 150 million cubic metres harvested across Canada. But the GBR deal has sent shockwaves through the industry and provincial forest ministries already grappling with ever-escalating ENGO demands.
Canada's forests are healthy, but the industry that depends on them is not. It still employs almost 200,000 Canadians and exports $30-billion worth of lumber, pulp and paper annually. But it is in spindly shape as the Internet kills the printing press and competition from low-cost countries with weak environmental rules wreaks havoc with the economics of Canadian forestry.
To suggest that the Great Bear Rainforest deal is a model to be emulated across Canada would be to condemn an industry with the greenest forestry practices on the planet to cede global market share to environmental deadbeats in Indonesia, Brazil and Russia. What's feel-good about that?