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Tuesday, December 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Canada's forest deal could change Weyerhaeuser's ways

Seattle Times business reporter

Canadians took a major step to protect vast stretches of their northern forest yesterday, a move that could pressure Weyerhaeuser to adopt new environmental safeguards for millions of acres where it harvests trees.

Nearly a third of Canada — from British Columbia's interior to the northern reaches of Ontario — would come under restrictions under a plan announced by a coalition of Native tribes, environmentalists and Canadian companies.

The agreement would prevent logging and oil and gas exploration on about half of Canada's 1.3 billion-acre northern — or boreal — forest, while imposing limits on cutting in the rest. Harvest volumes in the slow-growing forests have increased more than 60 percent in the past three decades as the pace of logging in western coastal forests has slowed.

The agreement would still need to be adopted by national and provincial governments, which own more than 90 percent of Canada's forests and lease harvest rights to companies.

"By acting now, Canada can safeguard one of the world's remaining large ecosystems — while it is still for the most part ecologically intact," said Cathy Wilkinson, director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, a group in Ottawa leading the coalition. "We have a unique opportunity to pursue a balanced vision to conserve the entire Canadian boreal region, while providing for extensive economic benefits."

The area, part of an ecological zone that stretches around the northern reaches of the globe, sustains large populations of bears, wolves, caribou, migrating birds and other species along with hundreds of Native communities.

It's also a key resource for Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser, which holds harvest rights to nearly 20 million acres of potentially affected timberland, more than twice its land in the United States.

The company isn't part of the agreement — no U.S. companies are — but said it plans to discuss measures with the coalition. "We think the idea of a common, nationwide vision for the boreal forest is a good idea," spokesman Frank Mendizabal said yesterday. The company hasn't received details of the deal, he said.

Some critics charge Weyerhaeuser and other timber companies have overcut the boreal trees, which take up to several hundred years to grow because of the cool, dark climate.

"This puts great pressure on Weyerhaeuser because they want to be seen as being in the vanguard of good forestry," said Joe Scott, international director at the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in Bellingham. "I don't see how it could not affect them."

While forests and animals could benefit from curbed harvests, the limits also could help timber companies by limiting excess wood supply and burnishing their public image as environmental stewards. Montreal-based timber companies Domtar and Tembec, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, a pulp and paper company, and Suncor Energy are included in yesterday's agreement.

Weyerhaeuser already has backed a new approach to logging that more closely matches the effects of wildfire in order to maintain biological diversity in the boreal forest.

The company also has given some harvest rights back to the Canadian government rather than increase its logging, Mendizabal said. It has rights to harvest on 7.6 million acres in Alberta and 12 million acres in Saskatchewan, compared with fewer than 8 million acres it owns in the U.S.

The agreement could be a starting point to negotiate long-term management of the forests rather than simply extracting short-term profits, said Scott, of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.

"There's more economic value in these trees being left standing," Scott said. "If companies come to the table for sustainable harvests, everyone could benefit. This could truly be win-win for everyone."

Bradley Meacham: 206-515-5066 or at bmeacham@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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