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Eco Praise

AlPac's innovative ecosystem forest management approach has won the company praise in Alberta.

By Tony Kryzanowski

It's simply a crystal sculpture with the words "Emerald Award" stencilled on it. But to the forest management staff at Alberta Pacific Forest Industries Inc. (AlPac) in northeastern Alberta, this award represents vindication and recognition for their work in preserving, protecting and enhancing the environment. About 10 years ago, AlPac's large pulp mill, located 125 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, endured what is considered the most detailed environmental impact assessment in Canadian history. The primary issue was the 60,000 square kilometre area of pristine boreal forest rights granted to the mill's owners and the impact logging and pulp manufacturing would have on this environment. The area is indeed massive-roughly the size of Newfoundland. At the time, environmental militancy was near its peak. Anyone suggesting that in 10 years time this pulp mill would be recognized for its environmental consciousness would have had his or her sanity questioned. Yet this past June, AlPac representatives were front and centre at the 8th Annual Emerald Awards ceremony, conducted by the Alberta Foundation for Environmental Excellence, beating out 20 other large business nominees to capture the award. "It's the culmination of all our ecosystem management and habitat protection," says AlPac director of forest management Ken Plourde. "We're not just meeting the requirements. We said we would do better, and we have." Fine words, but what has AlPac done to back up this statement and convince a board of independent adjudicators that it was deserving of an award recognizing superior environmental stewardship? The primary reason is that AlPac has discarded the fortress mentality that can be a common business practice within Canada's resource sector. In their quest to protect trade secrets and improve their bottom line, many Canadian resource businesses have barricaded themselves. Their preferred response to questions from an increasingly environmentally aware and skeptical public about plans for ecosystem management is to issue an occasional environmental assessment report drafted by a hired gun.

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AlPac took a different path, however, right from the time it first started producing pulp from aspen in September 1993. Its approach has been proactive right from the start by using independent scientific research when addressing environmentalists' concerns. "We noticed that people don't trust industry and government," says Plourde. "In our case, they (the public) said, as they do in many cases, that industry and government made the deal in the backroom. So we said, 'what can we do to show that we're doing what we said we would do?' We enlisted the academics. "People trust scientists because they believe in what the scientists are doing, and they are not in our pocketbook. We went to the academics and said 'Come and work with us. Make this a better place." Many in the scientific community were understandably afraid of being "tarred" with a pulp mill affiliation. For its part, AlPac promised that it would not try to influence their research. The result has been a number of ongoing academic studies concerning the natural evolution of the boreal forest and the creation of the National Centre for Forestry Excellence in Edmonton.
Cosponsored projects with Ducks Unlimited, compensation for trappers' loss of income, and a closer affiliation with the region's First Nations groups are among other outcomes. Invitations have come from companies like oil sands giant Syncrude to work cooperatively on projects such as the protection of endangered species. AlPac has attached financial support along with its open invitation to academia, offering more than $10 million to support forest research science programs since 1991.

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Ken Plourde (left), AlPac's director of forest management, and his colleagues took a proactive approach in addressing the concerns of environmentalists about forest practices, using scientific research to support their management approach. Operations were under scrutiny right from the start when AlPac was awarded its massive Forest Management Area-an area approximately the size of Newfoundland.
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The company's ecosystem management approach has a few obvious differences to the approach taken by most other Canadian sawmills and pulp mills. First off, the company has discarded clearcut logging, and has been a leading proponent of approximating and anticipating nature when drafting its harvesting plans. As the Canadian boreal forest is a fire origin forest, the prospect of having a 60,000 square kilometre area at their disposal has attracted plenty of scientific researchers. Secondly, AlPac has taken the "coarse filter" approach to ecosystem management, choosing not to focus on specific habitat and species, except in the case of endangered species and neotropical migratory birds. The coarse filter approach assumes that indigenous plants and animals have already adapted to the environmental ebb and flow of the fireoriginated forest. Therefore, if AlPac can maintain the whole habitat by approximating nature, then all species should remain intact and viable. On paper, the company's Forest Management Area (FMA) is huge. However, only about 48 per cent of the land base consists of merchantable wood, and AlPac is harvesting only one per cent of that wood annually. Plourde agrees that part of the problem in convincing the public of the company's dedication to protecting and preserving the environment is that forestry does not happen in downtown Calgary or Edmonton. At the time of the environmental impact assessment review 10 years ago, he says, "a lot of well meaning people who were writing letters were coming out of Calgary.

That is the hotbed of the oil and gas industry, where they don't particularly worry about reforesting and habitat because of the nature of their business." One notable exception is Syncrude, an established, highprofile business with massive oil sands activity in northeastern Alberta, with operations that exist within AlPac's FMA. Syncrude has recognized AlPac's successful ecosystem management approach and has asked the company to assist in several of its reclamation projects. It also works jointly with AlPac to monitor and protect endangered species, particularly the woodland caribou. Other collared and monitored species include wolves and moose. The forest industry's reaction to AlPac's approach to ecosystem management has been decidedly mixed. "We're viewed in a whole lot of different ways," says Plourde. "We've set a high standard and they (other forestry companies) are a little bit envious. Alot of them don't like us, and others will work with us. It took a couple of years to get them to the table, and at first there was some animosity because we were setting the standard." Most recently, AlPac has joined forces with neighbouring sawmill operators Millar Western Forest Industries, and Vanderwell Contractors Ltd. as well as Slave Lake Pulp, to adopt a new approach to harvesting and regenerating mixed boreal forest stands.

The approach, based on detailed scientific research, is the result of a recent finding concerning the close relationship between aspen and spruce and the natural regeneration of mixed stands. Researchers have concluded that, in many instances, the natural cycle for forest regeneration in this environment is to allow aspen to regenerate once mature spruce is harvested. There is a positive tradeoff for those interested in and requiring spruce. Scientists have discovered that timely planting of conifers in aspen stands, as well as timely harvesting of aspen in mixed wood stands, yields increased conifer fibre and a huge increase in conifer incremental growth. But it takes time. The question is whether AlPac can convince conifer users to buy into this new mixed boreal forest management approach. Should this scientific theory and experimentation prove itself, it could have a huge impact on the recommended approach to regenerating both the natural plains and boreal shield forest throughout the Northern Hemisphere. AlPac is well aware that in many cases, it is going out on a limb in terms of its approach to ecosystem management. And company planners are conscious that the limb can be cut off at any time. "The government has allowed us to go beyond the operating rules of the province," says Plourde, "as long as everything goes well."

The response from government has been "prove it with science, and you can do it."  That need to fulfill commitments to government also accounts for the company's large research budget. After years of believing in themselves, staff at AlPac gained a large measure of credibility with their colleagues and the public through the receipt of the Emerald Award. "When we said we were going to ecosystem management," says Plourde, "a lot of people said it can't be done, or that it can't be done successfully, or they didn't believe that we were going to do it. On the wood side, we have gone way beyond the requirements. We could do much, much less and could still call it ecosystem management." But 10 years ago, AlPac made a promise and it's a promise the company intends to keep. It starts with an open door policy to other members of the forest industry and the public who are interested in its approach to ecosystem management.

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