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Savvy Challenge From The Greens

The latest challenge to harvesting old growth timber in BC illustrates how savvy environmental groups have become.

By John Clarke

On one of the dog days of August in Vancouver a group of protesters in bearskin and elkhead stagewear descended upon the offices of the Forest Alliance of BC to let the world know they objected to something or other the industry was doing in the woods. There were about a dozen of them- with half as many media types in tow- and they were set to hit the headlines with yet another expression of green outrage. Halfway through the show, reinforcements came up in the person of protesters fresh from their own demonstration against a lack of affordable housing in the old Woodward's department store building- which has been vacant for years- on the other side of downtown Vancouver. 

With nothing more to do after their own demonstration and having heard about the siege at the Alliance, they wandered over to lend support. It was not the time to miss a good opportunity for another protest. Things looked a little dicey for a while, so much so that the police felt it prudent to place a thin blue line between the offices and the bearskins and elkheads. Vancouver has seen so many of these street dramas that the interest level has dropped to just about zero. There was no record of the doings in the bigger print media and if there was a mention anywhere else, not many heard or saw it. But while all this was going on, the Alliance was in the midst of a more significant fight against a much more sophisticated challenge from a much smarter group of green strategists. A decision by Lowe's Companies Inc of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to stop buying wood from the so called "Great Bear Rainforest" on British Columbia's central and north coast has made the Canadian forest industry nervous and angry. To the industry it's phony and disingenuous and the most cynical kind of pandering to green interests. 

There's no such place as the Great Bear Rainforest, other than in the public relations mind of the eco lobbies. And Lowe's doesn't buy any significant supplies from it-something like 0.5 per cent of its worldwide purchases. But the Rainforest Action Network of San Francisco, which has been working for just such an initiative, is loudly applauding Lowe's move. Its old growth campaign director, Michael Brune, believes it signals the beginning of the end of old growth logging. To which Canadian forestry people say it's nothing of the kind since Lowe's is essentially giving up something it's not doing anyway. An accountant might notice the 0.5 per cent missing from Lowe's billion-dollar business. 

Some environmental groups are currently focusing their criticism on the logging of old growth timber on the British Columbia coast, most notably in an area they have invented and named the "Great Bear Rainforest", along the mid and north coast of BC. the "Great Bear Rainforest", along the mid and north coast of BC.

But nobody else would. The company will continue taking wood from BC's Northern Interior, where one of its suppliers, Canfor, has International Standards Organization certification. This makes the industry here wonder why the empty gesture at the Great Bear. "We think Lowe's missed a real opportunity to do something worthwhile," says Alliance president Tom Tevlin. "Something that would contribute to sustainable forest management and encourage all parties to work much harder on certification. "Lowe's were wrapping themselves in the environmental flag without having to do anything." Several weeks before, Home Depot, the world's largest home improvement retailer, announced it would phase out old growth purchases by 2002. And another American lumber retailer, 84 Lumber Ltd, with 406 stores in 30 states, said it intended to phase out by 2003 all wood purchases from forests deemed to be endangered. Lumber producers could be hurt by these initiatives too. 

But they see a distinction here in that Home Depot is not fingering a specific geographic base but targeting its embargo at undefined "endangered" forests. However, Lowe's is not shooting from the hip. Its action comes out of a broad policy review undertaken with the help of the World Resources Institute and something called the Global Forest Watch Program, as well as the Certified Forest Products Council (CFPC) in the United States. The policy specifically commits Lowe's to phasing out purchases from endangered forests once they're identified and mapped and to giving preference to independently certified wood, especially the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), recognized today "as having the highest certification standards". It also commits the company to working for more efficient wood use, including recycled fibre and "alternatives". The policy defines endangered or high conservation forests to include intact primary and old growth wilderness. It says: "These also include most nearly intact tracts of all threatened forests and forests of special importance to the conservation of biodiversity where little or no primary or old growth occurs today. "In rare circumstances, wood from endangered forests may be accepted if it's certified under the FSC or equivalent system." 

The FSC may be a thorn in the side to the loggers and sawmillers of Canada because its standards are ill defined in the regions. But the World Resources Institute is a substantial organization. It's based in Washington, DC, strategically positioned in the centre of American political power and directed by William Ruckelshaus, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency. The CFPC organizes the buyer's group strategy to turn the retail market into a tool against old growth logging. The World Wildlife Fund has used buyers' groups extensively in Europe and elsewhere. As the tactic grows, the industry is being increasingly threatened. Lowe's says that as maps of endangered areas are created, it will "work with its suppliers to change their supply areas". 

The Forest Alliance acknowledges the heavy hitting coming with the people Lowe's is working with. The market based offensive has forced the industry to consider initiatives of its own, such as negotiating a compromise with the greens on what should be harvested and where. But that approach has exposed some broad disagreements over the fundamentals. West Fraser Timber dropped out of the negotiations after disclosing it was selling its coastal tenures. Interfor subsequently withdrew also because it had lost faith in the exclusive nature of the process. It wants a "local solution". That would mean involving the logging communities, logging operators and First Nations, all of whom are increasingly opposed to the exclusionary process. They don't want to see any deal by the greens and the remaining companies-Canfor, Weyerhaeuser, Fletcher Challenge Canada and Western Forest Products-become a generally applied model. Indeed Truck Loggers Association president Tony Toth wants war with the greens, an international advertising war. 

Without it, he says, overseas markets will not be getting the full message about the extraordinary changes taking place in the Canadian industry, not the least of which is BC's tough Forest Practices Code. The code is a rigid template for eco friendly logging, some say the toughest in the world and certainly one causing a lot of heartache in BC. Yet these changes get no credit in those markets. The biggest objection to a negotiated compromise involving only the private companies and the greens is that it asserts an authority over Crown land, which has never been ceded to any of the participants. Only government can commit the province to the kind of solution that might come out of those negotiations. In answer, the companies say the solution has to be found in the marketplace because that's where the greens are creating the battleground. 

And government, they argue, can't bargain in the marketplace. It's certainly a field the current BC New Democrats don't want to get into. The Practices Code has their signature written all over it. Whatever a new government may do with it, the New Democrats want it to be part of their legacy, even if it doesn't get much credit from the environmental lobbies. The lobbies know they have found a critical weakness in the industry and they are exploiting it with a lot of savvy. If the industry can't make its peace with the eco movement and government can't get into the bargaining, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the others know they don't have to compromise. So the Lowe's decision, phony as it may seem, hits the industry below the belt when it's trying to sort out a response to market embargoes. Lowe's "cost-free tokenism", as it's being called, is not without cost to Canadian forestry. 


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