Canada’s boreal forest covers 270 million hectares, spanning from Yukon through to N.L.
CBC News: Canada is facing international criticism for undermining efforts to protect one of the world’s last primary forests — our own.
Jennifer Skene, natural climate solutions policy manager for the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), accuses the Canadian government of a “very aggressive” lobbying campaign against the inclusion of the boreal forest in New York and California deforestation-free procurement bills.
In the original drafts, the bills would have prevented those states from buying products that are tied to deforestation or forest degradation from boreal or tropical forests directly or through their supply chains. But Skene said, “Canada has been trying to remove itself from those same sustainability thresholds.”
Canada’s boreal forest stretches from Newfoundland and Labrador to northeastern British Columbia and the Yukon, and covers 270 million hectares. It is a major carbon sink and provides important habitat for tens of millions of migratory birds and endangered species, such as caribou and grizzly bears.
Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, a former New York state senator and co-sponsor of the New York Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, says he was lobbied by Canadian officials who argued that Canada’s forestry is sustainable and Canada should not be included in the bill. He remembers hearing repeatedly from the federal and provincial governments, who felt the bill “was targeting Canada and targeting the lumber industry there and, you know, that they were already sustainable enough and so there was no need for it.”
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Reichlin-Melnick disagrees. CBC News obtained letters from the Alberta premier at the time, Jason Kenney, and Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen indicating the type of lobbying Reichlin-Melnick describes.
For example, in a letter dated May 20, 2022, Kenney wrote the governor of New York with “deep concern” that if the bill passed, it would create “an unjustified, non-tariff barrier to Canadian forest products and forest risk commodities, and threaten jobs and supply chains of sustainably sourced products.”
Kenney noted Canada has “world-leading sustainable forest management practices” with a “framework that prevents forest degradation and deforestation, as defined by the United Nations.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s letter to N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul
According to the journal Science Advances, published in 2017, Canada ranks third globally for intact forest loss, behind only Russia and Brazil. Skene says Canada clear cuts hundreds of thousands of hectares of boreal annually. “Much of this is in irreplaceable, uniquely carbon-rich and biodiverse primary forests — forests that, once they’re clear cut, can never be replaced,” she said. “Canada is selling off its forests to the highest logging bidder.”
It is notable that Canada is engaging in this way, she said, “even as it’s calling for countries like Brazil and Indonesia to implement these same safeguards against deforestation and forest degradation.” “Canada has been positioning itself as a world leader on sustainability, and that’s really very much been a green veneer on top of what is really devastating practices on the ground.”
What did the governments write?
On March 23, 2021, New York State Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Kenneth Zebrowski introduced the New York Deforestation-Free Procurement Act. In a letter dated April 21, 2021, former Ontario minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski wrote Reichlin-Melnick, chairman of the committee of procurement and contracts, asking for an amendment to the bill to remove references to boreal forests.
- Read the letter from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to N.Y. Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Yakabuski wrote that the bill “does not consider Ontario’s world-class sustainable forest management practices, which specifically prevent forest degradation or deforestation of the boreal forest.”
Khawar Nasim, then-acting consul general of Canada to New York, wrote on April 25, 2022: “New York is including its most responsible and reliable supplier of forest products in a bill best directed at others.” “Canada has exceptional forest management and shares New York’s commitment to a green, sustainable future. We are concerned that the inclusion of Canada in these bills is misguided and a risk to our shared prosperity.”
When it was reintroduced into the New York Senate on Feb. 15, 2023, the bill was renamed the New York Tropical Deforestation-Free Procurement Act and made no mention of boreal forests. New York State Sen. Jeremy Cooney, a co-sponsor of the bill, told CBC News that there was a significant lobbying effort from the Canadian government directly.
“When we learned that almost 1.6 billion in Canadian dollars was derived and generated from sales of wood, pulp and paper just in New York state alone, it really opened my eyes to say this is a significant change or would be a significant change in that trading relationship.”
Reichlin-Melnick says the only reason boreal would have been taken out of the bill was lobbying efforts by Canadian officials. He says they didn’t hear from other countries, like Russia, Sweden, Norway or Finland, which also have boreal forests.
No ‘viable path’ forward: U.S. senator
Reichlin-Melnick says Canada wouldn’t have been affected by the bill if Canada was logging sustainably. The provincial and federal governments “really did feel that it was targeting Canada in some way and that … we should limit it specifically to tropical rainforest, which was where the bad actors were, in the Third World,” he said.
State Sen. Liz Krueger, who re-introduced the bill as the New York Tropical Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, told CBC News in a statement:”The science is clear that forest degradation through ongoing clear cutting of primary boreal forest is a significant contributor to the dual global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
But she couldn’t find a “viable path forward for this legislation to include boreal forests” and that focusing on tropical deforestation was a way of addressing supply chain issues and “will help catalyze more global action and accountability on the loss of climate-critical forests.”
Dropping boreal forest from the bill was a missed opportunity, says Reichlin-Melnick. He says New York is one of the 10 largest economies in the world, and with that kind of economic leverage, this bill could help tackle climate change and stop deforestation.
He says boreal forests were included in the bill because they are one of the largest intact forests in the world.
Chief Keith Corston, of Chapleau Cree First Nation, says the boreal in northern Ontario is at a tipping point, and if steps aren’t taken, there will be no boreal forest left within 30 years. He disagreed that Canada has world-class sustainable forest management practices.
“They are basically raping and plundering the resources on the land. They use words like ‘sustainable forest.’ It’s not sustainable.”
The case of California
Skene says Canada did something similar with the California Deforestation-Free Procurement Act in 2021. At the time, Yves Beaulieu was the consul at the Consulate General of Canada in San Francisco. In a letter to the chair of the California Assembly accountability and administrative review committee, Beaulieu pointed out that “Canada and California have long-standing forest sector supply chains and other links that support jobs and economic security on both sides of the border.”
A version of the California Deforestation-Free Procurement Act with the word boreal in it passed the California assembly on April 28, 2021. On June 15, 2021, the governments of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. wrote to Bill Dodd, the chair of the Senate standing committee on governmental organization, asking that the bill be amended to remove references to boreal.
On July 6, 2021, boreal was removed from the bill, which then only referred to tropical forests. It passed the Senate, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it on Oct. 5, 2021.
Skene says Canada industrially logs the boreal and undermines policies to protect the forest, while it continues to brand itself as a leader on natural climate solutions. She points to the government’s two billion tree program on forest restoration as an example. “All of that is sort of a distraction from what is the most immediate and sweeping issue, which is the fact that they are eroding some of the world’s last primary forests; they’re liquidating them and turning them into products like toilet paper and biomass.”
The international push to stop Canadian boreal deforestation:
Skene says Canada also lobbied to weaken a European Union regulation that bans the sale of products in the EU that are linked to forest degradation and deforestation. In a letter obtained by CBC News, Canada’s Ambassador to the European Union, Dr. Ailish Campbell, wrote to European policymakers, urging them to delay a key provision of the regulation, arguing that there was no accepted definition of degradation.
The regulation was approved on Dec. 21, 2022, and requires the traceability of products from seven commodities to ensure sustainability: palm oil, soy, coffee, beef, rubber, cocoa and wood. In a statement to CBC News, the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) says that attempts to target products sourced from the boreal are misguided, and should be aimed at tropical forests.
Canada is selling off its forests to the highest logging bidder.- Jennifer Skene, with the Natural Resources Defense Council
“While well intentioned, the New York bill was misguided in falsely equating Canada’s rigorous forest management laws with jurisdictions where there is much less scrutiny over forest operations. During the last 30 years, 90 per cent of global deforestation occurred in the tropics, so it makes sense that procurement policies aimed at preventing deforestation would focus on tropical forests.”
The FPAC also wrote that the changes made in the bills reflected concerns raised by both Canadian and U.S. businesses.
Suing the province
On Sept. 30, 2022, Chapleau Cree, Missanabie Cree and Brunswick House First Nations launched legal action against the province of Ontario to stop degradation of the boreal forest in their traditional territories within Treaty 9, and to protect their way of life, livelihoods and well-being.
The lawsuit claims that the “cumulative impacts from a range of provincially authorized uses including forestry, mining, agriculture, energy, transportation and settlement in their traditional territories has had significant adverse impacts on the health of the boreal as well as on their treaty and aboriginal rights.”
Chief Corston was raised in the middle of the boreal — a green ribbon of jack pine, black and white spruce, balsam fir, white birch, trembling aspen, balsam and poplar — that covers two-thirds of Ontario.
He says logging companies clear cut up to 10,000 hectares, and then replant with only the species the industry wants, like jack pine and spruce. The land is then sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, to prevent leafy trees from growing. He says this is converting the boreal into fibre farms. “They don’t want a sustainable forest, they don’t want the boreal as much as they say they do. They want a tree farm.”
Corston says clear cutting and spraying creates a monoculture.
“There’s no more grey jays, whiskey jacks. You’ll hear nothing. Soundless. Not a bird. You might hear the odd raven. You know, that’s it. You go into a natural forest here — chirp, chirp, chirp. There’s all kinds of noise, but that part is dead.”
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Corston says fur-bearing animals like fisher and marten are suffering and the moose population has declined by 50 per cent in the last decade. He says the logging industry wants to get rid of all the leafy trees, like poplar, that moose rely on as a food source. “It is incidental to [the forestry industry]. I have a problem with that. It’s not incidental. You must remember that the boreal forest is made up of many species. That’s why it’s a boreal forest and everything relies on the other.”
Corston also says the industry only thinks about short-term gain. “We’re trying to think seven generations ahead. I think about my kids, my grandkids. If we don’t do something about this, there will be nothing. Our way of life will be gone.”