05/16/2012 01:49 EDT | Updated 07/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Environmental groups split over slow pace of forest deal

Environmental groups are split over slow progress on a globally significant conservation deal that was to have preserved millions of hectares of Canadian forest.

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, signed May 18, 2010, was supposed to be a truce between industry and environmentalists that would create certainty for forestry companies while protecting untouched landscapes.

But two years later, some are wondering about the worth of a deal that has missed more than three-quarters of its deadlines and has yet to result in any new conservation areas.

"We're disappointed in where we've gotten to so far. We promised the world a big promise and it's not yet lived up to," said Stephanie Goodwin of Greenpeace.

"We're frustrated at the lack of progress," said Todd Paglia of ForestEthics Solutions. "This is a truce and a truce will only hold so long as there's progress in the ground in the boreal."

But other environmentalists and an industry spokesman say implementing an agreement that affects an area roughly equivalent to the size of Alberta — as well as the dozens of communities, aboriginal groups and other stakeholders within it — is simply proving more time-consuming than planned.

"Getting more players to do the general head-nodding that they like something means that you have to incorporate their vision, too," said Janet Sumner of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

When the agreement was signed two years ago, it was praised as an international model for industry and environmentalists working together.

Member of the Forest Products Association of Canada agreed to use best environmental practices on 72 million hectares of Crown-owned boreal forest — equal to about eight per cent of Canada's total size. That included preserving habitat for animals within the forest, such as woodland caribou.

Industry also agreed to an immediate moratorium on any harvesting on 29 million hectares within that area, a moratorium it continues to honour.

In return, environmental groups ended lobbying campaigns such as the ones that successfully convinced paper suppliers Staples and Office Depot and catalogue publisher Victoria's Secret to stop buying paper from Canadian companies.

The deal also included a timeline for the outline of five new conservation areas. That deadline was pushed back from November 2010 to November 2011 and then to May 18. As of this week, plans for only one of the areas — Ontario's Abitibi River Forest — have been completed.

Only 17 of the 75 milestones that were supposed to have been reached by this time have been.

Mark Hubert, a spokesman for the Forest Products Association, pointed out that provincial governments make the final decision on Crown land. To have any chance of being accepted, conservation plans developed under the agreement have to take into account a wide variety of stakeholders, not just industry and environmentalists.

"We're operating on a public land base with the need to make sure governments will support what we bring to it," he said. "The need to maintain support in order to have our plans implemented is important."

As well, a lot of basic science and background work needed to be conducted before plans for conservation areas could be proposed, said Sumner.

Things are speeding up, she said, and a proposal for a new area is possible within weeks. Preliminary talks to extend the agreement to forests in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland have also begun.

Still, Paglia said, the initiative has become bogged down in bureaucracy. He said his group made promises to its supporters when it signed on and is now coming under pressure to prove it was worthwhile.

"Any time an environmental organization crafts an agreement with industry, we are under tremendous pressure to produce results from our members, from our funders, from our board," Paglia said. "After two years we don't have results and the pressure is really ramping up."

All sides agree there's plenty of blame to go around for the slow pace.

"We've had some missteps along the way and it took a lot longer to get going," said Sumner. "We still have faith that we're going to get there."

Canada has about one-tenth of the world's forests and about one-third of the boreal forest, which stretches like a giant belt from the Yukon to Newfoundland and represents about 75 per cent the country's woodlands.

Besides being a rich resource for loggers, it is also home to two-thirds of the country's estimated 140,000 species of plants, animals and micro-organisms, including 60 per cent of all land birds breeding in Canada.