Friday, December 09, 2005

Realms of the Boreal Pole

Nick Jans has written a problematic article on the development of Canada's boreal forest. My initial assumption was that Jans is some sort of shill for big oil, but after doing some research I don't think that's the case at all. Nonetheless, I think his use of language, and his basic assumptions, are worthy of close and skeptical examination.

The first thing Jans wants you to understand is that this is a forest that's very, very large:

I sit staring from the plane window, down at a seemingly endless, un-peopled expanse of lakes, river and forest. Even from a height of 25,000 feet, the landscape spills over the rim of the horizon. As an Alaskan, I'm used to thinking large, but this place stuns me, its vastness as incomprehensible as the distances between stars. What I'm looking down on is a mere fragment of western Canada's Mackenzie River basin, an area more than twice the size of Texas. Even the Mackenzie itself is all but swallowed by the scale of things. As an Alaskan, I'm used to thinking large, but this place stuns me, its vastness as incomprehensible as the distances between stars.
To me, the tip-off that there's something askew here is the line "incomprehensible as the distances between stars." It doesn't ring true emotionally. The comparison of a vibrantly living and abundant portion of the earth to the dead wastes between stars may simply be an instance of simile gone berserk, but I think you'll find that it sets an appropriate tone for what follows.
There's far more than wild country here. Though off the average American's radar, the largest oil pool outside of Saudi Arabia lies in the Mackenzie basin - the vast tar sands deposits in Alberta - along with untold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas there and farther north, on the river's great arctic delta.
"Far more"? Again, an interesting choice of emphasis. A "seemingly endless," "incomprehensible" expanse of forest suggests an equally endless and incomprehensible amount of life (and, for anyone interested in climate change, carbon; the boreal forest is the largest repository of carbon on land).

But never mind that. There's "far more" beneath it: an oil pool. The word "pool" conjures up an easily accessible bounty, as with an oasis in the desert. In reality, exploiting tar sands is more akin to a mining operation, in which about a million tons of earth are moved per day.

So we've ascertained that "untold" wealth lies beneath a "mere fragment" of land "swallowed" within a vast and redundant forest. That sounds fairly tempting. But some people might have scruples about mowing down the wilderness for oil, and it's important to reassure them.
We all know where this is headed. It's the same old story: Big energy companies come in, and Nature gets walloped in the name of progress. But what's remarkable so far about the Mackenzie drainage development is the mantra that's being chanted by an unlikely consortium of environmentalists, Indian tribes, and big industry: conservation first.
Jans goes on to describe the Canadian Boreal Initiative in terms that are less journalistic than avuncular:
Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) has emerged as a top-level player in shaping the future of the Mackenzie basin and the course of development across Canada's boreal region - at 1.4 billion acres stretching across the northern brow of the continent, one of the largest contiguous forestlands in the world. Working closely with all the various interests, led by respected conservationists and scientists and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts (a major U.S. public charity that promotes environmental conservation), the CBI has fostered a plan as wide as the boreal landscape itself.
Actually, this plan isn't quite as wide as the boreal, given that it protects roughly fifty percent of the forest, and doesn't specify - as far as I can tell - precisely which parts will be handed over to industrial exploitation, and who will make that determination.

This site claims that CBI is a fraud, but the evidence it cites is ambiguous. This site accuses CBI of misleading advertising. But by and large, it's not easy to find criticism of the group or its aims. As Jans notes, CBI is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. These trusts were set up by the children of Sun Oil founder Joseph Pew. Oddly enough, Suncor - Sun's descendent - is one of the major players in tar-sands development, and in the CBI itself. I find this connection interesting, though it may be nothing more than a coincidence.

To his credit, Jans recognizes that the boreal is in serious trouble:
Despite its almost unimaginable vastness, and despite the efforts of the CBI and its adherents, the boreal is shrinking at an alarming rate. Wood product demand gobbles up 5 acres every minute, and about a third of it has already been allotted to timber developers. Small surprise that some bird species are in sharp decline.

And with massive new projects such as the Mackenzie gas pipeline and accelerating oil development on the immediate horizon, and the world's growing appetite for ever-dwindling resources, the boreal's future is far from secure....Nonetheless, this might be one of those rare times when we get to have our cake and eat it, too. Enough of the boreal remains intact to provide a window - albeit a time-sensitive, narrowing one - of opportunity.

As audacious and pie-in-the-sky as it seems, CBI's vision seems to be catching on. Oil giant Suncor, which owns rights to the Alberta tar sands, and paper giant Domtar are among the framework's signatories.
A "pie-in-the-sky" vision seems to be catching on, eh? Well, it wouldn't be the first time, God knows.

Michael M'Gonigle, Eco-Research Chair at the University of Victoria, asks the essential question:
What is going to happen after the 50% is used up? Is the global growth economy going to stop? Are multinational companies going to say "a deal's a deal"? Ask the folks in Sarawak and Amazonia and Siberia.
Alternatively, you could ask the people in BC. A somewhat similar scheme ostensibly intended to protect the Great Bear forest has produced little more than an unsupervised orgy of clear-cutting:
"The logging underway in our territory at Tom Bay by Western Forests Products is completely unacceptable to us and clearly does not represent the type of forestry practices we envisioned when we signed the General Protocol Agreement with the province last April," said Chief Robert Germyn of the Heiltsuk First Nation who is a co-chair of the First Nations Turning Point initiative.
Perhaps a disaster of this sort won't happen with the CBI. But if there's any compelling evidence to that effect, Jans should've presented it, instead of simply rewriting CBI's press releases.

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