Proceed with caution on boreal promise

Premier's pledge to save forest vague on details

Jul 19, 2008 04:30 AM

Cameron Smith Dalton McGuinty's promise to set aside half of Ontario's northern boreal forest for permanent protection may not mean very much. It's hard to say, because the promise is so vague.

For instance, he could protect only the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which make up more than half of the northern boreal. Logging is unlikely to occur there in any event; so if that's what he's promising, the more desirable western half of the region would remain open to forestry companies.

The forest in the Lowlands – the area that wraps around James Bay and stretches inland 100 to 350 kilometres – is transitional: the entire area is fragile, trees are small and can take 250 to 350 years to mature and replanting has a high failure rate.

Nevertheless, protection in the Lowlands would still be useful in restricting access roads for mining, and in controlling corridors for power lines.

The western half of the northern boreal is continuous forest. If McGuinty had promised the protected area would include at least half of it, it would have meant that no logging would probably occur on 75 per cent of the northern boreal, but protection would be assured where needed. In any event, the public will have to wait up to 15 years to get details on what will be protected. McGuinty expects research and the planning process will take that long.

Not everything is off in the future, however. The Premier has promised no new mining or logging projects will be allowed until local land-use plans have been implemented with full support from native communities. This sounds a lot like a moratorium until an agreement is reached, which is what Indians have been seeking.

This should put a brake on development while the protected areas are being earmarked and give the public the chance to see how the Premier follows through on this promise. McGuinty made a similar promise five years ago, but never kept it.

A footnote on a different issue.

China now holds a veto over Canada's domestic policy on global warming. So do India, Brazil and tiny Singapore – in fact, so does every nation that has what Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls an "emerging economy."

His position at the recent meeting of G8 leaders in Japan was that Canada would not agree to mandatory targets for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide unless countries with "emerging economies" did the same. In other words, if they don't, Canada won't. That, in anyone's language, amounts to giving them a veto.

The meeting set a 2050 goal for limiting emissions, which had gaping loopholes and no short-term targets.

Harper said he was motivated by realism. As an aide explained, what the Prime Minister meant was it would be wrong to set goals that are too challenging.

That sets Harper's realism apart from that of Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations panel on climate change. Last November he said global warming is proceeding at such a pace that "what we do in the next two or three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

Or how about realism as expressed by James Hansen, chief climate change scientist for NASA? In a speech in Washington three weeks ago, he said, "We have reached a point of planetary emergency." Already the world's safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has been exceeded, he added.

Take your pick. I know whose realism I choose.

View Cameron Smith's columns at cameronsmith.ca.

We at Greenpeace celebrate the announcement by the McGuinty government and hope that the concerns expressed by Cameron Smith won’t come to pass. Though we remain optimistic and protecting more than 50% of the Boreal in the Far North is impressive, important and an ambitious promise in many ways, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Smith’s worries that the area that don’t get protected could get opened up for rapid development are not unfounded. Governments have a long history of caving to the pressure of industries who want as much of the land base held open for development.

The other important caution to seeing this announcement as a complete protection of the Boreal is that it only deals with the area north of the undertaking. The Forests most threatened by logging, roads and development are in the northern area of the allocated Boreal –not covered under this announcement- and there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the remaining large intact areas and caribou habitat of this region are put into permanent protection.