Webinar Points to U.S. Purchasers’ Role in Driving Solutions to Woodland Caribou Habitat Crisis

Special thanks to Mitchell Beer for assistance in drafting this blog.

Photo credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Those who purchase harvested wood products sourced from Canada’s boreal forest can play a central role in setting expectations for sustainable practices there, participants learned during a June 28 webinar hosted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council.

The future of Canada’s woodland caribou, which act as an indicator species for healthy boreal forests because they thrive only in large tracts of intact forest areas, has been put in increasing doubt since the species was first listed as threatened by Canada’s equivalent of the Engandered Species Act (ESA) in 1984. Critical woodland caribou habitats in the Canadian boreal are rapidly disappearing because of clearcut logging and other unsustainable industrial activity. In fact, provincial and federal decision-makers need to enact more robust policies to prevent the loss of up to 30% of Canada’s remaining woodland caribou population over the next 15 years.

More than 70 participants — including representatives from major corporations, universities, and government entities — joined the webinar to hear from Valérie Courtois of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, Janet Sumner of the Wildlands League of Ontario, Lisa Morden of Kimberly-Clark, and NRDC’s Anthony Swift.

“Companies can play a huge role in ensuring that the boreal remains a sustainable resource for companies, communities, and species for generations to come.”
-Anthony Swift, NRDC

Procurement and purchasing agents, with combined buying power of hundreds of billions of dollars per year in the U.S. alone, are in a strong position to advocate for more robust habitat protection policies. With the deadline for formal caribou protection plans in Canada coming up in October, NRDC encourages purchasers to write to Canada’s federal and provincial governments, calling for policies that will give companies the security of knowing they are purchasing sustainably and protecting critical habitat.

Lisa Morden, Kimberly-Clark’s Senior Director of Global Sustainability, said her company is committed to addressing the procurement challenge as a major purchaser of fiber and wood products. As one of the world’s largest buyers of pulp, Kimberly-Clark will play a major role in moving the marketplace toward adopting more sustainable forest management practices.

Boreal Forest Logging: Equivalent to 2,900 Football Fields Per Day

Canada’s boreal forest is home to more than one million Indigenous people; its trees and soil are an essential safeguard against runaway climate change; and the forest is critical habitat for many vulnerable species, including the iconic woodland caribou. Janet Sumner, the Wildlands League’s Executive Director, also noted that the boreal is a “bird nursery” for the Western hemisphere, with three billion migrating north and five billion returning south annually.

But the boreal is also a major source of wood and paper products used by companies around the world. The mix of products is wide, including paper towels, tissues, lumber, catalogs, printing paper, and many other items. About half of the production from Canada’s boreal forest is exported. Ontario and Quebec — where most boreal logging occurs today — send four-fifths of their forest exports to the United States.

Of particular concern:

· An area of the boreal equivalent to 2,900 U.S. football fields is logged every day.
· 90% of that land is clearcut.
· Over the last 20 years, forest product companies operating in the Canadian boreal have clearcut an area the size of the state of Ohio.

October 2017: The Deadline for Caribou Protection

Caribou are important in their own right, but also as an indicator species for the boreal ecosystem as a whole.

“Caribou protection is about so much more than caribou. It’s about carbon. It’s about climate change. It’s about ecosystem sustainability. It’s a large-scale indicator of ecosystem health.”
-Janet Sumner, Wildlands League

The boreal woodland caribou has been declared a threatened species under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), and provincial governments are working toward an October 2017 deadline to show how habitats will be managed to “maintain or attain” a minimum of 65% undisturbed territory. Sumner said that target equates to a 60% probability of persistence for woodland caribou herds.

Valérie Courtois, Director of Canada’s Indigenous Leadership Initiative and a member of the Innu Nation, described this as “an extremely risky position” for First Nations.

“The caribou provide more than direct food, sustenance, clothing, and shelter. They provide a spiritual understanding of one’s role in the world. For my people, the caribou is in fact the most important spirit animal in our spirituality.”
-Valérie Courtois, Indigenous Leadership Initiative

That’s why caribou management plans developed or led by Indigenous communities often come up with much bolder solutions than the typical target of 100 animals per herd in government plans, a threshold Courtois said was not sufficient for their needs. She said the most effective planning exercises must rely on western and Indigenous science side by side and create space for communities to balance caribou and habitat protection alongside their own urgent needs.

Unfortunately, throughout much of Canada woodland caribou habitat disturbance has left far less than 65% of ranges intact. Quebec’s Val d’Or caribou herd is a particularly grievous example, as the province has left less than 20% of that herd’s range intact and continues to approve new logging projects in the remaining range. While unsustainable logging has crossed that critical threshold in many of Quebec and Ontario’s boreal caribou ranges, neither province is currently taking steps to enact woodland caribou recovery plans.

On the webinar, many participants asked whether requiring FSC-certified wood is sufficient to ensure habitat protection. This October deadline underscores that while purchasers should look to FSC as the gold standard of strong forest management practices, the governments of Quebec and Ontario must step up and enforce the law to fully protect woodland caribou and its iconic forest habitat.

From Policy to Progress

Several years ago Kimberly-Clark introduced a comprehensive fiber procurement policy based on consultation with suppliers, environmental groups, and a range of other stakeholders.

The commitment is now delivering results: Over the last decade, the percentage of FSC-certified fibers in Kimberly-Clark’s supply chain has increased from 7% to more than 80%, and the company is working with suppliers to address the challenges around protecting intact forest landscapes and incorporating the policy of Free Prior Informed Consent for Indigenous peoples, especially into FSC.

Purchasers Are Ready to Roll

Purchasers were engaged with the topic, concerned about the alignment between their own values and policies and the forest products they procure, and keen to take positive, practical action. NRDC looks forward to engaging with all interested companies and organizations to help them address the threats to Canada’s boreal forest and the iconic woodland caribou in their day-to-day practices.

A first step will be to urge the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario to take immediate action to conserve remaining woodland caribou habitat until scientifically sound caribou recovery plans are in place across each province. Consumers of boreal products have a critical role to play in protecting the boreal and the species that depend on it.