OTTAWA - Far from the loud Parliament Hill battle between Conservatives and environmentalists, a group of forest industry executives and conservationists are quietly forging agreements that will permit an increase in logging while also protecting endangered caribou and fragile ecosystems.
But they say they're being stymied by bureaucracy.
"Our patience is wearing thin," said Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. "We just need them to say 'yes' and then everyone can breathe a sigh of relief."
She has been working for more than two years with forestry executives, First Nations, mayors and other conservationists in northeastern Ontario, crafting a plan that would set aside 800,000 hectares of the Abitibi River forest for caribou, but allow 2.2 million hectares to stay open to forestry.
The Ontario pact is the most advanced of several that are in the works under the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, announced with great fanfare in 2010.
The provincial government gave its support to the northeastern Ontario plan last June, with Natural Resources Minister Michael Gravelle publicly praising it.
All sides called it a "breakthrough" for a type of collaboration that would serve as a model for forests across the country — and possibly for the Alberta oilsands one day too.
Since then, proponents say concrete action on the plan has been waylaid by holdups within the provincial government.
At the same time, the federal government is quietly expressing some concerns about whether such agreements are compatible with its Species At Risk Act. Although Environment Canada says it favours such cooperative conservation plans, a spokesman said the department will withhold judgment on the northeastern Ontario plan until the province has finished with its own analysis.
"The framework's goals are in line with and reflective of the cooperation and consultation requirements set out in SARA for the development of recovery strategies and action plans under SARA," said Mark Johnson. "Until Ontario completes its review of the plan, it would be premature for Environment Canada to offer comment."
In the meantime, Greenpeace — whose stamp of approval on the forestry products in question carries a great deal of weight in export markets — has pulled out. Lack of concrete results and a conviction that Resolute Forest Products Inc. (TSX: RFP) was not living up to its side of the agreement led the environmental activist group to break away.
"It really lacks a lot of legitimacy," said forest campaign co-ordinator Richard Brooks.
After two and a half years of difficult work with the very companies that had been their target of protest for so long, "you've got nothing to show," Brooks said. "I think it shakes the agreement to its very foundation."
The conservationists and forestry companies who have now decided, after much soul-searching, to remain in the pact are determined to make it work. But the pressure to show concrete results is mounting, and explains the frustration in Ontario with the provincial government.
"I hope that when these conversations come together, we'll see the endorsement of this plan," said Mark Hubert, vice-president of environmental leadership for the Forest Products Association of Canada. "We all wish things were moving more quickly. It's the most comprehensive agreement of its kind in the world."
Ontario, however, is non-commital about when such an endorsement will come. A spokeswoman for Gravelle would only say that the delays were for "technical" reasons.
"Collective, collaborative and creative participation is how progress is made. There are currently a number of technical discussions under way," Gravelle said in an emailed statement.
For environmental economist Stewart Elgie from the University of Ottawa, it's not surprising that government would be the last hold-out.
Under the Canadian Boreal Forest Initiative, conservationists can win by reviving caribou habitat. Companies can win by continuing with or ramping up production while enjoying the stamp of approval from environmentalists that opens doors to valuable export markets.
But governments don't immediately gain anything, and may in fact stand to lose royalties from large tracts of land set aside for wildlife, Elgie said.
"They're operating on different dynamics," Elgie said in an interview. "The underlying drivers that have motivated companies to come to the table ... the provinces don't face the same pressure."
But governments would be short-sighted to allow unbridled natural resource extraction without due consideration to environmentalists' concerns, he added.
The forestry industry's experience with having their products targeted and questioned around the world is now being repeated with the bitumen from Alberta's oilsands, and major export markets are at stake, he noted.
Indeed, the Canadian Boreal Forest Initiative is hoping to draw the oil industry into its tent.
In Alberta, negotiations between forestry companies and conservationists to protect disappearing caribou herds in that province are nearing a conclusion and are likely to produce a final plan this spring, said Janet Sumner, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
"We're fairly close," she said.
But oil and gas development has a far larger impact on caribou habitat than forestry in that province. And Sumner believes the oil and gas industry is ready to look at the "social license" gained by the forestry industry, and join, or perhaps replicate, their work.
"Everybody is desperate for a good idea."