Northern Exposure: The Unseen Loss of Northern Forests

Standing in the middle of a clearcut in Canada can have a disorienting effect. It’s very easy to lose both your footing and your sense of place amid the stumps, discarded logs, water-logged tread marks, and other detritus from a once-rich forest brocade. But perhaps the most bewildering part of walking in that barren, shadeless expanse, is that, in the eyes of the international community, the fact that you’re standing amid stumps rather than towering canopies changes nothing about the land’s classification as a forest. According to the warped, abstracted logic of international arrangement, the forest is technically still there—it’s just that its constituent parts are gone. This can land you in a barren, churned up wasteland faced with a Lewis Carroll-esque experience: not a tree without a forest, but a forest without a tree. 

A clearcut in Ontario, still considered a healthy forest

River Jordan for NRDC

Northern forests—temperate and boreal forests found in places like Canada, the U.S., and Europe—are facing a quiet extinction. Over the last 30 years, while the international community has rightly mobilized to combat the rapacious pillaging of tropical forests, Northern countries have successfully deflected attention from themselves, decrying forest loss in the Global South while obfuscating their own destructive practices. The result, in a well-worn colonialist tale, has been an international regime that unblinkingly accepts Northern countries’ claims of “world-class forestry,” despite the costs of their logging practices for the climate, biodiversity, and Indigenous rights. It’s a destructive, circular logic: sustainability because of who and where a country is, not what they do.  

The issue is particularly acute in the boreal, the miraculously hardy forest that reaches to the northernmost limits of plant life before acceding to the frozen tundra. While all eyes are on the tropics, the first- and third-highest intact forest loss in the world is happening in Russia and Canada, respectively—both predominantly boreal regions. In the last 60 years, Sweden has lost over 70% of its lichen-rich forests to the logging industry and ranks first globally in tree loss per capita--just ahead of Norway, Canada, and Russia, all also countries with boreal forest. 

Boreal Forest in Ontario

Few countries have played the international game better than Canada, a country that clearcuts over a million acres of carbon-rich boreal forest every year to feed demand for products like toilet paper, newsprint, and lumber and is in a dead heat with Brazil for the most forest area lost per capita. Canada is one of the loudest voices claiming “world class” forestry practices, with an industry that blanches at any intimation of unsustainability while routinely blocking and lobbying to remove essential protections for at-risk species and carbon-rich primary forests. 

Canada’s evasion of accountability rests in large part around warped framing of what actually counts as forest loss—in other words, how countries define “deforestation.” While most people may look at a clearcut in Canada and say it’s deforested, under its narrow international meaning, “deforestation,” only includes practices that actually convert the forest to a non-timber purpose, such as agricultural land. In Canada, even a barren stretch of stumps counts as a perfectly healthy forest.

The trees may eventually—hopefully—grow back. But the forest—along with its unique value for the global climate and wildlife—is irrecoverable, the trees that grew together over generations divided and eventually lost to a fate in the toilet bowls, trash bins, and Ikea tables, and the mosses, soils, and fungi left behind ground to dust. And, of course, international terminology turns a blind eye to the impacts Northern forest loss is having on Indigenous communities, who often are not afforded the right to free, prior and informed consent of operations on their traditional territories.

Intact forests have irreplaceable value for the climate and biodiversity

River Jordan for NRDC

Despite these impacts, the Canadian logging industry has gone to great lengths to block any measures, both domestic and global, that would hold Northern forests to the same standards and scrutiny as tropical countries. Most recently, it has begun a whirlwind effort to stop the boreal’s inclusion in bills in California and New York that would prevent state purchases from driving deforestation and intact forest loss in both tropical and boreal forests. The bills, because they would only limit unsustainable sourcing from previously unlogged forests, have put Canada’s logging industry in a precarious position: in admitting the bill would place any burden on the country, they would have to concede that they are, in fact, engaging in practices that are unsustainable. Instead, in a tried and tested method, Canadian logging industry actors are opting for a third path: entirely misrepresenting the bill’s scope and purpose while taking umbrage at any suggestion that their practices should be subjected to the same scrutiny as those of tropical countries. 

"The laws of forest ecology don’t vary at the whim of global power disparities. Neither should our efforts to protect these irreplaceable landscapes."

While the international community’s “Northern Forest Blindness” has also afflicted the global marketplace, there are signs that this is changing. The financial sector, like the legislators in California and New York, has also begun taking note of the need to integrate Northern forest loss into sustainability commitments. Last fall, in an unprecedented investor rebellion, Procter & Gamble shareholders including giants like BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, voted in favor of a resolution calling on the company to report on how it plans to address risk not only in its tropical supply chains, but also its boreal sourcing. 

Clearcut in Quebec

The Biden Administration, with its strong commitment to natural climate solutions, now has the opportunity to build on these developments in California, New York, and the marketplace, and drive policies for the protection of all forests, not just those south of the 24th parallel. President Biden’s attention to Brazilian forest loss is essential, but U.S. credibility on the international stage will depend on the Administration addressing the pillaging of our own backyard here in North America, including working with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to end the erosion of Canada’s primary forests. 

In Canada, logging companies line the highways with a row of trees just thick enough to provide travelers with the illusion that they’re surrounded by healthy wilderness. But just beyond passersby’s field of view lies a clearcut expanse whose loss may be obscured, but is felt globally. The laws of forest ecology don’t vary at the whim of global power disparities. Neither should our efforts to protect these irreplaceable landscapes.

About the Authors

Jennifer Skene

Natural Climate Solutions Policy Manager, International Program

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