montreal -- tembec stockhold-ers might have quivered to see the CEO of the huge pan-Canadian forester glad-handing with the scourge of forestry free-marketeers, Monte Hummel of the World Wildlife Fund, prior to their annual shareholders meeting in Montreal last week But they must have been even more horrified to hear the CEO, Frank Dottori, announce that Tembec, which logs 130,000 square kilometres of Canadian forest, has agreed to allow Hummel's WWF and the Mexican-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to dictate Tembec's harvesting practices.
Had Dottori banged himself on the head with a chainsaw? Had the CEO forgotten about the bottom line?
According to Tembec spokesperson Charles Gagnon, "Everybody was delighted with the announcement." Gagnon concedes that the new policy of seeking the Forest Stewardship Council seal of approval might raise the price of their product in the short run.
"But it corresponds with our direct social and environmental principles." Gagnon says Tembec made the decision on its own. "We want to be proactive. There was absolutely no pressure."
There were, however, some clear incentives. Home Depot, which has been heavily lobbied by the Sierra Club, has decided to phase out endangered-forest products and buy only wood certified by the FSC.
Laurence Martocq of Ikea Canada confirms that her firm as well requires that wood products coming from endangered or virgin areas have FSC certification. "It's encouraging to hear that a company like Tembec is subscribing to the FSC standard," she says.
Says Hummel, president of the WWF Canada, "Consumers are looking for wood that is harvested in a socially and environmentally conscious way with proper consultations with aboriginal people.
"Consumers want to see a label on the product that says this wood came in from a credibly certified source, and the FSC label is the most credible on the market now."
In 1993 Hummel helped write the 10-point FSC standard, which aims to regulate various logging practices, from the manner in which soil and water are treated to the way oil products are disposed of, as well as increased consultation with aboriginals.
But the enthusiasm of some environmentalists is more contained. Martin von Mirbach of the Sierra Club of Canada says, "We're cautiously supportive (of the Tembec decision.) If it means a genuine commitment to a high level of management standards throughout their operations, then we are very happy."
But he says his organization is concerned that the FSC has very vague standards on the boreal forest, which constitutes a significant chunk of Tembec's holdings. (The boreal forest covers the northern parts of Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and part of BC, and everything north of the 60th parallel.)
"The FSC standards cannot substitute for good land-use planning," he says. "The certification only kicks in once you've made a decision on how to use the forest. It doesn't have language that rules out clear-cutting, but it does ask for justification on a site-specific basis."
Luc Bouthillier, a forestry economist at Université Laval, also has some reservations.
"Stricter standards mean there's less total area that can be forested, and that will lead to pressure for increasing yields," he says.
"This could force foresters to take a more agricultural approach to wood harvesting, which is unsuitable because a forest is more than that -- it's a natural habitat as well."
But on the Tembec-WWF marriage in general? "If you'd asked me 10 years ago if I could have imagined such a thing, I would have said no way," he says. "It's very surprising."
From the Montreal Mirror with additional reporting by Stephen Wicary