The View from Here

The great Boreal Forest is a broad, emerald ring encircling the globe — a crown of fir, larch, pine and spruce, with alder, aspen and birch scattered through it — extending south from the Arctic tundra. This dense, vast, virgin forest encompasses most of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and China, a region where winters are long and often severe and summers are short and relatively warm. The Boreal Forest covers six and a half million square miles and within it lie innumerable bogs, fens, marshes, shallow lakes and rivers.

Canada’s share of this wide green wreath around the planet’s brow stretches for a billion acres, from Newfoundland to the Yukon. This great expanse has been managed and conserved for millennia by its First Nations indigenous people. Over three billion birds migrate there to breed and brood in spring and summer, while bear, fisher, ermine, lynx, marten, mink, moose, sable, Timber wolves, Wood bison and wolverines stalk and browse the wetlands. My favorite four-legged Canadian, though, is a unique (and diminishing) North American reindeer — the gorgeously graceful Woodland caribou.

The Boreal region rivals Earth’s tropical rainforests in its importance to the global climate cycle. So as the Amazon is foolishly set ablaze, our immense “Amazon of the North” takes on even greater significance for its services of absorbing and sequestering (locking up in its soils and biomass) atmospheric carbon. But within this biological treasure trove, one must now insert ‘the extractive industries’ — mining and logging. And here’s where we sound an alarm: the Canadian Boreal is being “harvested” by multinational corporations at an unsustainable rate.

The Alberta tar sands’ heavy-crude oil extraction and its transport is a blackened blight upon the Earth, gravely threatening the planet’s atmosphere. [This is what the Keystone XL pipeline protest in the U.S. is all about.] Tar sands extraction has already leveled nearly two million acres of boreal forest, lathering it in oil-sludge waste. The industry’s current tailings ponds would fill approximately 500,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. NOT OK, right? But here is an even more shocking statistic and a critical comparison:

Clear-cut logging in Canada’s Boreal lays bare, on average, a million acres of forest per year. And that rate is equal to, in surface area, seven NHL hockey rinks being steamrolled over per minute! Sure, some fairly decent lumber and somewhat recyclable “packaging materials” are produced from these old-growth harvests. But by far, the predominant destination of Boreal forest fiber is the toilets, septic tanks, sewage systems and landfills of the U.S. You heard right.

Basically, Americans’ demand for toilet paper, paper towels, facial tissue and paper napkins dictates the utilization of 75 percent of Canadian wood products. So, although we may not have realized it, our appetite for “virgin pulp fiber” is voracious and growing! How do we stop this utter mindlessness [which I confess to] — or at least, slow it ‘way the heck down? Well, the most informed minds have pondered this truly critical question and come up with a three-pronged approach:

First, grant the indigenous First Nations of the Boreal forest the rights (which they now largely lack) to determine the best uses of and protective measures for their ancestral lands. Second: demand — as discerning consumers — that American household paper products quickly begin containing a considerable percentage of recycled-paper content. [More on this in a moment.] And thirdly, until mainstream ‘personal paper product’ manufacturers come around, let us seek out and purchase T.P., P.T’s and table napkins made from sustainably-grown and readily-available alternative fibers such as bamboo, wheat straw and sugarcane stalks.

These are serious, sensible proposals for critically-needed change in a highly-profitable, ecologically-damaging industry. Not one major U.S. household brand — not Charmin nor Puffs, not Bounty nor Brawny, not Kleenex, Viva or Angel Soft, neither Costco’s Kirkland nor Target’s Up&Up — contains an iota of recycled material. And it’s high time for that to change!

Contact the heads of the highest-selling U.S. brands — Procter & Gamble (act.nrdc.org/letter/boreal), Kimberly-Clark (Scott and Cottonelle) plus Georgia-Pacific (Quilted Northern) — and inform them you will not buy their products until its recycled content is over 50 percent. This is the best leverage we may have — in addition to asking others to also boycott these giants of the “towering-trees-to-trash-&-toilet” pipeline.

In the meantime, we can choose from smaller brands whose products are made by incorporating recycled paper or alternative fibers. These include Seventh Generation (usually available in Socorro), Trader Joe’s, and 365 (from Whole Foods). But shun all versions labeled particularly “Soft.” So far, those are never sustainably-sourced, and, additionally, are oiled and perfumed. The bamboo/sugarcane paper napkin (“… made from two of the fastest-growing grasses on Earth”) has even been available recently in Socorro.

Perhaps, if many more of us purchase more “responsible” household paper products, the recycled and alt-fiber prices will come down, as brands compete for the love of a more consciously-concerned public.

I leave you with two of the most startling, little-known facts that my research uncovered to-date ;) 1) National Geographic reports that toilet paper kills 27,000 trees every 24 hours! And, 2) There’s a brand you can buy (in at least Berkeley and Boulder, I would imagine) that’s called “Who Gives a Crap?” I kid you not! And I think that about says it all.

Sources: BorealForest.org; Boreas Project; Natural Resources Defense Council; RePaper Project