Paper Chase

Per Breiehagen
Per Breiehagen
Per Breiehagen
Per Breiehagen
Per Breiehagen
Per Breiehagen

Paper Chase

With the holidays over, it's worth noting that each year America's mailboxes are clogged with 20 billion catalogs, many of them made from trees logged in Canada's boreal forest.  To see what's at stake for birds, our writer ventures to a region so biologically rich it's called "North America's Amazon."

By T. Edward Nickens/Photography by Per Breiehagen
Published: January-February 2009

Retailers, betting that a direct-mail deluge more reliable than snow on Christmas will badger us into buying more stuff, annually clog our collective mailboxes with some 20 billion catalogs. Where does all that paper come from? The ugly truth: Much of it is pulped from Canada's boreal forest, an emerald halo of woodlands, wetlands, and rivers that mantles North America. This is the greatest wilderness on the continent, a 1.3-billion-acre forest stretching from Newfoundland all the way to the Yukon. The Canadian boreal holds a quarter of the world's forests and most of its unfrozen freshwater, and sequesters 1.3 trillion metric tons of carbon. Caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines thrive in these dark woods. More than 300 species of birds breed here, and as many as five billion individual birds--including 40 percent of North America's waterfowl--fly south from the boreal each autumn.

What are we doing to the birds' breeding grounds and summer home? We're logging it. For catalogs, reading materials, and disposable paper products. In fact, odds are that you blow your nose on virgin timber cut from Canada's boreal, or flush it down the toilet. Nearly a third of Canada's boreal forest has been allocated for logging, mining, and other development, and at the current rate of 1.9 million acres of trees cut per year, those forests are falling fast. "On average, 65 percent of the logging goes to pulp and paper," reports Richard Brooks, forests campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Canada. That percentage includes boreal fiber used in magazines, books, and newspapers. (Audubon uses no fiber from the North American boreal. Later this year we will begin printing the magazine on 90 percent post-consumer recycled paper.)

Consider the output of mega-retailer Sears. The venerable brand produces an estimated 425 million catalogs a year, 270 million of them for Lands' End, a subsidiary, according to the nonprofit group ForestEthics. "These catalogs contain almost no post-consumer recycled content," reports Ginger Cassady, paper campaign coordinator for ForestEthics. "We estimate one-third to half of the paper comes from boreal forests, enough to wrap the Sears Tower six times a day, seven days a week."

It's not just catalog producers. In one year Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kleenex, turned more than 500,000 tons of virgin pulp from the Canadian boreal into toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, and facial tissue, according to the company's 2005 sustainability report.

Thankfully, intense grassroots and political pressures are having an impact on some retailers. In 2004 ForestEthics launched its Victoria's Dirty Secret campaign, designed to shame the company into using better paper practices. A full-page ad in The New York Times, which featured an angel-wing-outfitted lingerie model wielding a seriously large chainsaw, spurred grassroots advocates to protest at hundreds of stores. After two years of pressure, the company announced a landmark new environmental policy to green up its paper purchases by not sourcing pulp from boreal caribou habitat, by increasing recycled content in catalogs from zero to 10 percent, by giving preference to pulp providers that follow Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guidelines, and by cutting overall paper use by more than 10 percent.

In the past 24 months seven major catalog producers--including Williams-Sonoma, Dell, and L.L. Bean--have followed suit, agreeing to more sustainable guidelines. And in mid-July Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a plan to protect half the province's remaining intact northern boreal forests--more than 55 million acres of wilderness untouched by commercial logging. "Our forests clean the air for Canadians and Americans alike, and provide habitat for very sensitive boreal species," says Donna Cansfield, the province's minister of natural resources. "We are committed to providing protection."

While scientists and conservationists are celebrating the plan, there remains grave concern over the future of the vast southern boreal--180 million acres below a line that roughly tracks the 51st parallel. Unlike the northern boreal, where open woodlands gradually thin into tundra, the southern region is a dense forest of taller, fatter black and white spruce, jack pine, and tamarack, latticed with veins of leafy trembling aspen and balsam poplar. In uncut stands, black spruce grow 90 feet high and 10 inches wide, and trembling aspens reach 40 to 70 feet. Fires that sweep through vast regions of the boreal enable trees such as jack pine to reproduce. During spring and summer, protein-rich insects feed the young of such migrants as yellow-rumped warblers, white-crowned sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, and rusty blackbirds, whose population has free-fallen drastically in the past three decades. On the forest floor, a vast blanket of lichens provide winter food to the region's iconic woodland caribou.

Outside the provincial parks, most of Ontario's southern boreal is allocated entirely to commercial timber companies and slated to be clear-cut within the next 100 years. Such plans have forest activists gearing up for more campaigns to pressure such retailers as Eddie Bauer to stop using boreal paper, and for a new initiative to target credit-card and insurance solicitation mail, which accounts for about as much logging of virgin boreal as catalogs do.

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