Paper Chase

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.

To trace the source, I decided to follow the birds north myself. I would visit boreal timber cuts and timber towns, speak with loggers, environmentalists, and locals about the future of what has been called "North America's Amazon." Then I'd team up with a leading boreal ornithologist; load a Twin Otter floatplane with a week's worth of fishing gear, camping equipment, canoes, and cargo; and paddle into northern Canada's ancient forests--starting 215 miles north-northwest of Thunder Bay.

 

Standing atop a towering 20-foot-high wall of carefully stacked logs in the interior of Ontario's Kenogami Forest, north of Lake Superior, Gillian McEachern tells me she feels sick at the sight before us. This log stack extends for hundreds of yards, and miles of other stacks checkerboard a vast hole in the boreal. The farthest away look like tiny bundles of thistle seed. A black smudge marks the distant edge of upright spruce and pine. The clearcut easily stretches for several square miles.

"Nothing about logging is pretty," says  McEachern, who for the past eight years has crisscrossed Ontario as an activist. For the last two, she has campaigned as part of her job with the nonprofit group ForestEthics. "But here's your bird and caribou habitat, just before it's turned into catalogs and toilet paper."

From Thunder Bay we drive miles of rain-slicked logging roads through clearcuts and young, regenerating forest. In many of the cuts, the ground is so deeply scored by log skidders that I stumble through the ruts. In others, soaring piles of treetops and branches have been bulldozed into house-sized slash heaps. I wonder what happened to the birds that once nested in these newly shorn trees. Pushed into surrounding forests, they likely had to compete with existing birds for both food and nesting sites, an exhausting process at a time when raising chicks is demanding enough.

Early the next morning I brace my feet against the floorboard of a battered Mazda pickup as Chris Walterson threads his truck through spitting drizzle in the Kenogami. Lean and sinewy, with hard-bitten fingernails and eyes the color of the dark clouds overhead, Walterson has spent 28 of his 55 years in the Ontario forestry industry--on an all-in-one tree-shearing and bundling machine known as a feller buncher, on a tractor or loader, and, most recently, in a sawmill. Currently idled due to a mill strike, Walterson was hoping to fly me over the boreal in his homemade two-seater airplane, but nasty weather scuttles our plan. Not a big problem, Walterson says. One thing commercial logging affords is roads.

Clearcuts are only the most visible of the ills of logging in the boreal. Less evident are the new roads punched into virgin forest. Plans to log the adjacent Ogoki Forest, one of the last areas of southern boreal forest with large unroaded sections, include miles of new logging byways and two bridges across the Attwood River, among the greatest wilderness waterways of the boreal north.

"We're not talking about a couple of roads," Walterson explains. "Every logging patch has its own road network." In addition to the main lines large enough for logging trucks, secondary and tertiary byways branch like arteries and capillaries for miles into the forest. "And the primary roads last forever.

"Some say I'm starting to sound like an environmentalist," Walterson adds. He chews on his upper lip, unsmiling. "But I'm just a guy who hates to see rape and pillage and waste. We need a forest industry here. But there are ways to get wood out of the forest that don't wreck the environment."

On that point at least there is agreement. Everyone I spoke to--from the activists who picket retailers in Seattle to the agency scientists in Thunder Bay to the local banker in the tiny timber town of Geraldton--agreed that the boreal forest can have a future that supports both wildlife and sustainable logging. For many, the way to a better boreal future includes a commitment from timber lease holders to build fewer roads, leave large blocks of uncut forest intact, and do more to ensure that logged areas grow back.

"There are some big decisions to be made here," Alan Cheeseman tells me early one afternoon. He's helping my pilot and me lug gear down a dock on the north shore of Lake Superior, where a floatplane is tied off with stout rope. Cheeseman owns Thunder Bay's Wilderness North outfitters, the largest outdoor adventure company in Canada. "Does Ontario want to be known for pulp and paper and timber mills? Or do we want to be known for one of the greatest wildernesses remaining in North America?" He glances into the plane's cargo hold, crammed with gear, and shoots me a grimace. "We can do that with timber harvest. But not by starting with a model whose foundation is: Cut it all."

Before there's even a chance of that, I tell myself, I want to see the boreal up close and personal. Enough of the rental cars and rough roads. Time for a paddle in hand, and a stretch of bird-rich boreal forest where a river is the only way in.

 

Lightning streaks the sky, then a grumble of thunder. We are only an hour into a four-day wilderness canoe trip along Ontario's remote Albany River, and we need shelter. Now.

Paddling deep into the forest, Jeff Wells, senior scientist with the Boreal Songbird Initiative, and I plan to survey for breeding birds and record bird choruses in the height of summer mating season at stops along the way. Even though an average of 30 million to 50 million birds fly south over the U.S.-Canada border every night during fall migration, scientists have few specifics about the way they spend their time on these breeding grounds. Wells will archive our data and these oral histories of the boreal wilds at Cornell University's Macauley Library of Natural Sounds, one of the world's largest such collections. In fact, they'll be the library's very first acoustic samples from this section of Ontario's Albany River.

Thankfully, the storm clouds clear nearly as quickly as they appeared, leaving us just enough time to throw up a tent in a knuckle of beaver-gnawed woods. The day has been a rough start, hurried and unsettled. Now common loons sound their haunting cries over the water. As I lie in my sleeping bag, I imagine millions of boreal birds, tucked into nests, unseen and unheard in the wilderness around me. They are gathering their strength, I suspect. They will need it, for here in the boreal, the breeding frenzy is on.

Sunrise comes early to the boreal dawn. I wake to tent walls glowing orange in the early light and humming with the sound of mosquitoes swarming against the thin fabric. My watch reads 4:20 a.m.

A half-hour later we clamber atop a beaver lodge a few hundred yards from camp. I slip on a set of stereo headphones hooked up to a digital field recorder, and the morning's spring chorus turns into a kaleidoscopic fusion of sound. A Wilson's warbler chatters from the woods. A ruby-crowned kinglet whistles a slurred opening trill. What I'm hearing is the auditory version of going from a black-and-white TV to an IMAX film. I hear a swamp sparrow as if the bird is clinging to my hat brim. The croak of a female goldeneye. The hammer-tap of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The trill and buzz of a northern waterthrush, an alder flycatcher, a blue-headed vireo, a winter wren. Suddenly a song comes into sharp auditory focus: the mechanical tst tst tst teepit teepit ti-ti-ti, of a Tennessee warbler, a munchkin with a jackhammer.

Beside me, Wells's grin says, "Gotcha!" He holds a large microphone that allows him to pinpoint the exact location of a calling bird, so the recorder slung around his neck can catch the cleanest sound possible.

After a five-minute recording session, Wells drops the microphone into his lap and scratches his mosquito-ravaged neck. "It's amazing to be able to document the acoustic environment of such a pristine place," he says. "It's so difficult to get in here that scientists have very little information about the birds in these forests." In years to come, he suggests, our recordings could be used to study changes in bird ranges or to tease apart how vocal variations differ across a species' range.

These recordings are doubly important because the southern boreal forest, most of it slated for logging, has a much higher diversity of birds and other wildlife than the northern boreal, which is now partially protected, and many species are specifically tied to these woodlands. Bay-breasted warblers, evening grosbeaks, and black-throated green warblers pour out of Canada early each autumn, and the bulk of their breeding range is in the southern boreal forest. "We can't just set aside the northern boreal and trash the rest," Wells says. "That's a recipe for disaster."

One of the ingredients that will help thwart disaster in the boreal forests is new information about boreal breeding birds being gleaned from National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data. Audubon scientists are using new statistical tools to analyze CBC counts in order to learn about the health of bird species that winter in the United States but breed so far north that they are largely absent from the roadside-oriented Breeding Bird Survey, the only other continent-wide bird population survey. All told, Audubon "citizen-scientists" have amassed five billion bird-sighting records through the CBC since 1900, but for decades the data have been underused. "These new tools are a huge advancement," says Daniel Nivens, a senior Audubon scientist. "We didn't have reliable continent-wide quantitative data on perhaps 100 boreal bird species, such as Harris's sparrows, rusty blackbirds, and common redpolls. Now we've put together a more complete picture of what's happening with some of these boreal breeding birds, and that will help us understand how they are responding to both changes in habitat and climate. It's exciting to think that it's all because of 50,000 birders who are passionate about counting birds."

A few hours later birdsong reveries seem a distant memory. Our first major portage is a monster. A narrow, muddy route that bypasses nasty rapids above Kawitos Lake, it is choked with blowdowns and barely passable. We bushwhack a route across a trio of beaver dams, but it peters out into alder-choked boulder fields. Hand over hand, pushing and shoving, Wells and I drag the loaded canoe over a half-mile of rocky channel until there is hardly any water at all.

Beyond a 20-foot-tall bulwark of boulders, we find Kawitos Lake and clear paddling through the last hours of daylight. Later that evening, we huddle under a tarp as rain dimples the lake. With a backpacker's folding spatula, I gingerly flip walleye fillets that sizzle and pop in a half-inch of oil. Wells perches on a log, tallying up the day's work. "Sixty-six species," he murmurs. "Impressive." And it's not just the variety of species that's remarkable but the density of so many of the bird populations. "Every place we stopped," he says, "we picked up a couple of Tennessee warblers. Do that from Alaska to Newfoundland, and you end up with millions of birds. And that's just one species."

For the next two days we paddle long miles beside lakeshore curtained with black spruce trees, their lower limbs draped with green mosses and gray lichens. The occasional beaver pond or meadow winks through the trees like light through a cracked door, but the woods are mostly a tangle of standing trees, fallen trunks, and crisscrossed boughs, darkened with shadow. In other places, massive lightning-strike fires have left behind skeletal trees and bare rock outcrops like the bones of long-vanished giants. I relish the wide-open views of Kawitos Lake, punctuated with tiny, rocky islets fringed with spruce trees. Common terns and mallards hunker down as we quietly drift by. Bonaparte's gulls cling to rocky shores. These are the only gulls that nest almost exclusively in trees, and an estimated 95 percent of the world's population breeds in the boreal forest. They wheel low over the water, mobbing baitfish, I can only guess, as the miles pass under the canoe. Wells and I fall into a pleasing, unspoken cadence--plant the paddle and pull, time and time again, inching across the boreal.

 

Somewhere overhead, a cartwheeling flock of white-winged crossbills courses above the tree canopy as I scramble for binoculars. Most of North America's white-winged crossbills breed in the Canadian boreal, using their signature bills to pry open cones and lap up as many as 3,000 conifer seeds in a day. Sighting one is a coup for any American birder.

Wells doesn't even flinch. He calmly jots down "WWCR"--the ornithologist's abbreviation for the species--and cocks his head to one side. The pencil moves again: "SWTH." A Swainson's thrush. Now a magnolia warbler. Ruby-crowned kinglet.

It is our last full day on the water, and we're partway through a circumnavigation of Triangle Lake. Wells wants a deeper portrait of the boreal's breeding bird communities than our stop-and-go sampling system has afforded. We've beached the canoe for recordings at three different spots, all within a few miles of one another.

This sampling site is deep in black spruce woods, where birds zip through the canopy, cling to aspens, and call from unseen perches. It's like a three-ring circus; I don't know where to watch. Within 60 seconds Wells has identified 13 species by sound. Breeding birds, he explains, function better if they are in a neighborhood with lots of other birds. "We are just beginning to understand the complex social dynamics," Wells whispers. "There's a lot of hanging out to see who the best singers are, a lot of scoping and checking out and decision making about who will make the best mate."

He's deeply worried because this vast landscape is being reordered before scientists fully grasp how breeding birds use it. "We're messing with the boreal forest without much knowledge of what we stand to lose," Wells says. "We can't predict the ripple effects these changes will have."

We take our last sound recording from the most scenic stop on the trip. From the top of a 50-foot-tall slab of granite, the Albany River shimmers like pewter, spreading east and west, its shores armored here and there with cliffs. On the far side of thousands of square miles of forest, the serrated horizon is edged with old-growth black spruce, snaggled and fanglike. Wells snugs down the headphones and slips into his familiar, trancelike state of auditory detective work.

Beside him, I simply stand and soak it all in. I hear the nasally toot of a red-breasted nuthatch, and a Swainson's thrush sing its rising, fluty chant. And then there's the unmistakable carol of the white-throated sparrow, whose whistled song brings a bit of the boreal to backyards across the eastern half of America--Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!

The birds are singing, breeding, feeding. Raising young and laying on the fat for the long flight south. For a full week I've been buffeted by the dichotomies of Canada's boreal forest, alternately awed by what is already lost and the possibility that yet remains in its untouched and unfragmented reaches. Looking out from this rocky aerie, the choices offered by the scene at my feet seem easy: Forget the 20 billion catalogs, the sales solicitations, the last-minute-shopping fliers. Instead think of the unfathomable bounty hidden in these trees--nests and eggs and barely fledged chicks. The true gifts from Canada's boreal forest are the ones that arrive on feathered wings.

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