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Boreal Forest conservation negotiations end in failure after three years

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MONTREAL - Three years of negotiations between Resolute Forest Products and environmental groups aimed at protecting Canada's boreal forest have ended in failure, with talks breaking down over how much land to set aside for conservation.

Environmentalists accused Resolute of not living up to its promises to protect habitat for caribou while also ensuring the livelihoods of communities that depend on the forest industry.

"We think they're just taking care of the bottom line right now," said Janet Sumner of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

She said senior management have not given their negotiators a real mandate to conclude a workable agreement.

Resolute said it could not accept a proposal that it says would have threatened thousands of jobs in remote communities.

"The final asks of the environmental organizations that were brought to us last evening were so extreme, were so draconian they would have forced the closure of multiple mills, multiple projects throughout Quebec and Ontario," company spokesman Seth Kursman said Tuesday.

He said Resolute was disappointed that an agreement on a workable plan to balance conservation efforts with social and economic considerations could not be reached.

"What they were looking for was land withdrawal that far exceeded anything that we were willing to do because it was totally out of balance with the three guiding principles of sustainability," Kursman said.

Talks began in 2010 after seven environmental organizations and 19 forest companies agreed to find a way to protect threatened woodland caribou while still giving companies access to 72 million hectares of public forests.

The Forest Products Association of Canada has described the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement as the largest and most complex deal of its kind ever reached anywhere in the world.

The association said it regretted that environmental groups had suspended the talks with Resolute, but was pleased they remained committed to the overall agreement with the industry.

"Forest companies belonging to FPAC remain committed to the principles of the CBFA and want to continue the hard work necessary to protect the environment, including threatened species such as woodland caribou, while also protecting the forest products industry and the communities and jobs that depend on it," the association said.

Several environmental groups said the commitment to ongoing work with other forestry companies remained strong, despite the decision to suspend talks with Resolute.

Grounbreaking solutions for conservation have been forged under the CBFA with companies such as Tembec and Alberta Pacific Forest Industries and Millar Western Forest Products in northeastern Ontario and Albert respectively, Sumner said.

"I'm feeling quite positive about Alberta and a similar situation in Manitoba and Saskatchewan," she said in an interview.

"We seem to be laying down a foundation for a very good conversation that should have good outcomes and I'm feeling like we'll get there."

The groups said they have suspended work with Resolute until it can commit to scientifically defensible conservation plans that would give caribou a reasonable chance of survival.

"We believe that Resolute is not meeting its commitments to ensure caribou survive on the forests it manages. In our opinion, it has so far proven itself unwilling to strike a balance between its economic interests and the local survival of a nationally threatened species," said Todd Paglia of Forest Ethics.

Resolute (TSX:RFP) said the environmentalists' proposal would have killed several projects, including the reopening of a sawmill in Ignace and a project in Atikokan in collaboration with First Nation groups. It would have also "put the nails in the coffin" of its paper mill in Fort Francis, Ont., and closed facilities in Quebec.

Sumner disputed that its proposal would have threatened Resolute's plans.

"All of that is still on the table from our perspective," she said. "Please continue to bring jobs but bring jobs that are actually being managed sustainably."

Resolute made a series of proposals during intense final negotiations, including setting aside an additional 204,000 hectares of forest in northwestern Ontario for conservation.

Sumner said Resolute's proposal actually includes just 90,000 hectares of productive forests, the rest being rocks and lakes.

She said environmentalists proposed setting aside 350,000 hectares, the minimum amount needed to allow caribou to survive.

Resolute's proposal was on top of about two million hectares of Ontario forests that have already been protected over the last 15 years.

It also agreed to protect 12 per cent, or 692,000 hectares, of Quebec forest, focusing on the best habitats for caribou conservation.

The two sides last year crafted a joint recommendation to government about establishing a caribou conservation area covering 835,000 hectares in Northeastern Ontario.

Chief executive Richard Garneau said rural, northern and First Nations communities have paid "a heavy price from the economic and market challenges the industry has faced over the past decade."

He said the process did not involve "serious stakeholder consultations" and would have lacked "legitimacy."

Greenpeace Canada, which in March rescinded its accusations that Resolute secretly logged on protected forestry roads, has accused Resolute of making false sustainability claims.

"This is a company that deceived environmental organizations under the agreement and they are deceiving their customers with their sustainability claims," stated Richard Brooks, forest campaign co-ordinator.

Greenpeace and conservation coalition Canopy pulled out of talks saying there has been nothing to show for the work since 2010.

Greenpeace said what's needed are large protected areas buffered by conservation zones totalling 50 to 70 per cent of the land base.

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