From: Issue 40
The Tree Whisperer
He brokered a ground-breaking forest protection agreement admired the world over. We look at how Avrim Lazar got it done.
ForestEthics co-founder Tzeporah Berman was wary as she sat down with Avrim Lazar at an Italian restaurant on Vancouver’s Robson Street in 2007 to discuss sustainable forestry practices. Berman was a leader in the B.C. environmental movement and Lazar was president of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC). Like many in the industry, he talked a good game about sustainability, but Berman hadn’t seen much progress in the forest. The two had never met, but had debated on radio and she found him to be clever and well-spoken – and therefore even more dangerous as an adversary than the typical forestry executive.
As they chatted, Berman quickly realized that Lazar was not just spouting green lines when he spoke about environmentalism. He ordered a vegan meal and passionately extolled the benefits of a meatless, dairy-less diet. He talked about the synagogue he attended in Ottawa, a progressive group with a strong commitment to social justice issues. It struck her that both his meal and his synagogue were more politically correct than hers, Berman now recalls with a laugh. And his commitment to a new approach to harvesting logs appeared equally progressive. “I knew him to be extremely smart and extremely well-spoken but I didn’t expect him to be so heartfelt,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t get the impression he was gaming me or that it was lip service, but that there was genuine concern and genuine commitment.”
The pair emerged from that dinner to lead an effort that resulted in the 2010 Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), a ground-breaking deal between 22 companies and nine environmental groups to set new standards for forestry practices and protection of species like woodland caribou.
Lazar is widely credited with shepherding the foot-dragging industry and skeptical environmental groups to a mutually acceptable conclusion. Under the agreement, companies committed to adhere to sustainability guidelines while individual forest management plans are put in place for a score of regions. While those plans are negotiated, the industry agreed to suspend logging on 29 million hectares of caribou habitat. This past June, companies and environmental groups concluded a logging plan – negotiated with local municipalities and first nations – for the Abitibi River watershed in Ontario.
The timing was fortuitous. Earlier this spring, Lazar retired after 10 years at the helm of the forestry association. In June, he received Corporate Knights’ award of distinction for “his courage, vision and relentless bridge-building to make Canada a global leader in sustainable forestry.”
Lazar arrived at FPAC with an eclectic background that only tangentially touched on the forest industry. He had a successful career in the federal public service, serving in senior roles in such diverse departments as agriculture, justice, human resources development and environment, where he did work on climate change and habitat protection. He held a doctorate in education and, before moving to Ottawa, had taught high school in Vancouver and Zambia. He assumed the chief executive position at FPAC on the condition that the association would not be just a lobbying group, but a standard setter in which membership required certification and adherence to certain core principles of environmental stewardship. Lazar encountered some resistance at first, but company chief executives wanted the association to have credibility. Rather than chasing companies away, the higher standards actually attracted new industry members.
In fact, Lazar found the immediacy of the private sector a refreshing change from the sclerotic government, where every decision is subject to political calculation and bureaucratic second-guessing. Debates around the table of forestry CEOs were frank and at times heated. But results were valued more than process. “In government, posturing often competed with clear mindedness,” he said in an interview. “In the private sector, the frankness could be brutal but it allowed for practical solutions.”