The tree whisperer

Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

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.” 

Under his leadership, the industry made a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2015 and, to date, has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 73 per cent compared to 1990 levels. While some of that improvement resulted from industry downsizing, companies invested heavily in productivity improvements and a shift to biofuels and biomass for power. The policy was driven not only by environmental goals but, perhaps more importantly, by the recognition that the industry’s competitiveness would be enhanced by greater energy efficiency and more complete use of the wood fibre.

The boreal forest agreement represented a major opportunity for the industry to burnish its green credentials while reducing the ongoing battles it faced with environmentalists and first nations in accessing logging rights. Lazar’s signature accomplishment was in herding cats – maintaining the commitment of company executives and environmental leaders, each of whom had his or her own strongly held perspective.

“The real challenge from Avrim was to persuade his own constituency that this was not just a PR greenwashing exercise,” says Monte Hummel, a veteran environmentalist and now chairman of the CBFA implementing body. “They were going to have to do it and walk the talk.”

Brad Thorlakson, chief executive at Vernon, B.C.-based Tolko Industries, agreed that Lazar excelled in his effort at corralling “type A” company executives. Among his victories was the Harper government’s $1-billion Pulp and Paper Green Transformation Fund, which supports the industry’s effort to maximize the use of wood “waste.” One of Lazar’s strengths, Thorlakson said, is in being willing to admit what he does not know, listen to people with more expertise, and move debate forward. “Avrim has the ability to synthesize all the key issues and focus the discussion. It’s not an easy job to lead these CEOs.”

That leadership style was evident at the forest products association, where Lazar imbued the staff with a sense of purpose and cohesion, says Andrew Casey, a former FPAC staffer who now leads BIOTECanada.

“I’ve never seen a creature like Avrim – he gave me a lot of rope and allowed me to try and sometimes to fail,” Casey said. “He gave me enormous opportunity for growth, both professionally and personally.” Lazar introduced yoga classes in the office twice a week to reduce stress and improve the well-being of the staff. And he insisted his employees follow a reasonable work-life balance, Casey said. “He saw no need for anybody to be there 10 hours a day.”

With the boreal agreement now two years old, some environmental groups have expressed impatience that only one local plan has been completed. Lazar acknowledged the negotiators may have been overly optimistic in setting deadlines to complete an enormously complicated agreement that required agreement from local first nations, municipalities and provincial governments. But the work is ongoing and, so long as both sides respect the spirit of the accord, the ground-breaking partnership appears solid. Leaders from other industries – notably oil sands – have consulted Lazar on how to co-operate with their critics.

Berman, the ForestEthics co-founder, is skeptical about the oil sands efforts. While the industry could improve its record, she notes the goal of environmentalist activists is to aggressively move the economy off oil. But while the boreal agreement is not directly transferable, said Lazar, some of its key lessons are. “Those who are the biggest part of the problem are essential to its solution,” he said. “It’s about recognizing shared interests. When you accept that making environmental progress is inescapable, it is time to make environmentalists your allies.”

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