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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

West Fraser and ForestEthics Square off on Caribou Habitat

The focus on the boreal forest is heating up again. This time it is a focus around the habitat of the Woodland Caribou and certain allegations being made by ForestEthics, an environmental NGO on YouTube. The allegations claim negative impacts on the Woodland Caribou due to forestry practices of West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. in Alberta and B.C.

I have done some policy research work for the Alberta forest industry in 2005 focused on what the public expectations were around that industry sustaining and enhancing its social license to operate in the public forested lands. The second most important value driver amongst Albertans around what they expected of industry was the effective protection of wild life habitat.

The topic is timely and “hot.” ForestEthics and West Fraser obviously both know this is a very critical issue and not just grist for PR purposes. That said the medium is as interesting to me as is the message. The use of the Internet by ForestEthics is a significant move towards reaching a new and receptive audience for their message. MSM is not very much trusted any more and if this video were on broadcast television it would be seen as a “commercial” even if it came from an ENGO. On the Internet, it has the chance of being more “believable” and better received by a more influential audience, if you do it correctly.

There is a larger collection of issue oriented activists, well informed, knowledgeable and engaged “influentials” in the “netizens” group that tend to haunt the web. Industry has not caught on to this reality as yet and they ignore it at their peril.

Equally as interesting is the counter-activist approach being taken by West Fraser in response to the allegations. Usually such incidences have caused corporations to generate expensive full page newspaper ads with lots of feel good PR verbiage that come across as mostly self serving and staged. West Fraser has focused it messages on directly challenging the facts and representations in the ForestEthics YouTube video. This is a responds to the challenge and an invitation for the public to engage and learn more about the issues and the implications but to do so in a way that goes to testing credibility and authenticity of the messengers as much as the message.

As George Lakoff of the Rockridge Institute says, (and I paraphrase), “The facts while interesting, are almost totally irrelevant. It is how you frame the issues and activate values that make the difference in public opinion.”

There are clear facts about the plight of the Woodland Caribou and the species is undoubtedly under serious duress. What caused this and what is being done about it are more facts based. Who really “cares about the Woodland Caribou” is the framing context so far from what I have read. What is being done about the issues, both “good” and “bad,” is the values activation effort. That is what is really going on here between ForestEthics and West Fraser.

I applaud both sides for their initiativesand efforts on the issues. Now the public has to make up its mind. Our research involved over 3000 Albertans in the fall of 2005 and we know the issue of wildlife habitat is important to the public. It demands attention and resolution.

The process question about how we see moving forward on the issue is one that also interests me and it is also very important. Is it to be resolved in the old fashioned way by who is the most effective at didactics in a pure adversarial contest of key messaging and media positioning?

Or is it going to be about a more meaningful and inclusive dialogue that is presented and “sponsored” by authoritative, authentic people who are focused on finding the collective wisdom to design effective sustainable solutions? I am pulling for the latter and fully expect if that is what happens here the caribou, our environment and even our society will all be better for it.

In the meantime I have had the pleasure to meet some of the key individuals in ForestEthics and in West Fraser and know them to be quality and capable individuals. Time will tell how wise they (and we citizens are) can actually be about all of this and the many other critical environment issues we now face.

I will be following this story line as it evolves with great interest and will do my best keep you informed about its progress.