Dissecting forestry industry’s deceptive PR propaganda campaign

The Forest Products Association of Canada has been filling social media with its ‘Forestry For The Future’ push poll – users beware.
A screenshot from a presentation shows a graphic representation of a mauve or purplish mountain landscape with the dark pointed tops of what look like spruce or fir trees in the foreground, under a blue sky. In the upper right corner in white text are the words "Forestry For The Future" beside a stylized white skeletal tree logo, and in the bottom left, in green text the same words, over white text saying, Telling Our Story.

This article was originally published by the Halifax Examiner, but because Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram are blocking / censoring media articles in Canada, alas, the Halifax Examiner is no longer able to share its articles on these (anti-)social media platforms. Thus, if my articles are to be shared on Meta platforms, I have to post them from my own website, as I am this commentary from March 12, 2024. 

It’s been nearly nine months since Mark Zuckerberg’s social media megalith Meta began blocking all news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada – a premature and bullying reaction to the new Online News Act, which hadn’t even come into effect at that point.

Because of Meta’s boycott of all things news, I decided to (mostly) boycott all things Meta. Since last summer, I’ve avoided posting or commenting on Facebook or Instagram. However, I do still lurk to see what is happening out there in Meta-land. For the most part, it’s predictably and depressingly anti-social, sowing division and spreading disinformation.

But there are also important social media accounts run by concerned and investigative citizens keeping tabs on the environment, our forests, and how well our governments are protecting them, and tackling the climate crisis.

So I do occasionally check my feeds, now bereft of fact-checked media articles.

Alas, there’s no shortage of propaganda. My social media feed is riddled with infuriating ads and campaigns peddling all manner of deceitful bunkum, trying to greenwash the fossil fuel sector and other extractive industries, claiming they are working to solve the climate crisis, when many are exacerbating it.

For the past few weeks, the number two item on my feed every time I’ve checked has been a sponsored post from something called “Forestry For The Future.” After weeks of trying to just ignore them, I finally decided it was time to take a look at what is behind these ads.

Screenshot of a sponsored post on Facebook from the Forestry For The Future campaign, inviting social media users to "Take the survey" over the question "What role should our forests play in our collective fight against climate change?" and a green tab to the right saying "Take survey". Underneath the post, screenshot from March 9, 2024, is says it has 5.7K comments and 822 shares. At the top it says it is sponsored, "paid for by Forest Products Association of Canada"

Forestry For The Future-sponsored Facebook post, screenshot March 9, 2024, when it had 5.7K comments and 822 shares.

Media shilling for the forest industry

Forestry For The Future is the brainchild of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC). It’s a sophisticated, glitzy and no doubt very expensive public relations (PR) campaign apparently intended to convince Canadians that the forest industry is our forests’ and caring citizens’ trustworthy friend, and a force for good in tackling the climate crisis.

The campaign boasts its own podcast called – I kid you not – “Canadian Forestry Can Save The World,” a documentary, and advocacy efforts to get its messages into the media, and out into the public sphere.

In a presentation to the Maritime Lumber Bureau in June 2023 FPAC president and CEO Derek Nighbor offered some insights into the campaign, what it would entail, and how it planned to get the industry messaging out “to saturate target audiences and increase public opinion of the sector” and “to create a more amenable environment to advance the sector’s policy priorities.”

A screenshot from a June 2023 FPAC presentation, with the left half showing a stylized graphic image of a blue sky, purple mountains and what looks like conifer forest sihouetted in the foreground, over which white text reads "Forestry For The Future Program & Tactics." On the right side of the slide, a list of "key campaign activities" under the blurb: "Persuasion and opinion change are not something that happen overnight. Retention of information requires multi-platform saturation, memorable executions, and consistency of message to see the underlying facts."

Page 25 of the June 2023 presentation by FPAC president and CEO Derek Nighbor, showing “key campaign activities.” (Credit: Forest Products Association of Canada)

As for getting its messages heard inside the corridors of power in Ottawa, FPAC has nine active lobbyists registered to advocate on its behalf with federal politicians in the capital. This is in addition to the many lobbyists engaged by its individual members.

The Forestry For The Future website boasts several PR pieces disguised as journalistic articles that prominent media have published as part of the campaign.

‘Propaganda’ pieces, ‘not journalism’

Last year when the Forestry For The Future articles started showing up, Tim Bousquet called foul in the Halifax Examiner. He noted that Maclean’s Magazine was shamelessly and “unapologetically” shilling for the extractive forestry industry. Wrote Bousquet:

For the record, Forestry For The Future is a creation of the Forest Products Association of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest extractive forestry corporations, including Paper Excellence, which is the subject of the Deforestation Inc series produced by the Halifax Examiner in association with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The propaganda series so far includes four pieces, published in Maclean’s, Toronto Life, Chatelaine (English), and Châtelaine (French). The pieces are not journalism. There is no fact-checking, no contrary view from industry critics.

The Maclean’s Twitter account unabashedly tweets “Read our collection of stories, told in partnership with @ForestryFTF, on the critical role that Canadian forestry is playing on the world stage to combat climate change,” uncritically asserting that the forest industry is combatting, rather than accelerating, climate change.

Since then, Meta’s not-very-smart algorithms decided to target some of us who report for the Examiner with the Forestry For The Future ads.

Hence this commentary.

Bombarded with propaganda

The Forestry For The Future posts on Instagram and Facebook vary.

Screenshot of a sponsored Facebook post that says it was "Paid for by Forest Products Association of Canada" with text at the top that says "Forestry For The Future" with a small white skeletal tree logo beside it, and underneath, on a black background, large letters that seem to be carved out of sunset over a forest, the words "EMAIL YOUR MP." Under that, in more white text, the sentence, "Canada needs proactive solutions to frequent & severe wildfires" and on the bottom right, a green tab reading "Take action." Underneath the post, screenshot on March 9, 2024, it says there are 4.1K comments and 1.1K shares.

Sponsored Facebook Forestry For The Future post, screenshot on March 9, 2024, with 4.1K comments and 1.1K shares.

One urges us to email our MP, stating, “Canada needs proactive solutions to frequent and severe wildfires.” A “Take Action” tab leads to an “advocacy” page that asks, “Can forestry reduce wildfire risk?” That question is then answered with a vague blurb on how it (supposedly) can:

Sustainable forest management can proactively increase natural resilience through active monitoring and adjusting harvesting schedules to favour trees more susceptible to wildfire … To protect our communities’ safety, reduce emissions from fires, and keep our forests healthy, we need government to recognize the role active forest management can play in reducing wildfire risk.

Screenshot of a sponsored post on Instagram, with text saying "Paid for by Forest Products Association of Canada" and in white text, the words "Forestry for the Future" beside a skeletal tree-shaped white logo. On what looks like a stylized graphic with dark treetops silhouetted in the front, another row of them under an orange glow in the middle and then a greenish blue misty mountainscape in the distance, are the words in large white text, "Take action." Underneath that, in white text, the statement "We can help mitigate wildfire risk through responsible forestry." On the lower right is a green tab that says, "Email your MP."

Sponsored Instagram post urging users to “take action” and email their MP, on behalf of Forestry For The Future, a PR campaign paid for by the Forest Products Association of Canada.

There’s a lot of coded language in there, and there’s an awful lot missing.

It’s true that recent wildfires have been catastrophic, and that forests are crucial in combating climate change, the best carbon capture and storage systems imaginable. Nova Scotia forestry ecosystem services specialist Dale Prest once described trees to me as “solar-powered carbon vacuums.”

But managing intact forests to sequester carbon has hardly been what the forestry industry has been up to in Canada’s woodlands over the years.

The Forestry For The Future website and social media posts make no mention of clearcutting of natural forests – including complex old growth forests – that has been the industry norm. No word either about the emissions released by clearcutting. Nothing about what is lost when a complex and healthy forest is removed, and the area is replanted with a single species of tree to produce monoculture plantations, about which renowned forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has published widely and written an entire book.

Nor does Forestry For The Future hint that the forestry industry’s version of “sustainable forest management” often involves the use of herbicides containing glyphosate – deemed a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The glyphosate-based herbicides are sprayed on softwood plantations and on naturally regenerating woodlands to eliminate competition from broad-leafed plants, eliminating biodiversity even as the planet is facing “biodiversity breakdown.”

Related: It’s spraying time again in Nova Scotia, and that makes one cancer patient in the province “incredibly angry”

A green and white sign nailed to a tree trunk with the words "Forest Herbicide Project Treatment with the registered Herbicide, and then in a small white box, the word in black marker, "TIMBERLINE" to commence on or after Sept 1, 2020, and a phone number also in black marker for Century Forestry Consultants.

Century Forestry Consultants notification sign for the spraying of “Timberline,” a glyphosate herbicide. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

The even-age, monoculture tree plantations favoured by the forestry industry are particularly susceptible to pests and to fire.

Industrial logging the problem, not a solution

A 2023 analysis by Barry Saxifrage for the National Observer showed 2001 was a “tipping point” for Canada’s managed forests and forestry, and since then, emissions have been skyrocketing. According to Saxifrage:

…we’ve so weakened our forest – through decades of business-as-usual industrial logging and fossil-fuelled climate shifts – that it has switched to haemorrhaging CO2 [carbon dioxide] instead of absorbing it.

About 75% of all Canada’s forests fall within the boreal zone. A recent peer-reviewed study of boreal management in just two provinces found that, “Major changes are needed in boreal forest management in Ontario and Quebec for it to be ecologically sustainable, including a greater emphasis on protection and restoration for older forests, and to lower risks for caribou population.” The study pointed out that “clearcutting is the dominant silvicultural system in use.”

In British Columbia, which once boasted many kinds of forests and biodiverse ecosystems, with spectacular tree giants in vast old growth forests, the situation is the same. In 2021, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyzed logging data in some parts of the province. It quotes a union rep who likens the ongoing logging to “strip mining” that will spare “no forest or community.”

A peer-reviewed 2020 review article on the Wabanaki Acadian forests in eastern Canada and New England found this biodiverse mixed forest system was becoming “borealized,” with fewer original species and more boreal forest composition. The authors attributed this change in large part to forestry practices such as industrial clearcutting and plantations of boreal conifers.

Related: The Borealization of Acadia: Due to climate change, warm weather-friendly trees should be dominating our forests; instead, cold-weather species are taking over. We now understand why — thanks to a phone call from the Irving company to lean on a professor’s dean

In other words Canada’s forestry industry has a lot to answer for.

Nor should it be presenting itself as a climate champion.

Forestry activities a source of emissions

A January 2024 peer-reviewed study found that forest-related emissions are being under-reported in Canada’s national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories, and that “between 2005 and 2021 forestry in Canada represented a net source of carbon,” and not – as reported – a carbon sink.

The researchers found that “forestry activities are a relatively large source of GHG emissions (roughly equivalent to emissions from the energy sector).” They write:

If the forestry sector is recognized as a GHG emitter, policies and management approaches could more readily shift to include, for example, strategies such as longer harvest rotations, silvicultural methods that maintain more on-site biomass after harvests, reductions in harvest levels, and a decrease in the production of short-lived forest products.

Regulations depicted as ‘regulatory barriers’  

But none of this contrary and tedious detail makes it into the tall tale Forestry For The Future is telling in its ads and social media posts that boast about “sustainable forestry” in Canada.

Based on the scant and spun information the Forestry For The Future post offers, social media users are asked to “send a letter to your Member of Parliament today to show your support for forest-based solutions to Canada’s climate challenges.”

The form letter is a masterpiece of deception, but there are hints of what it really aims to accomplish. The “active forest management” it prescribes includes adjusting “harvesting schedules to favour older, insect-damaged, high risk stands.” [emphasis added]

Leaked data in British Columbia show that the provincial government, apparently suffering from “a deeply entrenched timber bias,” has been ignoring its own science panel proscribing logging in old growth stands, and putting these precious forests on the chopping block.

There are several other telling phrases in the Forestry For The Future letter, which might be easy to miss in its wordy pulp. In a healthy democracy, government regulations on forest management are sound policies put in place – at least in theory – to keep the forestry industry in check. The form letter, however, refers to them not as regulations, but as “regulatory barriers” that it wants government to remove or amend.

A honey trap

The ploy is slick, designed to dupe busy, well-meaning people who are deeply concerned about the climate crisis, the state of our forests, and wildfires, and lure them into an FPAC honey trap, convince them to send off the form letter – written by the PR people behind Forestry For The Future – to their MP.

Well done, FPAC.

What a brilliant sleight of hand, getting your would-be critics to go against their own interests, and lend their voices instead to your government advocacy, and help you promote the interests of the largest forest industry players in Canada – pulp and paper and logging companies.

Here is the comment under one of the Forestry For The Future ads on Facebook, from someone clearly taken in by the post urging users to take action:

Done and shared! Thank you for prioritizing the importance of public input. It’s an unfortunate reality, that doing ‘the right thing’ for our forests requires public voting pressure to focus the government’s fiscal priority lens. Without trees, there is no life on earth. The older the tree, the more carbon stored, oxygen produced, resource for animals and insects, protection and foundation for the life of all other species…

The survey that corrects ‘wrong’ answers

Another version of the Forestry For The Future social media posts asks the question, “How can Canadian forestry support a more sustainable future?” and invites us to “take the survey,” which it says takes three minutes.

So I did. At least I started to.

The survey begins with an invitation for survey-takers to share their emails “so we can share the results of the survey and make sure you’re the first to hear about new opportunities to support Canada’s net-zero future.”

Screenshot of the front page of the Forestry For The Future online survey, with the text "How can Canadian forestry support a more sustainable future? Take our survey to share your thoughts on how forestry can support climate action and a net-zero future" over a green tab, saying "Start".

Cover page of the Forestry For The Future online “survey”.

The very first question asks us how familiar we are with “sustainable forestry practices” in Canada, without defining what they mean by that.

Just two pages into the survey and we’ve already been confronted with two of the most abused greenwashing terms floating around corporate campaigns, board rooms and the internet these days: “net-zero” and “sustainable.”

Next, we are asked if we have a positive or negative opinion of forestry practices in Canada, and then whether our opinion of the “sector” – whatever that is – is “getting better, worse, or hasn’t really changed.” After that, we are asked if we think Canada is a “world leader” or “about average” or “below average” when it comes to “sustainably managing our forests.”

Anyone guilty of the thoughtcrime of not choosing “world leader” gets a helpful correction on the very next page, which offers a 107-word, FPAC-think lesson that begins like this:

Did You Know: Canada is actually recognized as a global leader in sustainable management of our forests.

And, we are reassured, Canadian foresters operating on public land “must submit a comprehensive 150 to 200 year forest management plan for approval by provincial governments before a single tree is harvested.”

Aerial view of clearcuts with harvester machine tracks still visible on the almost bare ground on or around Northern Pulp land near Moose River showing lakes and a small stream and one large clearcut with a small clumps of trees left in as what is called a "wildlife" clump

Aerial view of clearcutting near the Moose River gold mine, which sits on some Northern Pulp land, which Nova Scotia loaned Northern Pulp $75 million to buy in 2010. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

After that, I confess I decided not to provide any more answers.

But I did have a look at the two last questions to see if they offered any room for comments or answers that weren’t limited to prescribed responses designed to make FPAC members feel – and look – good.

They didn’t.

The devil is in the meaning of ‘sustainable’

The next-to-last question asked: “When thinking about what matters most to you, how would you rank the following priorities for Canada’s forest sector?”

The first possible response offered is, “Sustainably manage our forests.”

Well, of course, who wouldn’t want that?

The trick, of course, is that FPAC members, the powerful logging and pulp interests that shape forestry practices in Canada, are unlikely to interpret “sustainably manage” the same way, for example, as would a forest ecologist, ecosystems biologist, climatologist, or anyone at all whose profits don’t depend on flattening huge swathes of forest.

It’s the same with the last question: “To what extent do you think forestry can support a net-zero carbon future and our collective fight against climate change?”

The first possible answer listed? “Sustainable Forestry is critical in our climate change fight.”

Again, what thinking person wouldn’t agree that this is a correct response? And again the elephant-size question in the room: What do Canada’s powerful forestry industry players consider “sustainable forestry?”

I emailed FPAC with several questions, including about the contents of the survey, what they intend to do with the results, and how much the Forestry For The Future campaign is costing.

To date, I’ve had no response.

‘This survey is BS’

I’m far from being the only person tired of the Forestry For The Future ads, and bothered by the campaign and survey.

Among those commenting on the posts are prominent forest and environmental defenders in Nova Scotia, including Nina Newington, Rob Bright and Bev Wigney.

A smiling woman with glasses and short grey curly hair, wearing a dark green vest and khahi-coloured shirt, holds a wooden post on the white hand-painted sign reading "March for the Birds, STOP CHOP, Corbett-Dalhousie Lake Forest" against the backdrop of a yellow shingled house.

Nina Newington. (Credit: Bev Wigney)

Here is a sample of what they commented on Facebook:

Nina Newington: There is no mention of protecting biodiversity in this survey. I smell a rat. An industrial forestry greenwashing business as usual rat. Old forests store more carbon AND protect more biodiversity. Protect old forests first and foremost. We need living old forests, not more clearcuts … This survey is BS, designed by industrial forestry to make it appear that people consent to them “managing” our forests for climate change. They have done enough damage already. The answer is no way.

Rob Bright: Industrial forestry propaganda and antiscience, greenwashing. It’s funny what misinformation industrial forestry tries to sell the public in order to create the illusion that they have social licence to continue their destructive practices. Things like, “younger trees store more carbon than older mature trees, so we should cut down the older trees and plant saplings,” (when actually it takes decades and perhaps a century for a new forest to start storing carbon, and replanted forests actually emit more carbon from the soil for decades before they started recapturing it). Or, “Protected areas are wildfire hazards and promote climate change so they should be managed by industrial forestry and not government departments,” (when in fact industrial forestry practices like clear cutting and spraying herbicides are a much higher risk factor for wildfires.) Or, “We have more forests now than we did 50 years ago because industry plants so many trees” (although they don’t tell us those planted “forests” are actually tree farms and plantations that cannot support the biodiversity a real forest supports). Or, “Forestry in Canada is carbon neutral, or actually capture and store more carbon than we emit” (when in reality industrial forestry is actually a carbon emitter). This list of industrial propaganda and antiscience greenwashing could go on and on…

Bev Wigney: I saw nothing in this survey about protecting critical habitat for biodiversity. All you seem to care about is producing wood products. That’s not even half of what is so important about forests, but YOU want to make it the only thing that matters about the forests. Furthermore, this is a very disingenuous survey. The “choices” are not true choices at all. You are trying to herd the public into “agreeing” that the forest industry is best suited to dealing with climate change, preventing forest fires, and so on. On several questions, it was a case of picking “the least of the worst.” That’s not how these surveys should work, but ALL of these industry-based surveys tend to be the same – designed to not give a true picture of what the public wants. To put it bluntly, what you are trying to do is to “manufacture consent.”

Against a backdrop of weathered wooden vertical shingles, a woman with long dark hair, smiles, while propping up a sign in front of her black shirt, the top of which reads "There is NO PLANET B" in pink letters on a white background, and below that, a circular planet earth showing continents in green, the oceans in blue and a white polar cap.

Bev Wigney. (Credit: Geoff Butler)

‘A harbinger of things to come’

The Forestry For The Future campaign also worries Julee Boan, Canada project partnership manager with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Boan, who has a PhD in forest sciences, tells the Examiner she sees this kind of industry campaign – with the media publishing PR stories that are paid advertising but presented as news, and a push poll masquerading as a serious survey – as a harbinger of things to come.

A woman with longish blonde hair and dark-framed glasses, smiles at the camera. She is wearing a long-sleeved shirt with light and dark pink stripes, underneath a puffy dark grey winter vest with a fake-fur hood, which she is not wearing.

Julee Boan. (Credit: Laura Paxton)

Boan notes that FPAC is an industry lobby group with members from Canada, the U.S. and India. “It exists to advance the financial interests of its members by influencing forest policies and legislation across Canada,” she writes in an email. Boan continues:

I have respect for many people working in the sector, but a forestry technician learning to run a simplified habitat model is not equal to a wildlife biologist who has spent a lifetime studying a species. The ability to map sites deemed sensitive by an Indigenous community is not the same as understanding the reciprocity and responsibility teachings of an Elder. There is a power hierarchy, and these multinational corporations are most certainly at the top. Instead of relinquishing power, this industry just keeps trying to convince Canadians that it knows best, and any ecologists, biologists, economists, or other knowledge-holders who think differently are misinformed or simply anti-logging.

And, Boan adds, “This campaign conflates the benefits of forests broadly across Canada with forestry. It distills complex problems across Canada, such as housing shortages, wildfires, and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples to one solution – more logging. Any substantive changes are not considered.”

“My concern is also that industry representatives have less incentive to speak to journalists covering news stories about controversial issues,” Boan says. “Why bother engaging in a debate about the climate impacts of shipping wood pellets overseas to burn in large-scale electricity plants, when, with enough money, an otherwise reputable news outlet will post an advertorial for you where you have 100% control of how your perspective is portrayed?”

Finally, Boan observes that the Forestry For The Future posts on Facebook and Instagram are part of the “increasing glut of advertising disguised as news” on Meta platforms, “designed not even to sell products but to recruit more believers to a specific worldview.”

And that, Boan says, “is unsettling.”

Ironically, this Halifax Examiner commentary on the Forestry For The Future campaign that has been filling social media feeds will be blocked by those same Meta platforms.


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