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Protecting Old-Growth Forests: A Climate Ventures Conversation with Nicole Rycroft

Nikky Manfredi

Nikky Manfredi

Communications & Content Specialist

Nicole Rycroft has made it her life’s work to protect trees and forests. 

For our latest Climate Ventures Conversation, we sat down with Nicole, the Founder and Executive Director of Canopy, for a conversation about how Canopy works to protect the world’s forests by working with industry customers and suppliers to transform supply chains.  

Our conversation couldn’t have been more timely: as we spoke in late May, hundreds of land defenders were attracting international media attention for protecting an old-growth stand on Vancouver Island, B.C. We spoke with Nicole about her work, why we need to stop logging old-growth forests, and why the conservation movement must prioritize justice. We’ve got your highlights below and you can listen to the full conversation here: 

Getting to the Roots of the Problem 

We wasted no time in our conversation getting to the root and scale of the problem when it comes to Nicole’s work. As Nicole pointed out, 3.2 billion trees are disappearing into packaging and clothing every year. In fact, 800 year old trees are being made into pizza boxes. 

“Anybody who reads the newspaper, anybody who reads the scientific journal is probably tempted to reach for a bottle of wine” Nicole jokes dryly. 

Or chain themselves to a tree.

As of early June 2021, the stand on Vancouver Island for Fairy Creek and Walbran Valley has intensified, as hundreds have been arrested and thousands across the country have spoken out, and the government has responded in turn. Why the standoff? Only 2.7% of high-productivity old-growth remains in B.C. and despite small recent deferrals, the government continues to allow old-growth logging across the island and the province.

And given we’re in a climate emergency, Nicole highlighted how old-growth forests are also carbon sinks; older trees store vast amounts of carbon throughout their lifetime keeping it from entering the atmosphere. So “logging in high carbon value forests is akin to fossil fuel and tar sand extraction,” Nicole explains. 

“We don’t have the ability in our carbon-constrained world to continue logging old-growth forests. That needs to stop. Protecting forests is the fastest and most economical way for us to stabilize our planet…The scientific community is very clear: we need to protect (at least) 30-50% of the world’s forests by 2030. There should be protection for those forests that are still old-growth and standing and there needs to be significant restoration of those areas that have already been degraded.”

Photo by Jesse Winter/Narwhal
Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal
Transformation on a Global Scale: How Canopy Works 

Nicole founded the Vancouver-based environmental nonprofit Canopy in 1999 with an $1800 budget and the belief that “we could do things in a smarter way.” They’ve now evolved into an impactful organization with over twenty staff and an impressive list of campaign successes to their name. 

One of Canopy’s greatest successes (and one of Nicole’s favourite stories) is their work “greening” the Harry Potter series in 2007. Working with Raincoast Books and with the approval of J.K. Rowling herself, they developed the greenest book in publishing history to date. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was printed on ecopaper free of ancient or endangered forest fibre.  According to Nicole, this collaboration “triggered a broader revolution in the way that book publishing is done with the Canadian book industry spearheading that.” 

Since then, Canopy has broadened its scope to transform the fashion and packaging industries as well. The organization now works directly with brands and suppliers to shift unsustainable supply chains to more circular practices with a focus on protecting trees in critical, ancient and endangered ecosystems. 

While we environmentally-minded folks are often hyper-focused on plastic, did you know that three billion trees disappear into the packaging we get delivered to our doors everyday? Canopy’s Pack4Good campaign is working to reduce that number through smarter design: “One of the brand partners we work with redesigned the box they use between their warehouse and their store,” Nicole explained. “They changed the design and their systems so they could reuse that box seven to eight times. In doing so, they saved 85% of the resources and saved themselves 14 million dollars. Smart design can move us so far down the tracks.” 

An Ashoka Fellow and former elite athlete, Nicole is also the recipient of a Canadian Environment Award Gold Medal, the Meritorious Service Cross of Canada and the 2020 winner of the prestigious Climate Breakthrough Award. Impressive, right?  

“It takes tenacity.” Nicoleheadshot of Nicole Rycroft emphasized. “You have to be shameless. You have to be willing to pick up the phone and call and then call again and again. [You have to] recognize that just because it’s our priority doesn’t mean it’s the priority of the other person on the other side of the phone. Part of getting in the door is understanding the value proposition, priorities and realities of the other person on the line.” 

Nicole recently took to thephones to call up and convince over 100 prominent celebrities, including Margaret Atwood and Neil Young, to sign an open letter demanding an immediate stop to old-growth logging in BC. She said the response was “overwhelming” and her campaign is now making waves. 

Conservation Has to Advance Justice 

“What underscores conservation is that it has to be socially durable and socially just, otherwise it won’t last,” Nicole emphasized. “Decades ago, the approach to conservation was you stick a fence around an area and stick a sign in it, say it’s a path, and then that’s it.” Our conversation touched on this problematic history; it’s well-documented that many leading, early environmentalists were blatantly racist and exclusionary. 

Early conservation efforts often led to the removal of Indigenous people from their lands to create parks. For example, in Banff National Park Indigenous people were excluded from visiting the land and forbidden from practicing traditional stewardship, even though, as Nicole points out, “study after study shows that traditional [stewardship] consistently results in higher levels of conservation of those lands.”

Nicole was clear about where her field is going: “Conservation has to advance justice.” 

What’s more, according to Nicole, “[Conservation] has to be viable for communities that are going to continue to live there, whether it’s in Indonesia or Sierra Leone or here in Canada. It has to be a third door. It can’t just be that everything is 100% protected and we’re not utilizing what it has or we are just going to bulldoze it.” 

Nicole continues, “Here in Canada, governments need to be financially supporting First Nations so they have resources to be able to sit and participate at the table and contribute in really meaningful ways. I was encouraged that in the recent federal government budget, over 3 billion dollars was dedicated to conservation as part of protecting 30 percent of forests by 2030. A lot of that has to go to First Nations because it’s [often] going to be their land that’s going to be conserved.”

While the problem is vast, Nicole finds hope in unexpected places. “As devastating as covid has been and continues to be on so many levels, it’s shown the pace of change that can happen if needed. Oftentimes when there have been economic hardships historically, sustainability has been moved to the back-burner, and during covid, if anything, it has been moved further on the front-burner. Even though some of the dinosaur industries have fired back up in the immediate wake of COVID-19, I think it’s really clear that we are going to be transitioning.”

We’re taking a break for the summer from Climate Ventures Conversations but will be back with a stellar lineup of speakers in the fall. 

In the meantime, join us at our Earth Tech Pitch Night on June 30 to hear cleantech entrepreneurs share how their technologies are helping to build the low-carbon economy and a better future for all. 

Climate Ventures fast-tracks the success of early-stage entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders developing and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. We also collaborate with governments, large companies, investors and other partners to solve challenges and scale solutions to meet climate targets. Learn more at climateventures.org.

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