In this case, it really is hard to see the forest for the trees, all 72 million hectares of them. That’s the area covered by the massively hyped Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement announced May 17.

On the face of it, it’s a huge step forward in the way the forest industry operates. Among other things, the deal prevents all logging on 29 million hectares by the 21 big corporate members of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) in boreal forest habitats of the woodland caribou for three years while a strategy to protect the threatened herds is established.

In exchange, the big environmental groups that negotiated the deal – among them, Canopy, ForestEthics and Greenpeace – will drop their international boycott campaigns against the companies.

It’s hard to imagine a better public relations coup for either party. The corporations get to greenwash their image while the environmental groups gain huge credibility for successfully negotiating a deal to protect forests and their animal habitats. No superlative was spared in the media campaign to sell the deal that promises a “new era of joint leadership in the boreal forest.”

“The importance of this agreement cannot be overstated,” said Avrim Lazar, President and CEO of FPAC. “FPAC member companies and their ENGO counterparts have turned the old paradigm on its head.”

Much of the media lapped it up. A May 18 editorial in the country’s opinion leader, the Globe and Mail, set the pace. The agreement “is nothing less than historic,” the Globe enthused. “It will result in a real and internationally significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and it serves as a model of non-governmental co-operation.”

Perhaps. In the days following the unveiling of this historic, paradigm-flipping, model of cooperation, significant gaps have appeared between the soaring claims and the reality on the ground, where the trees are.

Some cynics have noticed that the land set aside for protection over the next three years are in the least accessible areas of the companies’ harvesting areas. Most of these parcels would not have seen logging activity over the next 36 months at any rate. That makes the sacrifice a rather light one for the forest companies, some of which candidly admit that the agreement will have no effect on the volume of timber they will continue to harvest.

The harshest criticism in Quebec has come from the group started by the musician Richard Desjardins, Action Boréale. Desjardins labelled the environmental organizations that participated in the secret negotiations to reach the deal as “ecological Wal-marts” that have catastrophically hamstrung efforts to gain true protection for the boreal forest. They’re selling their credibility to the forest companies for precious little in return, he says.

In Quebec, as elsewhere, Desjardins notes that an important stakeholder is not party to the agreement – the government that owns most of the 8.5 million hectares affected and which has ultimate authority over how it is administered.

Readers here may have noticed that there’s another important stakeholder that wasn’t at the table: First Nations. Much of the lands being bargained over across Canada are traditional Native territories.

As it happens, only a small portion of Cree territory is included in the agreement, a fact noted in a Grand Council press release May 21. Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose observed that this area, on either side of the Broadback River, is in a Forest Management Unit (FMU) that Quebec attributed to Abitibi-Bowater.

Abitibi-Bowater, which signed the deal, has no plans to harvest in this area, east of Lake Evans. But the Quebec government has nonetheless also awarded logging rights there to Domtar, which is not a member of the FPAC and is not bound by the deal. Domtar, of course, has no intention of abiding by its terms, and plans to build a 76-kilometre road through the heart of the caribou habitat in 2011 in order to access the resource.

The kicker to this story is that Domtar plans to send the wood harvested in this area to Abitibi-Bowater’s Comtois mill near Lebel-sur-Quévillon. “On paper, Abitibi-Bowater, through this new agreement, and Domtar, through its Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, appear as good corporate citizens and yet their actions in the forest tell a different story,” said Namagoose.

Despite this absurdity, the Grand Council may yet find the boreal forest agreement useful, as it presses Domtar and Abitibi-Bowater to live up to its terms in the Broadback River FMU. And other Native organizations, such as AFN Quebec, have endorsed its aims. President Ghislain Picard highlighted the fact that the companies essentially endorsed Native claims by signing it.

“It is rare that forest companies publicly recognize the rights of First Nations on our ancestral territories,” Picard said. “We hope that this commitment will be respected and be reflected in their day-to-day activities on the territory.”

Nonetheless, Picard felt compelled to add that both signatories will be under high surveillance. “Our often-justified apprehensions, as much toward certain environmental groups as toward the forest industry, will not melt away like the snow under the sun with this agreement,” he warned.