The ecologically diverse region contains the largest blocks of intact forest and wetlands left on Earth and scientists have found 1 billion to 3 billion nesting birds from 300 species there. Its abundant wildlife and freshwater have sustained Aboriginal communities for millennia.
But the Canadian boreal is also rich in natural resources that are prized by a number of extractive industries. Hydropower, forestry, mining and oil and gas sectors are all active there, in an area of roughly 180 million acres, which is larger than the US state of Texas, so the issue remains how to balance conservation and economic development in the boreal. A report this week by an international panel of scholars at the annual meeting of the International Congress for Conservation Biology, "Conserving the World's Last Great Forest Is Possible", outlines a way forward.
They recommend some specific things and then some vague, though obvious, ones, and then some social justice ones outside the realm of science:
Credit: Pew Charitable Trusts
- At least 50 percent of the boreal forest region should be permanently protected from further development to maintain current ecological processes and wildlife species.
- Industrial activities should be carried out with the lowest possible impact on biodiversity and the ecosystem.
- Land-use planning should precede decisions regarding industrial development in the boreal and must be led by local communities. Particular attention must be paid to the views and concerns of Aboriginal communities in the region.
Dr. Jeff Wells, report co-author and science adviser to Pew's international boreal conservation campaign said, "Ensuring that the identification and management of these areas is led by Aboriginal communities must be a priority."
The panel also found a number of immediate opportunities where decision-makers could use current land-use planning initiatives and discussions to make significant conservation gains in Canada's boreal forest. Suggestions include:
- Explore additional protections for boreal woodland caribou habitat. In 2012, the Forest Products Association of Canada deferred 283,000 square kilometers (70 million acres) within the boreal woodland caribou range from logging operations as part of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. These areas should be considered for long-term protection status.
- Start boreal land-use planning in Ontario and Quebec. Provincial governments in recent years pledged to protect 50 percent of their northern regions. Aboriginal-led land-use planning should commence immediately to identify areas of 10,000 to 20,000 square kilometers (2.5 million to 4.9 million acres) that are ecologically most important. Areas excluded from ongoing forestry operations under the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement should be given highest priority for consideration as protected areas.
Accept new proposed protected areas in Quebec. Areas identified by the Cree between James Bay and Lac Mistassini, including the Broadback Valley region, should be accepted for protected areas designation. The Montagnes Blanches region within the Nitassinan of Mashteuiatsh and Pessamit also should be a priority for protection of its large intact forest blocks.
"Canada's boreal forest region is one of the world's last great intact and pristine eco-regions," said Steve Kallick, director of Pew's global wilderness programs. "Fortunately, many leaders in government, Aboriginal communities, and industry are implementing visionary ideas to balance conservation and development. We feel very hopeful that Canada's boreal forest region will remain one of the world's great ecological treasures."