The Local Climate: Forest for the Trees

Featured Online First The Local Climate

The Boreal covers something like 60 per cent of Canada’s landmass, dominated by spruce, aspen, larch and pine, among others. It stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland, and houses the majority of the species which define Canadian wilderness, such as bear, moose, wolf and caribou. Sometimes called the Songbird Nursery of North America, it’s where 1-3 billion migratory birds build their nests each and every year. What’s more, it’s the single largest intact forest on the planet, superseding the Amazon and Congo both.

What’s more, the Boreal holds beneath it a sum of sequestered carbon equivalent to 20 per cent of what’s already in the atmosphere, and is sequestering more all the time, soaking up the culprits of climate change and locking them away in ancient soils. This is a privilege enjoyed only by old, undisturbed ecosystems, swallowing carbon and spitting our natural resources at an exceptional pace, earned after millennia of dedicated growth.

Even here in the Maritimes, our Acadian Forests represent a transition zone between southern and northern biomes, one which the Boreal to our north contributes heavily. Even pure Boreal can be found here, especially among higher latitudes as in the Cape Breton Highlands.

In short, the Boreal is a colossal carbon sink, a biodiversity hotspot, a global significant ecosystem and the sole property of us Canadians, the natural wonder we too rarely appreciate, and too often abuse.

As explained by Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the Boreal exists in two halves – the north, which, for the most part, has only known the light touch of our indigenous peoples, and the south, where the majority of Canadians live and the forests are anything but pristine, fragmented by roads, felled for lumber or agriculture, or opened for the sake of mining.

“As you go farther and farther north,” he said, “you really get into some of the last wilderness left on the planet.”

The northern half is intact only because our industries have been kept busy by the abundance of the south, but now are following their appetites into virgin territories, said Kraus. In his words, “we’re getting to the point where we have to seriously consider how much we want to keep.”

This is, of course, the ultimate question – how much must we protect in order to maintain the ecosystem integrity of the Boreal, to maintain our national biodiversity, to satisfy our hunger for wild spaces, to combat climate change and, more poetically, to look our descendants in the eye. By international agreement Canada is obligated to protect 17 per cent of our lands and inland waters next year, much of which will need to encompass the Boreal. Quebec and Ontario have both committed to protecting 50 per cent of the Boreal within their borders, but progress on these promises has been slow and some governments are more committed than others. 50 per cent is on everyone’s lips as an overall, sustainable goal, provided that 50 per cent is connected, wisely chosen and not surrounded by unbridled destruction. Given the global significance of the Boreal, and the amount we’ve already damaged, it seems to me we should save as much as we possibly can…half or more.

It’s tempting, when considering the loss of global biodiversity, ancient forests and a sustainable climate, to turn south, to the Amazon, the so-called lungs of the Earth, being torn to pieces by the nations which make claim to its abundance. Such a revelation causes us northerners to write cheques and volunteer time to its protection, but we will never have as much say in the future of the Amazon as do its residents. By the same token, there is no one of Earth more able to defend the Boreal than yourself, yet another stronghold we must not sacrifice on the alter of industry. It’s here we should prioritize our time and money, and certainly our attention.

The NCC, for example, is busy buying privately owned portions of the Boreal throughout Canada and protecting them forever. As well they’re buying mineral and logging rights away from companies and communities on public land, enabling government to establish national and provincial parks, as happened last year in Birch River, Alberta.

“The main thing Canadians can do is recognize that we have this incredible endowment of global wilderness which few other countries will ever have,” said Kraus. “I can’t help but think that, if we can’t do this in Canada, it can’t be done anywhere else in the world.”

Shown above is a stretch of Algonquin Provincial Park. (Zack Metcalfe photo)

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.