A huge swath of Canada’s boreal forest was protected today. Stuart Pimm, a member of the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel, explains why that’s important for biodiversity and for slowing global warming.
By Stuart Pimm
Today, 20 companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada and 9 leading environmental organizations agreed to protect 72 million hectares (more than 275,000 square miles) of public forests that had been licensed for logging.
Under this agreement, companies will stop logging on 29 million hectares (112,000 square miles). In return, green groups will suspend “do not buy” campaigns.
In coming together, the parties saw the opportunity to end years of protests, legal battles and boycotts and to work a deal between timber industry leadership and green groups.
Photo of boreal forest in Canada by Garth Lenz
Steve Kallick of the Pew Environment Group, which brokered the agreement along with the Ivey Foundation of Canada, told me: “It raises the global sustainability bar for the forestry industry, exchanging the highest standards of conservation and forest management for an end to boycotts that have dogged timber companies for decades. This will translate into market advantage for participating companies. We think this is a radically pragmatic agreement that will have significant ripple effects worldwide for forest products’ environmental standards.”
These are Canada’s boreal forests. Boreal forests in North America stretch from sea to shining sea–from the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, to Hudson Bay, the Beaufort and Bering seas, to the Pacific. Spring comes late, fall comes early, and winters are long, cold, and dark.
As the map shows, even this forest is under siege. Along the southern boundary–and along the roads that penetrate deep into the north–the forest is eroded.
Map courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
So why is this agreement so significant?
First, the area protected is larger than the U.S. state of Nevada. It’s one of the world’s largest conservation agreements.
Much conservation science boils down to three principles:
Larger is better than smaller, connected is better than fragmented, and natural is better than managed. Much of North America’s boreal forest is still intact–making it the largest remaining intact forest ecosystem on the planet. This agreement will protect a lot of that ecosystem’s southern boundary and keep large areas intact and natural.
Second, this means protection for a lot of familiar species. “But you can’t get there from here,” I hear you tell me. “This is land that is so remote that even most Canadians don’t go there.” True. But tens of millions of ducks breed in the wetlands of these forests–and they move south as winter freezes the lakes.
And hundreds of millions of migrant warblers also use the remote northern forest. During the winter, the common bird in my garden in Key Largo, Florida, is the palm warbler. Like other similarly named species–Connecticut warbler, myrtle warbler (as the yellow-rumped warbler was once called) Cape May warbler, magnolia warbler, Tennessee warbler–these are familiar birds of the winter or on migration. Their names reflect this. Yet, these species breed in the boreal forest–as do many other migrant birds.
[The range map on the right, for the yellow-rumped warbler, is from the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006. You can read more about the yellow-rumped warbler on the National Geographic Backyard Birding website.]
These forests are home to wolves, bears, lynx–and caribou. Caribou–like other migratory species–require large areas for their survival, and are in decline because human actions restrict their movements. (Read my blog post: Many mammal migrations are at risk of extinction)
It’s the third reason that will likely surprise you. And it explains why someone like me who cares about tropical forests also cares about places that are way outside my thermal tolerances for most, if not all, of the year.
Boreal forests are where the carbon is–billions and billions of tons of it.
Now, the loss of tropical forests is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions–15 percent of the total. That’s more than cars and trucks combined. Slowing tropical deforestation is hugely important. ( Read my blog post: Brazil’s major victory in reducing greenhouse gas emissions)
Photo of forest clearcut in northwestern Ontario by Jeff Wells
Boreal forests grow much more slowly–not surprising, given how cold they are for much of the year. But the carbon they soak up from the atmosphere isn’t recycled anywhere near as fast as that in the hot, humid tropics. It accumulates in the soil.
As a consequence, it’s the boreal forests–their soils and their trees–that have more carbon than do tropical forests. Estimates suggest roughly 600 billion tons for boreal forests compared to roughly 400 billion tons for tropical forests. Boreal forests can store about twice as much carbon per unit area.
Clear those boreal forests, especially when the climate is warming, and the soils can start to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Today’s agreement is good news for Canada’s environment, but for the global environment, too.
Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”
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