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Protecting Forests Goes Mainstream

Feb 01, 2009


Lake Beavert, Canada

Lake Beauvert, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, part of an area protected by the Canadian government. Photo by Ashley Hockenberry.

An ambitious campaign to protect half of Canada's 1.1 billion acres of pristine boreal forest from uncontrolled development is succeeding beyond its organizers' original hopes, and what once seemed likely to be a long, uphill battle has been embraced by the political mainstream.

In an age of global warming and the mass extinction of species, when good environmental news can be tough to find, the work of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign and its constituent nonprofit organizations is a portrait of success on a startling scale.

In November, the Campaign-a Hewlett grant recipient-played a central role in an agreement by Quebec's provincial government to protect 142 million acres of boreal forest in the province's northern reaches from mining and development. The protected region is about one and a half times the size of California.

The most recent agreement follows one with the Ontario provincial government last July that promised to protect more than 55 million acres from mining and development. At the time, Steve Kallick, project director of the Campaign, called it one of the largest conservation deals in history. In little more than four months, it has been dwarfed by the size of Quebec's promise.

Together with a series of earlier commitments to protect approximately 110 million acres of boreal forest in Canada's Northwest Territories, the total area agreed to for protection-about 307 million acres-puts the International Boreal Conservation Campaign more than halfway to its goal of protecting 550 million acres.

Threat of Global Warming Helps Change Minds

"We're a little blown away," Kallick said. "You work and work toward a goal, and then you reach a tipping point. And instead of working against the prevailing view, you're working with it. The framework we propose is becoming accepted as the mainstream conservation approach in Canada's Boreal."

Kallick says the emergence of global warming as a mainstream concern was an important factor in progress toward preserving boreal forests.

"The Boreal Forest is one of the world's largest storehouses of carbon," he says. "It's critical that it be taken into account with any nation's climate change strategy. This is one of the cheapest, most effective ways to reduce future emissions."

But much work remains to be done. The Boreal Forest Conservation Campaign calls for equal treatment for conservation and sustainable development across Canada's Boreal region. It envisions completely protecting at least half of the region and supporting sustainable communities, ecosystem-based resource management practices, and state-of-the-art stewardship practices in the remaining landscape.

"It's important that the agreements be worked out so the conservation and the sustainable development provisions are honored," Kallick says. "We're very sensitive to helping business do business a new way. Economic concerns are paramount."

The framework was developed by the Boreal Leadership Council, a partnership of leading conservation organizations, resource companies, and First Nations. The Canadian Boreal Initiative is the convener of the environmental organizations that form the International Boreal Conservation Campaign and the Boreal Leadership Council.

A Unique Ecological Bounty

Canada's Boreal is a major part of the Boreal region that encircles the northern part of the globe and stores more freshwater in its wetlands and lakes and more carbon in its trees, soil, and peat than anywhere else on the planet. Canada's Boreal Forest is one of the world's largest intact ecosystems. The Northern Boreal region contains more than 200 sensitive species of animals-including polar bears, wolverines, and many species of migratory birds, as well as the world's largest caribou herds. Scientists have said that in order to preserve a healthy ecosystem in the Far North, a minimum of half the land must be protected.

Cree People of the First Nations

The Cree are the largest group of First Nations in Canada. The Campaign works together with this and other indigenous groups to protect Canada’s Boreal forest. Photo by Natasha Moine.

The Far North Boreal Forest has remained virtually undisturbed by humans since the glaciers retreated. Although it constitutes a significant part of Canada's landmass, it is home to very few people, most of them members of First Nations living in remote communities beyond roads and other infrastructure.

The region, which also is the third-largest wetland in the world, is a bulwark in the fight against global warming. As one of the last, great, undeveloped spaces on earth, it is a vital carbon sink, whose forests and peat lands store about 97 billion tons of carbon dioxide and absorb around 12.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

In addition to Hewlett backing, The International Boreal Conservation Campaign, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, receives major support from the Lenfest Foundation. Hewlett funds the Campaign through grants to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which have worked to conserve old-growth forests and wilderness in North America for the past fifteen years. To date, Hewlett has made $6.5 million in grants to support the Campaign's work.

According to the Campaign's Web site, the United States plays a significant role in the destruction of boreal forests. Eighty percent of Canada's exports of forest products, much of which come from the Boreal, are consumed by the United States.

It's a fact that makes the progress in preserving those forests all the more gratifying.

"To see the wisdom of preserving the Boreal embraced so quickly is testimony to the fact that real progress can be made when the facts are marshaled and everyone is at the table," says Tom Steinbach, director of Hewlett's Environment Program.