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Today, the beauty and integrity of Canada's boreal forest is in danger of unraveling. The modern world's -- particularly the United States' -- insatiable appetites for paper and power are creating pressure to develop the northern forests; clearcuts, oil and gas wells, roads and hydro dams are sprouting in the boreal at an accelerating pace.

Less than 8 percent of Canada's boreal forest is protected. More than one-third of the forest is already allocated to industrial development, and land-use planning processes are underway that will largely decide the fate of the entire boreal region over the next 5 to 10 years.

In places, the boreal has already been scarred by too much rapid, poorly planned development. Here are some glimpses of what the future may hold for the boreal -- North America's last great "frontier forest" -- unless current trends change:

Photo of a clearcut in Canada's boreal forest

Photo: Victor Lorentz

LOGGING: As wood shortages become more and more prevalent in the southern regions of Canada, remote -- and extremely slow-growing -- northern forests once considered unprofitable to log are now being leased to forestry companies, mostly for the production of pulp and paper. In Ontario and Quebec alone, where nearly all logging is done within the two provinces' vast boreal forests, an area almost as large as Delaware is cut each year. And 90 percent of all logging that occurs in Canada is by clearcutting.

Photo of a hydropower plant

Photo: Timothy J. Rudnicki

HYDROPOWER: Although a massive hydro project may yield low-cost electricity, it comes at heavy cost to local communities and the environment in the northern boreal forest. Hydro dams cut the flow of once-wild rivers, flood huge areas of habitat, cause sedimentation and erosion, and foster mercury accumulation in fish and other aquatic life of their reservoirs. Canada builds more dams and diverts more water than any other nation.

Photo of oil and gas development

Photo: Cliff Wallis/AWA

OIL AND GAS DEVELOPMENT: Oil and gas exploration, drilling and development carve up intact forests with seismic lines and access roads and leaves behind a toxic legacy from the burning of excess gas and spills. In Alberta, for example, less than 9 per cent of Alberta's boreal forest is free of developments such as roads, pipelines, or logged-over areas.

There is some good news. Few "frontier forests" -- relatively undisturbed forests large enough to maintain their biodiversity -- are left on earth, but Canada's boreal forest is one of them. (Only the Russian boreal and the Amazon are of comparable size.) A second fact: Canada's forests are 94 percent publicly owned. These conditions present a unique opportunity to conserve a large, healthy forest ecosystem, a place of incalculable value not only to Canadians, but to all of us.

NRDC is partnering with many other environmental groups and with First Nations to forge lasting agreements that will ensure the survival of Canada's boreal forest, allow for environmentally sustainable development of its resources, and protect the culture of indigenous communities. To stay abreast of our work in the boreal, bookmark this page and check back. And to learn when you can take online action to help protect the boreal, subscribe to Earth Action, NRDC's biweekly email alert.

last revised 7/20/2004

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