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A quick primer on Canada's boreal forest -- the natural and cultural qualities it possesses, the problems it faces, and the solutions that could save it for future generations.

Conservation Opportunity: In the far north latitudes, just below the treeless tundra of the polar region, a forest of evergreen trees encircles the earth: this is the boreal forest. The last frontier of northern forest wilderness in Canada, the boreal forest is North America's greatest conservation opportunity. Although most of the world's original wilderness forests have been logged or developed until just about 20 percent remains, approximately 80 percent of the Canadian boreal forest is still unfragmented by roads. Mostly in public hands, over half of Canada's boreal has yet to be allocated to industrial use. This situation is quickly changing, however, as the boreal forest comes under imminent threat from industrial logging, hydropower, mining and oil and gas development.

Of Global Importance: Like the Amazon, the boreal forest is of critical importance to all living things on earth. It is home to the one of the world's largest remaining stands of spruce, fir and tamarack. The thick layers of moss, soil and peat of the boreal are the world's largest terrestrial storehouse of organic carbon and play an enormous role in regulating the Earth's climate. Boreal wetlands filter millions of gallons of water each day that fill our northern rivers, lakes, and streams. As a vast, intact forest ecosystem, the boreal supports a natural web of large carnivores, such as bears, wolves and lynx along with thousands of other species of plants, mammals, birds and insects.

Home to Indigenous Peoples: The boreal forest is home to approximately 500 First Nations communities and hundreds of Métis communities, many accessible only by water or air. As the Canadian government has leased boreal public lands to industry for logging, damming and drilling, the debate about indigenous rights and land claims has come to the forefront in Canada. The connection that the indigenous peoples of the boreal forest have with the land goes beyond land use or subsistence. Elders of communities in the boreal forest talk of being "born on the ground" -- literally born outside in the boreal forest. They describe their spiritual relationship to the land on which their ancestors have walked for thousands of years, as well as their dependence on the fish, medicinal plants and wildlife of the boreal forest.

World Class Wildlife: The boreal forest is teeming with life. The more than 1.5 million lakes in the boreal are a nursery for 40 percent of North America's migratory waterfowl, such as the American black duck, mallard, blue-winged teal and northern shoveller. Approximately 30 percent of North American landbirds, including common backyard songbirds such as the warbler, raise their young each spring in Canada's boreal forest. The elusive and threatened woodland caribou, known as the grey ghost, depends for food on old-growth boreal forests and the lichen that have taken 100 years to develop there. Black bears range throughout the boreal, preferring low-lying vegetation and the abundant food provided by shrubs.

Imminent Industrial Threats: Logging, hydropower, petroleum and mining industries continue to exploit the southern boreal forest and eye the often still unallocated northern regions. In the west, oil and gas exploration and development have carved an ever-expanding network of roads and seismic lines into the forest. This includes the tar sands strip mines and steam extraction in Alberta's boreal forests and wetlands. Industrial hydropower dams on the boreal forest's northern wild rivers have flooded wildlife habitat, clogged lakes with sediment and killed off critical fish species.

Destruction Driven by U.S. Consumption: The United States is driving much of the demand for boreal forest resources. The United States is the destination for approximately 80 percent of Canada's forest products, including lumber, toilet paper, catalogue paper and newsprint -- much of which comes from clearcutting in the boreal forest. The United States imports more oil from Canada than from any other country and approximately 90 percent of total U.S. natural gas imports come from Canada -- primarily from Alberta, but increasingly from further north in British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories' boreal forest. Canada is the largest producer of hydropower in the world, with much of this energy going to the United States from Manitoba and Quebec's boreal-forest rivers.

Finding a Solution: There is some good news. Canada's boreal is one of the earth's last remaining "frontier forests" -- relatively undisturbed forests large enough to maintain their biodiversity. In addition, 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 working with many other environmental groups and with First Nations to find ways to balance the drive for resources with the need for conservation and the desires of the First Nations whose traditional territories make up most of the Boreal region.

last revised 7/19/2004

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