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Feature Story
Who Owns This River?
Page 3

None of us has to be persuaded that this is a version of Eden, one of the last great wildernesses to have barely known the hand of man, and unquestionably worthy of World Heritage designation. But what about the average Joe, who will never get to go on a trip like this? Why should he care about a wilderness in northern Canada? What does it matter to him if the boreal forest exists or not?

To begin with, it is a vital habitat for birds, and thus for the overall biodiversity of the Western Hemisphere. Three to five billion birds, including a hundred million shorebirds, millions of ducks, half a billion warblers, a billion sparrows, and one-third of all North American land birds summer and raise their young in the Canadian boreal. Precious, too, are the trees. The boreal forest, especially its bogs, soaks up vast amounts of carbon dioxide and therefore acts as one of the world's most important defenses against global warming. If you cut the trees down, as loggers are doing elsewhere in the boreal and are threatening to do here, the effects are swift and calamitous. The whole ecosystem collapses. The mossy floor shrivels up, the rains wash the soil into the rivers, and there is less rain because there is less moisture in the air, so the entire moisture regime changes. The rivers become lower and opaque with sediment, which means the fish can't see their prey, and the gravel beds where they lay their eggs are silted over. In northern Alberta, 62 million acres of boreal forest have been clearcut since 1975 by multinationals, much of it to produce toilet paper, so Manitoba's huge, pristine tract is especially significant and worth fighting for. The removal of the boreal forest could have far-reaching effects on continental, perhaps even global, weather patterns, exacerbating the droughts already afflicting the American West and the Midwest, for instance.

Photo of Don Sullivan and Gaile Whelan-EnnsBut to really understand what is at stake, and the possible consequences of losing this magical forest realm, you have to comprehend the power and reach of Manitoba Hydro. Canada is the world's largest producer of hydropower -- 15 percent of the total. There are already 279 large dams in the boreal; 85 percent of its river basins have been altered by hydro development. Most of the dams are in First Nations' territories and were built without the native people's consent or even consultation. Now Hydro wants new dams and new transmission lines -- an assault not seen in Manitoba for the last 30 years. But this time, the opposition is also strong: a coalition of First Nation activists and several environmental groups in Canada, led by Don Sullivan's Boreal Forest Network and another scrappy little Winnipeg-based organization, Manitoba Wildlands, whose executive director, Gaile Whelan-Enns, also received the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal. They're getting significant support from two groups in the United States -- the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Minnesota-based organization JustEnergy. "We in the U.S. are the main consumers of Canada's energy, its paper and wood products," says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a senior attorney at NRDC who is leading the group's Manitoba campaign. "The U.S. market is driving this need to exploit the boreal. There's a clear link."

Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Alexander's Marvelous Machine

Click to enlarge

Where the Action Is

These groups are involved in the campaign for Manitoba's proposed World Heritage site:

Manitoba Wildlands
Boreal Forest Network

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Photo: Chris Morris
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council