Progress in Canada’s Boreal Forest Shows We Can Protect Half

Guest authors: Dr. Jeff Wells and Harvey Locke

In the midst of a steady stream of grim reports about the environment, a new study offers a welcome ray of hope. Researchers have determined that there are still hundreds of regions around the globe healthy enough to help maintain clean air and water, support rich animal and plant life and slow climate change. If we act fast, we can preserve the natural systems we all depend upon.

But we have to think big.

The study, released in BioScience (and co-authored by Harvey Locke), looked at what it takes to maintain clean air, safe water, vibrant biodiversity and other values that keep us humans alive and well.  It concluded that we need to protect at least half of a regional landscape to have the best chance of ensuring it can still nurture plants, animals and human life.

The study examined 846 ecoregions around the world and found that one-quarter have been eaten away by development and pollution and have just an average of 4 percent of their natural habitat left. But the good news is more than 300 ecoregions still have enough unaltered landscape to meet the 50 percent threshold for necessary protection and long-lasting vitality.   

Figure 1. Map highlighting the ecoregions where half of intact landscapes are protects and those where such protection is possible

This possibility confirms that we can and we must set ambitious conservation goals—far bolder than the 17 percent protected lands by 2020 that most countries of the world committed to under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Preserving half of a natural landscape may sound daunting, but it is achievable, and Canada is already pointing the way in its vast and vibrant Boreal Forest.

Stretching from Alaska to Labrador, the Boreal has more intact forest than the Amazon and nearly twice as much carbon in storage as tropical forests. It teems with wildlife rare or endangered elsewhere including caribou, grizzlies and wolves. It serves as the nesting grounds for billions of birds, most of which fly south every year to our backyards, parks and beyond. It is a green crown at the top of the globe.

In 2003, conservation groups, resource companies and Indigenous communities developed the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, a vision for making the Canada’s vast Boreal region the best-conserved ecosystem on the planet by protecting at least half of the forest and ensuring careful development in the rest.

Canada has made great progress toward the framework’s vision.

Indigenous Peoples are showing the most forward-thinking examples of conservation in action, and the examples span the breadth of the continent. The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories, for instance, has led an initiative to permanently protect 33,000 square kilometres in Thaidene Nene—Land of the Ancestors—that the community will co-manage with Parks Canada. And in Labrador, the Innu Nation’s Forest Ecosystem Strategy Plan calls for preserving over 50 percent of a 71,000-square-kilometre area rich in ecological and cultural significance.

In addition, both Ontario and Quebec have incorporated the framework’s 50-50 approach into policy, and in 2015, Manitoba committed to fund and respect the results of Indigenous-led land-use planning across about 140 million acres of the boreal.

The progress unfolding in the Boreal Forest confirms that bold conservation goals are achievable. It reminds us that we humans still have ample opportunities to raise the bar to a level that truly maintains our animals and plants, clean air and water, and a more stable climate.