Stop the Fragmentation of Canada's Boreal Forest: NRDC Rejoins the Fight to Protect Canada's Intact Forests from Unbridled Resource Development

Broadback River valley
Credit: Photo courtesy of Greenpeace

This post was drafted by Roxane Regis, a consultant with NRDC's Canada Project

Since July 2015, one of the last intact forests in Quebec has been at the center of intense debate about whether to conserve or exploit its fragile and critically important resources. Now, NRDC is weighing in to push for its long-term protection. Located east of James Bay in Northern Quebec, in the heart of Eeyou Istchee (the ancestral land of the Cree First Nations), the Broadback Valley is a pristine boreal forest area facing immediate threats from the forestry industry's plan to cut massive access roads into the heart of what is still pristine wilderness. Sadly, this is just one of many examples of the imminent threats facing Canada's vast boreal forests and to the lands that have been the historic homes of hundreds of First Nation communities for time immemorial. The story of the Cree people, who have seen their lands slowly destroyed and fragmented by the slow northern creep of the logging and mining industries, is a story shared across the boreal--a story the world needs to hear.

Home to a wealth of diverse species, including the iconic but endangered woodland caribou, the Broadback is also part of the traditional land of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, who call the area Mishigamish. The Waswanipi have lived within and off of the boreal forest since "time immemorial," as they say, preserving this invaluable land from destruction so that keeps providing for future generations who are taught the Cree way of life, as celebrated by the practice of traditional activities such as hunting, trapping, fishing, and the holding of various ceremonies.

Still, over the last century, the Waswanipi have witnessed 90% of their ancestral territory being harvested or fragmented by the forestry and mining industries, to the point today where only three out of the 62 traplines originally allocated to the Cree families of Waswanipi remain untouched. Those last three traplines are located in the Broadback Valley, and the Waswanipi have been asking the Quebec government for protection of this area for more than ten years.

On July 13, 2015, the Cree First Nation - a political body representing the nine Cree communities of Northern Quebec - and the Quebec Government reached an agreement whereby a new protected area was created north of the Broadback Valley. This agreement sought to resolve a long-standing dispute between Quebec and the Crees regarding forestry practices in Eeyou Istchee. Unfortunately, though the agreement did result in some new protections, it left a great deal to be done, especially in regard to the community of Waswanipi, who protested because it ignored the vast majority of their long-proposed protected area, leaving their territory open to new logging and further decimation. Additionally, the agreement opened the door to new logging and road-building which had been proposed to penetrate into the heart of the Waswanipi's remaining intact traplines.

Variety of protection plans proposed for the Broadback River valley. Dotted line indicates the borders of Waswanipi's Mishigamish proposal; Diagnol hash marks show the extent of the lands protected by the Baril Moses dispute settlement agreement of 2015.
Credit: Map courtesy of Greenpeace.

On the same day the agreement was signed, the Quebec Government resumed the authorization process for two roads in the Broadback Valley that will give logging companies their first access into the heart of Waswanipi's remaining intact ancestral lands. The proposal to build two roads - Road H West and Road I - is currently under review before the James Bay Environmental and Social Impact Review Committee (COMEX). The COMEX held a public hearing on January 19, 2016, to inform the public about the proposed project and hear interested parties' opinions. Marcel Happyjack, Chief of Waswanipi, gave a powerful speech at the hearing expressing his community's strong opposition to the road-building project. Indeed, his words encapsulate the extent of the destruction the Waswanipi have witnessed over the last century:

The Waswanipi Traditional Territory is over 37,000 km2 including those of Senneterre Cree Trap-lines. At this time, 90% of our ancestral land has been harvested or fragmented by forestry, meaning that out of the 62 trap-lines originally allocated to the Cree families of Waswanipi only three remain untouched by forestry operations.

This last 10% of intact boreal forest on our territory not only represents the last of our ancestral land as the Cree people of Waswanipi, but it is a vital area for old-growth trees, which have become increasingly rare in Quebec. The forest in the Broadback River valley plays a key role in the fight against climate change and represents one of the last refuges for endangered species.

With the worldwide issue of global warming, and the state of the endangered Woodland Caribou across Canada, we cannot ignore the detrimental effects of further development in the Broadback river valley forest.

In response to the threat that this proposal places on one of Quebec's largest and last remaining intact forest landscapes, and in support of our First Nation partners, NRDC submitted a comment letter to the COMEX on February 17, 2016, urging the Committee to deny authorization to the project. Upon reviewing documents available to the public, we found that the COMEX had not been provided with sufficient information to make a fully informed decision on the project. Indeed, the project proponents submitted an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) to the COMEX in 2010, when a slightly different project was first proposed. This analysis, now six years old, relies on outdated information and should not be used to reach a decision on a modified project put forward in 2016. Indeed, the COMEX's own questions to the project proponents, and the answers they received, demonstrate the inadequacy of the only ESIA available and should not be allowed to substitute for a meaningful analysis in light of changed circumstances, updated science, and a modified project proposal.

Further, the intact forest of the Broadback Valley is critical habitat for the endangered woodland caribou. The project proponents' own data indicate that woodland caribou are present in the area impacted by the project. Building roads in the Broadback would be completely at odds with Quebec's woodland caribou conservation and recovery goals, as woodland caribou expert Dr. Tyler Rudolph emphasized in his authoritative study on the status of the species in Northern Quebec.

Woodland caribou
Credit: Photo by Howard Sandler

As an old growth boreal forest, the Broadback is also a significant carbon sink and constitutes an important tool in the global fight to stop climate change. The construction of forestry roads in the Broadback would signal the beginning of the end of this pristine and invaluable forest, as this project would be the first step in the industrial exploitation of the wilderness surrounding the Broadback River. This would create serious dissonance with Quebec's climate policies and leadership, especially at a time when Canada has rejoined the international community in Paris to help push through an ambitious international agreement to fight climate change. Acknowledging the imminent threat this project poses represents an opportunity for the Quebec government to renew its commitment to combatting climate change, preserving endangered species, and protecting valuable intact boreal forest ecosystems.

In light of the absence of adequate environmental information and in light of the clear lack of social license for the proposal, NRDC asked the COMEX to deny authorization of the project, a decision consistent with Quebec's own biodiversity conservation and climate change policies. NRDC's voice joins a chorus of environmental organizations and the Waswanipi, who called directly on Quebec's Premier, Phillipe Couillard, to respect the community's wishes during a press conference on Monday, February 22, 2016. Speaking in bold terms, the Waswanipi asked Mr. Couillard to act by July 2016 in order to protect the Broadback Valley forest once and for all.