On Thursday, the Manitoba provincial government and the Poplar River First Nation put the final touches on a tremendous conservation victory: legislation to preserve an area the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Not only does this legally binding regulation confirm the Poplar River First Nation’s right to manage its lands, but it protects a piece of one of our planet’s most precious nonrenewable resources: the Boreal Forest.
The Boreal encircles the earth right below the treeless tundra of the polar region. Like the Amazon rainforest, the Boreal provides natural services that benefit the entire globe. Its trees and peatlands comprise one of the world's largest carbon sinks. Its wetlands filter millions of gallons of water each day. Its intact forest and millions of lakes act as the nursery for 40 percent of North America’s migratory waterfowl and about 30 percent of the continent’s land birds, including common backyard songbirds.
I have been lucky enough to canoe and camp in the Boreal in Western Ontario. I had never seen so many combinations of land and water in one place before: wetlands, swamps, bogs, ponds, lakes, and rivers running with water so clean I could drink it right out of my hand. I loved the wide open vistas of forest and water and the sound of loons overhead and wildlife crashing through the undergrowth.
The landscape seemed so rugged, but at the same time I could see its fragility: trees don’t grow fast in that climate—even the old ones were still small. If stretches of forest were cut down for development, it would be nearly impossible to replace them.
And yet, despite its global significance, less than 8 percent of Canada’s Boreal Forest is protected. Mining interests, clear cut timber operations, and massive hydro-electric projects have begun devouring stretches of the forest and threatening the way of life for First Nation communities like Poplar River.
In 2004, NRDC declared the heart of the Boreal Forest in Manitoba and Ontario as a BioGem. Since then, we have worked closely with the Poplar River First Nation to support their conservation goals. BioGems Defenders have sent hundreds of thousands of emails to the Manitoba and Canadian governments calling for greater protections for the region.
It had been common practice in Manitoba and throughout Canada for the government to grant concessions to private logging, mining, and hydropower industries for long-term land and water leases without consulting the aboriginal community that had lived on the land for thousands of years.
The Poplar River First Nation labored to change that practice. Rather than fight each industrial proposal one by one, they decided to take control through the land use planning process. The nation chose the path of building alliances, negotiating interim lands protections, carrying out community-based planning, and achieving international recognition to address the threats Poplar River faces.
Despite initial resistance from industry and government, the Poplar River community proposed permanent protection for about 90 percent of its traditional lands. Slowly, the Manitoba government began to negotiate with the nation. First it agreed to re-route a proposed hydropower transmission line outside of this region. Then it supported the Poplar River land use planning process and the broader goal of declaring the of the proposed Pimachiowin Aki region a World Heritage Site.
Now, with the announcement of the conservation regulation, the Poplar River First Nation and the Manitoba government have created an even more ground-breaking achievement. Together they have secured protections for nearly 2 million acres of precious Boreal Forest lands.
This is great news for the Boreal, for the Poplar River community, and for the NRDC members and activists supported these efforts for the past seven years. And it is great news for all those on the planet who benefit from the Boreal’s clean air, fresh water, and beautiful songbirds.