NRDC Report Calls on Canada to Protect the Boreal Forest

Guest blog by Jennifer Skene

The true cost of the paper towel roll in your kitchen and the box of tissues in your living room is far more than you might think. Many of the items we use on a daily basis—and throw away after just one use—were once magnificent old-growth trees from one of the world’s last great forests, the boreal forest of Canada. This “Amazon of the North” stretches across North America, covering the continent in a green crown. Yet every day, unsustainable logging operations erode more and more intact boreal forest, driven in part by the irresponsible sourcing of tissues, toilet paper, and newsprint that compose the most basic aspects of our lives.

As a new NRDC report describes, our consumption of these products creates severe consequences for Indigenous Peoples, wildlife, and the global climate. The report calls on Canada’s governments to protect this globally-important forest by promoting Indigenous-led land-use planning, safeguarding boreal caribou habitat, and ensuring logging’s climate consequences are accounted for and mitigated.

Logging’s Impacts on the Boreal Forest

The Canadian boreal forest holds immense value for Indigenous communities, species, and the world. It is home to over 600 Indigenous communities whose cultures have remained inextricably linked to the forest for millennia. The forest is also habitat for iconic species like the boreal caribou, Canada lynx, and American marten, and to billions of birds that migrate across the skies of the Western Hemisphere. In addition, the forest provides essential ecosystems services for Canadians and the world, with some of the purest freshwater lakes and rivers on earth, and an immense capacity to store and sequester climate-disrupting carbon dioxide.

Yet, this forest is under severe threat from industrial logging operations that push further into intact boreal forests each day. Between 1996 and 2015, more than 28 million acres of boreal forest were logged, an area roughly the size of Ohio. Much of this logging is done by clearcutting, which removes nearly all the trees from an area. Even where forests regenerate, it could take centuries for them to fully return to the way they were before logging.

The consequences are severe. This logging undermines the Indigenous rights Canada has endorsed internationally, threatening Indigenous ways of life and eroding their traditional relationships to the land. Many communities have only a fraction of their territory left intact yet remain largely excluded from decision making about development in their traditional territories.

Logging also impacts the forest’s wildlife. The boreal caribou, whose antlered visage appears on the Canadian quarter, has seen severe loss of habitat, in significant part due to logging. According to the federal government, only 14 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou ranges are currently considered sufficient to support self-sustaining populations. This is especially troubling because caribou are an “indicator species,” a barometer for the health of the boreal forest more broadly.

Boreal logging’s impacts also extend far beyond Canada, with severe implications for the fight against climate change. The global boreal forest contains more carbon per acre than any other forest biome in the world—including tropical forests. Logging releases this locked-up carbon into the atmosphere and diminishes the forest’s ability to continue to absorb carbon. Unsustainably logging the boreal forest severely undermines Canada’s international climate commitments and tarnishes its reputation as a leader on climate action.

Logs piled up at a Quebec logging mill

Indigenous Peoples and the International Marketplace Lead Where Governments Fall Short

Despite logging’s dire consequences, Canada’s governments have failed to take meaningful action to make logging operations more sustainable or develop a framework for accounting for and limiting the industry’s carbon emissions. The logging industry has made conservation policy a scapegoat for its recent slump, spurring federal, provincial, and territorial governments to allow logging companies to degrade more and more intact boreal forest.

In contrast, Indigenous Peoples have demonstrated leadership where federal and provincial governments have so far failed. Indigenous communities across Canada have provided models for sustainable economic development, including plans for land use, boreal caribou management, Guardians programs, and Indigenous-run protected areas. As Valérie Courtois, the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative stated, “The Boreal forest is home to over 600 Indigenous Communities who have maintained and evolved in a balanced relationship with this vital ecosystem for over 10,000 years. As Indigenous Peoples, we have the cultural responsibility of ensuring its health and vitality for future generations, and as Nations, our Rights and Titles need to be recognized and upheld.” 

Animal skins drying by a river near Waswanipi, QC

The international marketplace has also begun to call on Canada’s governments to protect the boreal. International demand for wood products, especially demand from the United States, is a major driver of the Canadian forest industry’s continued push into undisturbed boreal forest. Two-thirds of Canada’s export revenue from logging comes from the United States, highlighting the role our consumption of products like toilet paper and newsprint plays in driving boreal logging.

Since last fall, 21 companies with a combined annual revenue of more than $140 billion have written to provincial and federal government officials urging action in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to protect boreal caribou habitat. These companies continue to press the federal and provincial governments to fulfill their obligations to protect boreal caribou, demonstrating a growing desire in the international marketplace to purchase forest products that do not jeopardize boreal ecosystems.

The Need for Immediate Action

While Indigenous leadership provides a beacon of hope for the future of the boreal forest, Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments should fulfill their commitments to Indigenous rights, species, and the climate by implementing policies to promote more sustainable logging practices. The international marketplace must also recognize its role in driving boreal logging and call on Canada to ensure products sold to consumers do not come at the expense of this vital forest.

The great forests of the world are not found entirely in the tropics. In our own northern backyard, the Canadian boreal sustains communities and wildlife and safeguards our planet’s climate. The boreal’s importance goes far beyond its role in supplying toilet paper and paper towels. We cannot let this forest’s fate lie in toilets and trash bins. It is time for Canada’s governments—and the world—to recognize the necessity of protecting this “Amazon of the North.”

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International Program
Blog Post

Seventeen companies with a combined annual revenue of over $35 billion, representing a range of sectors using paper and pulp products, sent a letter to McKenna, Couillard, Notely, and Ford calling for Canada to act to protect boreal caribou and their habitat.

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