Report: Major Ecosystem Losses in Canada's Boreal Since 2000

This blog was drafted by Elizabeth Shope and Danielle Droitsch.

Contrary to a recent report from Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), which goes to great lengths to say all is well in Canada’s boreal forest, a report released by Global Forest Watch (GFW) Canada this month presents a very different picture. While NRCAN’s report focuses on the lack of “deforestation,” that term has a very specific definition that fails to capture many of the most significant threats facing forests around the world today, including forests in Canada. The GFW Canada report released this month provides some critical analysis and perspective on the issue. In the report, GFW Canada reports an alarming erosion of Canada’s large intact forests (known as an intact forest landscapes) across Canada’s boreal region, with cumulative losses of intact forests in Canada between 2000 and 2013 totaling the area of Great Britain.

Intact forest landscapes (or IFLs) are unbroken ecosystems large enough to support complex, intact and native ecosystems while also holding vast stores of carbon in place. Globally, these large forested landscapes, found mostly in Canada, Russia, and Brazil, decreased by 1 million km2 over the last 13 years (or nearly 250,000 million acres) due to clearing, logging, fragmentation, and anthropogenic forest fires. And while these areas have not been “deforested” in terms of conversion to another use, their role as critical ecosystems that provide habitat for hundreds of species—including threatened and endangered species—has been degraded by human activity. Environment Canada likes to say, “100% of forests harvested on Canada’s public lands must be successfully regenerated,” but with replanting and seeding rates at 40% or below in Ontario and Quebec—two provinces driving IFL loss nationally—such statements have little meaning when reality on the ground says otherwise.

An intact forest landscape in Quebec's Broadback River Valley.
Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

According to the report, Canada’s Intact Forest Landscapes Updated to 2013, nearly 5% of Canada’s intact forest landscapes (IFLs) that still existed in 2000 had been lost due to human disturbance by 2013. The majority of the lost IFLs have been eaten away on the southern edge of the boreal (see the red areas in figure 1 below) and the degradation of these natural ecosystems threaten global biodiversity. While large forested areas remain in Canada, commercially viable timber grows predominantly along the boreal’s southern edge. With such significant forest degradation along this edge taking place over only 13 years, the findings in this report raise major concerns about the sustainability of long-term forest management policies on Canada’s public lands.

Figure 1: Red areas on the map show areas of previously intact forest that have been lost between 2000 and 2013.

Key findings from the report:

  • The Canadian provinces of Quebec, Alberta, and Ontario accounted for 60 percent of the IFL loss,
  • Reduction in IFL extent largely occurred within forest tenures associated with logging activities (60%), while 6% of the total IFL loss was observed in petroleum or natural gas tenures. 
  • The impacts of the IFL loss on the ranges of woodland caribou and other species at risk was dramatic. Roughly, 92% of the IFL degradation occurred in areas known to have endangered or threatened species, while 14% of it coincides with the presence of at least six species at risk. (See p. 15)

Why do Intact Forest Landscapes matter?

IFLs are defined as areas of natural landscape that are minimally influenced by human activity that, with an area of at least 500 km2 (or 123,553 acres), and are large enough that viable populations of all native biodiversity, including wide-ranging species, can be maintained. These vast areas contain a disproportionately high amount of forest carbon and biological diversity, and are crucial to supporting local and global benefits ranging from climate change mitigation to freshwater storage.

But IFLs matter at the human level as well. Across the boreal region of Canada, First Nation communities who have lived and thrived within the boreal forest for centuries are seeing many aspects of their way of life destroyed. Species they once hunted are disappearing while traditional practices and cultural activities are being lost as once untouched forests are cut. In Quebec, NRDC has been working with the Cree community of Waswanipi to address the threat posed by IFL loss on their lands. Over several decades, they have seen a huge percentage of their territory logged, with some estimates placing 90% of their traditional lands as lost to logging and other resource development activities. As this has happened, they have seen the herds of woodland caribou that they depended on for centuries nearly extirpated, with things getting so bad that they have voluntarily ceased hunting caribou on their traplines.

Surveying the aftermath of a clearcut in northern Quebec.

What about the future protection of Intact Forest Landscapes?

The report from GFW Canada suggests that long-term boreal forest management strategies need reevaluation.  Continuing policies that allow the continual northern creep of forest degradation raises questions about what will happen to the IFLs that remain in Canada’s boreal, not to mention a forestry industry that appears unable to adapt to changing forest conditions. Moving forward, understanding the locations of IFL loss and remaining IFLs should guide conservation planning as a priority, with harvest plans adapted to avoid destruction of IFLs in as many cases as possible.

This need is further highlighted by GFW Canada’s report, which found that only 17 percent of the remaining large intact landscapes in Canada are located within interim or permanent protected areas. This leaves the vast majority of unbroken, wild expanses potentially available to logging, oil and gas development, hydroelectric development, or mining. According to the report, over 500,000 km2 of these unprotected forests are located within forest tenures and thus available for cutting at almost any time.

While federal and provincial action is increasingly necessary if Canada is to avoid severe degradation of its remaining forests, others are moving to try and fill the gaps left in Canada’s forest policies. In an effort to help spur the preservation of remaining IFLs in Canada’s commercially accessible forests, the Forest Stewardship Council—the world’s only independent certifier of sustainable logging—has begun work to encourage preservation of IFLs among logging companies operating in Canada. This effort, and growing attention on the critical roll the world’s forests will play in helping to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, is a necessary step to preserving the IFL ecosystems upon which the global community and the health of our planet depends.

Notes:

In addition to the maps provided in the report, you can also explore an interactive map showing the IFL loss or download the data sets.

Not all organizations count IFLs and IFL loss the same: it can differ in terms of the study area, size and width requirements for an IFL, how infrastructure disturbance is buffered, and how disturbance from fires are treated. The discrepancies in how Global Forest Watch Canada and the Global IFL Mapping Team treat these issues are discussed on pp. 19-22 of the report

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

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