Why Is Canada’s Boreal Forest So Important?

Protecting the boreal is not only about saving trees and wildlife, says NRDC’s Jennifer Skene. It’s also about the people who’ve been living on the land for millennia and the urgent fight against climate change.

Q: What is the boreal forest, and why is it so important?

When you picture the boreal, think of any forest you might see on a Christmas card: It’s an incredibly majestic forest that spans the entire Northern Hemisphere. Ringing the globe in a green crown, it’s full of conifers and birch trees and even has reindeer, which in North America are called caribou.

The Canadian boreal forest, which stretches from Newfoundland and Labrador on the Atlantic coast all the way to British Columbia, is the largest intact forest left in the world. It’s also home to more than 600 Indigenous communities, many of whose ways of life are inextricably tied to the forest. The boreal is also a vast carbon storehouse that absorbs carbon out of the atmosphere and locks it up in its carbon-rich soils. In fact, Canada’s boreal stores at least 12 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon stock—and this makes it incredibly important to the fight against climate change.

What kind of threats does the Canadian boreal forest face?

A variety of industries, ranging from oil and gas development to mining, are looking to exploit the boreal, but the industry with the largest footprint is logging. The Canadian boreal loses seven NHL hockey rink–size areas of forest to logging every minute.

Logging goes to feed demand for forest products—a lot of which ends up right here in the United States. What’s really devastating is that a lot of this logging goes to make throwaway products like toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissues that are used once, then just thrown away or flushed down the toilet. It’s absolutely mind-blowing that we are using centuries-old trees for these products that we use just once.

This logging often happens in intact forests, which is really devastating for the ways of life of Indigenous peoples and species like the boreal caribou. Logging intact forests is also incredibly harmful to the climate because all the carbon that’s been stored in the soil is then released into the atmosphere, and it undermines the forest’s incredible capacity to absorb the carbon we emit.

An aerial view of clearcut boreal forest in Ontario, Canada

River Jordan for NRDC

What species are being harmed?

As already mentioned, caribou are an iconic species that relies on intact forests in the boreal. Caribou are also what’s known as an indicator species, meaning the health of their populations reflects the health of the forest more broadly. This is really alarming because boreal caribou are not doing well at all—of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds, only 14 have enough habitat to survive in the long term. The loss of intact forest is also devastating for other species that rely on these untouched old-growth forests, like the really cute pine marten, the Canada lynx, and billions of songbirds that breed there and then fly south for the winter.

What are the solutions?

The main solution is to stop logging away our intact forests. Time and again, Indigenous peoples around the world have shown that they are the best stewards of forests, both for biodiversity and for the climate. Establishing Indigenous-led protected areas and empowering them to manage the land that they’ve lived on for millennia is a really important part of the solution.

Canada’s governments need to make sure they’re implementing the species protections that scientists have been recommending for decades. They also need to make sure they’re actually accounting for the carbon that’s being released from the soil because of logging. Canada claims to be an international leader on climate, but if it’s not counting these emissions, that’s a huge gap in emissions that needs to be addressed in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

Also, companies around the world—especially in the United States, which sources a lot of these forest products—need to do their part. They must make sure that their products aren’t coming at the expense of boreal caribou habitat or the rights of Indigenous peoples. Companies like Procter & Gamble, which produces these throwaway tissue products that are sourced from the boreal, need to transition away from relying on virgin forest fiber and switch to recycled materials, which reduce pressure on intact forests and have far less of an impact on the climate.

What can I do to help?

While it’s up to companies to make sure that they're sourcing responsibly from the boreal and not relying on virgin forest fiber, consumers can help urge them to make the switch with their purchases, especially of single-use products like toilet paper.

When you’re buying things like toilet paper, make sure it’s made from 100 percent postconsumer recycled materials and isn’t harming forests. You can check out our scorecard to see which brands are the most sustainable for forests.

You can also let companies like Procter & Gamble know that you don’t want to buy throwaway products that come at the expense of intact forests, and that they should incorporate more recycled and sustainable materials into their products.

Tell Charmin to stop flushing forests down the toilet

Action Figure

Valérie Courtois is guiding an indigenous-led conservation strategy for one of the world’s last great forests.

Action Figure

What is it like to study one of North America’s most elusive mammals? Meet wildlife ecologist Tyler Rudolph, whose boreal caribou research may help the threatened animal survive.

What's At Stake

Not only is this forest home to millions of indigenous people and endangered species, it’s also indispensable in helping us win the fight against climate change.

Madagascar deforestation
Latest News

Food insecurity, biodiversity collapse, and skyrocketing global temps loom. But a new U.N. report says we have the tools to fix it.

Guide

Forests are among our greatest allies in the global warming fight. Let’s protect them so they can protect us.

Personal Action

In the United States, we consume more than 15 billion pounds of tissue each year—more than 50 pounds per person. It’s taking a major toll on forests like the Canadian boreal.

onEarth Story

As forests are carved up across North America, its 51 woodland caribou herds are being left with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Policy Primer

The answer lies not just in the carbon-capturing trees but also in the undisturbed boreal soils.

Yadvinder Mahli
onEarth Story

A new study suggests excess carbon dioxide is shrinking the Amazon.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.