by Scott Weidensaul and Jeffrey V. Wells
New York Times op-ed
STRETCHING from interior Alaska across Canada to Newfoundland, and sandwiched between the prairies and the Arctic, North America’s boreal forest is a mind-boggling 1.5 billion acres in size — bigger even than the vast rain forests of the Brazilian Amazon or the Congo. And despite the relentless pace of development and industrialization worldwide, 80 percent of it remains wild and intact.
But that doesn’t mean that this region of cold-hardy trees, lakes, wetlands and tundra is safe. Corporations have their eyes on the land’s plentiful resources of minerals, timber, oil and gas, and on the hydropower potential of its many powerful, untamed rivers.
The stakes become particularly vivid at this time of year, as spring slides into summer and billions of birds — an estimated one to three billion — arrive from the tropics to spend their summers in northern Canada raising their young before returning south in the fall.
We all reap this bounty.
Almost wherever you are in the United States at this time of year, the birds of the boreal forest bridge the distant reaches of our planet and your backyard. The white-throated sparrow, until recently tuning up his lilting song at your feeder, is now in northern Quebec serenading the wolves and caribou. The Swainson’s thrush that spent the winter in northern Argentina, and that rested in the shrubbery near your mailbox after a long night of flying, is now nesting in Newfoundland.
So, whether you enjoy a morning chasing warblers in Central Park’s Ramble, listening to ovenbirds sing in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., scanning the Chicago waterfront for ducks or strolling the shaded paths of Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston while vireos and tanagers flash through the old trees, you are drawing delight directly from that immense swath of unsullied northern forest.
It is unthinkable to imagine a world without the abundant migratory birds that we have come to expect will always be there. But as more of their summer breeding grounds are disrupted, there is no guarantee that they will be.
This is why it is imperative that we find a better balance between industry and conservation in northern Canada than we’ve found in most of the rest of the world.
The region is not only a critical haven for migratory birds. It is also one of the largest sources of surface freshwater on earth, and with its many wild rivers rushing to northern oceans, drives global oceanic currents and marine fisheries. It also contains one of the largest terrestrial reservoirs of carbon on the planet. The question is whether the carbon can be left undisturbed, locked in the forest’s peatlands and under its permafrost, rather than being released into the atmosphere to further warm the planet.
There is a way to find that balance between man and nature. A new campaign called Boreal Birds Need Half provides a vision and a road map to get there. Applying modern conservation science principles to the boreal forest, the campaign calls for keeping at least half of the region free of industrial development and its fragmenting impacts on the land. It also seeks to guide development by applying the world’s best responsible-use standards.
The approach was first outlined more than a decade ago by scientists and business, environmental and indigenous groups in the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework.
This proposal provides one of the most significant conservation visions since Theodore Roosevelt protected some 230 million acres of public land while he was president. There is a real opportunity to preserve the best of Canada’s boreal landscape now, while it is still largely intact, rather than later trying to save the tattered remnants of a once-great ecosystem.
The first steps have been profoundly encouraging. Canadian provincial governments in Quebec and Ontario have embraced this approach and are moving forward to protect as much as 212 million acres of boreal habitat that nurture hundreds of millions of migratory birds. Indigenous governments across Canada are also at the forefront of boreal conservation, working to conserve tens of millions of acres of critical habitat. For example, five indigenous governments, working collectively with provincial governments in Manitoba and Ontario, have recently protected more than seven million acres of primary forest within an area they call Pimachiowin Aki (the land that gives life).
That’s a good start. But there is much still to be done.
The provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta together contain 25 percent of Canada’s boreal forest. More than 200 million acres of this forest are intact in those provinces, but most of it lies outside protected areas. The Northwest Territories and Yukon contain over 300 million acres of boreal forest, peatlands and wetlands, with more than three-quarters of it still lacking permanent protection.
These provincial and territorial governments should follow the example of Quebec and Ontario and act to protect at least 50 percent of those expanses. There are also numerous proposals by indigenous governments awaiting action by their provincial or territorial counterparts, including a Cree plan in northern Quebec to set aside roughly three million acres of the Broadback River watershed. These should be approved.
As we celebrate the return of our migratory birds this spring, we need to redouble our support for conservation initiatives that keep those birds singing.
Scott Weidensaul is an ornithologist and the author of “Living on the Wind.” Jeffrey V. Wells is science and policy director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative.