Canada’s Boreal forest may be off most people’s radar, but as the largest unbroken expanse of wild forest left in the world–about 12 billion acres–it is of vital importance to everyone on the planet. What, you might ask, does a remote, densely-forested region in the northernmost part of a decidedly northern country have to do with the teaming cities straddling the world’s lower latitudes?
The answer is simple: it captures climate-killing carbon dioxide and holds, literally, tons and tons of water. Boreal forests ring the top of the planet in a frosty, coniferous crown. Nestled against the confines of the Arctic Circle, they teem with a life vastly different to the grimy streets of places like New York City and Paris: Moose, caribou, migratory waterfowl, and pelagic fish who have swum far upstream from the ocean in order to spawn. Parts of the forest in the northern reaches of the Canadian province of Manitoba–around Lake Winnipeg, Hudson Bay, and all the lakes and rivers in between–have served as home and hunting grounds to aboriginal groups for millennia. Native communities dotting the landscape are accessible only by air and river barge during summer, and by temporary roads plowed through the snow and ice in the winter. Compared to other places in the world, the forest is virtually untouched. All of the Boreal’s resources are important, but water has been a key issue at a time when many of the world’s arid and semi-arid societies eye their diminishing water supplies warily. The Canadian Boreal claims five of the world’s largest river systems, a quarter of its wetlands, and nearly 200 million acres of surface freshwater. It is the largest collection of uncontaminated freshwater left in the world.
Despite the fact that parts of the Canadian Boreal forest have been considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it is continually threatened by industrial development, mostly in the form of hydroelectric power production, oil and gas drilling, mining and logging. Harsh winds blowing regularly from Hudson Bay toward Manitoba’s populated south along Lake Winnipeg eventually took their toll on industry. A severe storm in 1996 snapped transmission lines connecting hydroelectric power plants in the province’s north with consumers clustered on both sides of the international border. Manitoba Hydro–the company operating 14 hydroelectric plants in the province–acted with a consortium of development interests to abandon the lines’s routing on the west side of the lake. They wanted another, less exposed and shorter set of transmission lines paralleling Lake Winnipeg’s eastern shore. But a group of First Nations, environmental advocates and Manitoba’s own government responded with uproar, and the proposal morphed into a legal battle spanning more than a decade. While the eastern route was deemed shorter and cheaper, it also cut right through a huge block of unmolested Boreal forest habitat, and was too close to First Nation communities for their comfort.
Manitoba’s provincial government, the Poplar First Nation, and a number of other native and environmental advocacy organizations were finally successful in their quest for protective legislation earlier this summer. The resulting law protects a 2 million acre chunk, roughly the size of Yellowstone Park. The new reserve joins 185 million acres already set aside for conservation, or about 12 percent of the entire forest. Now conservation proponents are pushing for the UN’s World Heritage Site designation for the forest. At a time when energy development has exploded in Alberta and other parts of Canada, the law set a valuable precedent in stemming the destructive tide which seems to be wracking our friendly northern neighbors’ land. Aboriginal communities trying to exercise more control over their ancestral lands also celebrated the victory, as it reinforced a 2009 legislation protecting most of Poplar River First Nation’s reserve.
As the world’s population burgeons and climate changes, places like The Canadian Boreal forest will only become more important in terms of water supply, biodiversity, climate regulation and the filtration its wetlands provide. Down in the middle parts of the globe where most of us live, we can see pristine areas disappearing quickly. It seems unwise to let a treasure trove of resources like the Boreal forest go by the wayside simply because we can’t see it and don’t really think about it all that often. Now that the world has been made smaller by air travel, telecommunications and, more recently, climate change, it’s time we took notice.