Comment: Bold vision could save our endangered forests

Recent news coverage has drawn a lot of attention to the work of a prominent panel of Canadian and international scientists on the global significance and national value of Canada’s vast boreal region — and the actions needed to conserve it.

The challenge presented by these internationally respected scientists is enormous, but it is not insurmountable.

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This region is one of the world’s largest remaining intact forest and wetland ecosystems, comparable in ecological significance to the Brazilian Amazon and Russian taiga.

The boreal is an abundant constellation of lakes and rivers teeming with fish, and immense forests that are home to caribou, moose, bear, wolverine and a rich variety of other wildlife. It runs across the northern edges of most provinces and the southern tips of the territories.

For billions of songbirds and tens of millions of waterfowl, the boreal is the nursery at the northern end of great flyways that extend to the southern United States and into the Southern Hemisphere.

What happens here affects populations well beyond the borders of the northern forest. The dramatic and expensive floods, storms and wildfires experienced by many Canadian cities in recent months are a reminder of our ties to the boreal. As the world’s largest storehouse of carbon, it helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

So how can we balance these critical environmental values with the wave of energy, mining and forestry activities in the boreal, and new roads, pipelines and ports being considered? The scientists’ report offered a bold challenge. They called for urgent action to build a truly sustainable legacy of land, water, communities and economies for Canada’s boreal.

Foremost among the solutions that they highlighted was the critical need to maintain at least 50 per cent of the boreal free of large-scale industrial development, with the remainder to be subjected to the most environmentally advanced development practices. Importantly, both protection and development should be planned in close consultation with aboriginal communities whose land will be affected.

Is this achievable? There are working models from across Canada that demonstrate that it is.

In fact, even on a strictly economic basis, this balanced approach has shown itself to be more effective at bringing industrial projects on line, in cases such as the First Nations’ agreement at Voisey’s Bay or eco-certified forest lands, for example.

Aboriginal communities from British Columbia to Labrador are taking their stewardship responsibilities very seriously, creating land-use plans that allow for a balanced future for their territories — and some governments and companies are starting to work constructively with them.

Quebec and Ontario already have commitments in place to protect 50 per cent of their boreal regions, while at the same time enabling sustainable development. Manitoba is another province now undertaking substantial boreal conservation initiatives. These efforts are not without their significant challenges, but one important lesson that has already been learned is that success will require collaboration between sectors, disciplines and interests.

A good example of this collaboration is the Boreal Leadership Council, a group of leaders spanning the finance sector, forest and energy companies, aboriginal organizations and non-governmental organizations who started working together in 2003.

They all committed to finding lasting solutions in the boreal that reflect the needs of large-scale conservation, while promoting healthy communities, aboriginal rights and responsible development. Ten years later, they are still hard at work together.

Why? Because in truly Canadian style, they see that a shared, integrated and balanced approach to land-use decisions in Canada’s boreal will maintain both our natural heritage and sustainable economic futures for generations to come.

So there is reason for hope that we can get it right. But to realize this potential, more leaders from federal, provincial and aboriginal governments and from industry will have to join with those striving toward this bright, bold vision for Canada’s boreal. The report from international scientists should be received as a welcome stimulus to refocus and redouble our efforts individually and collectively toward this truly worthy goal.

Alan Young is executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative.

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