March 29, 2007

Boreal forest part of our Canadian identity

Northern region so vast we tend to take it for granted
Mar 24, 2007 04:30 AM
I think we forget, sometimes, what a treasure the boreal forest is. And now that spring has arrived and birds are returning, it's a good time to celebrate it once again.

In Canada, it covers 520 million hectares and has more intact forest than anywhere else on Earth. Every year, up to 3 billion birds breed there. Roughly 26 million are waterfowl, 7 million are shorebirds, and the remainder are landbirds. Most of the landbirds are songbirds, and most of them – as many as 2 billion – are warblers.

These are awesome numbers, even more so when you realize that 60 per cent of all the landbirds in Canada, and 96 per cent of all the waterfowl in North America, breed in the boreal.

As Peter Blancher and Jeffrey Wells say in two landmark studies (found in the Bird Studies Canada library at "The vastness of the boreal forest region makes it one of the few remaining places on Earth where entire ecosystems function. ... (I)t is vital to the abundance of bird life."

I see the boreal as inextricably linked to a Canadian sense of identity. But, because the forest is so big, I think Canadians take it for granted, as if the wilderness could never end no matter what we do to it.

However, development is spreading relentlessly into the northern boreal, which so far has remained largely intact. With it comes the threat of fragmentation, loss of habitat and consequences as yet uncharted.

In the southern boreal, logging has been clearing more than 6 million hectares of forest every year, 90 per cent by clear-cutting, and now logging companies are making a grab for the northern boreal, where trees can take 200 to 300 years to mature. Prospectors have been cutting lines through the forest for geological surveys, and mines are being developed that will require major roads. In addition, there are proposals to cut wide swaths through Ontario's boreal for power lines from northern Manitoba.

All this has been underway without broad-scale land use planning, which Premier Dalton McGuinty promised in the last election that Queen's Park would put in place before new development would be allowed.

Yet, says Fiona Schmiegelow, there's every reason to be cautious with how any kind of development proceeds, because "we have a fundamental lack of knowledge" about how the boreal functions. Schmiegelow is a research scientist with Environment Canada in Yukon, and a professor of conservation biology at the University of Alberta.

"We need information on ecological systems in the boreal, but we also need information on the changes that are coming (due to global warming)," she says. "Before we make pre-emptive decisions (by approving development), we need to be proactive in planning. ...

"We need to think of the system as a whole – and we can actually do this here, (which is something) that can't be done in the rest of the world," where so much of the global forests have been destroyed.

"We have a landscape of opportunity," she says, "compared with other places where they have only landscapes of regret."

Schmiegelow has special expertise in bird populations, and adds that no one knows what would be the overall impact on breeding birds if there were a large-scale push into the northern boreal, which makes all the more poignant the affection she shows when speaking of the white-throated sparrow. About 110 million breed in the boreal, and their call, she says, is "O Canada, Canada, Canada."

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