A new report reveals that Canada’s boreal forest possesses more unfrozen freshwater than any place on earth and as industry is rapidly changing its landscape, scientists have issued an urgent call for making boreal preservation a primary global issue.
The report by the Pew Environment Group, A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, the World’s Waterkeeper (pdf), notes that Canada’s boreal forest remains the most unspoiled forest on the planet. It contains one quarter of the planet’s wetlands, the boreal forest also possesses five of the 50 largest rivers in the world as well as Great Bear Lake, the planet’s largest unpolluted freshwater body.
“The world needs to move quickly to preserve precious water resources,” said David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta, in a Pew press release. He is also a member of the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel (IBCSP),which reviewed the report. “Enacting sound conservation policy to protect Canada’s free-flowing waters and wetlands in the boreal is not just a local issue; it is one of global importance,” Schindler added.
The report refers to Canada as the “World’s Waterkeeper,” home to 197 million acres of surface freshwater, more than any other country on the planet. The buffer it provides against climate change and food and water shortages is estimated to have an annual value of $700 billion.
D. Langhorst/Ducks Unlimited
A new report by the Pew Environment Group states that Canada's boreal forest possesses the planet's largest and most pristine freshwater system.
Many of the boreal forest’s waterways are among Canada’s most pristine, with low or undetectable levels of human-caused pollutants. They have few invasive plant and animal species and have few inputs of human-created nitrogen and phosphorous.
Canada’s boreal forest is also home to the planet’s highest concentration of large lakes, wetlands and undammed rivers. The largest amount of soil carbon on earth is stored in its peatlands and saturated forests, and in the sediment of its lakes and deltas.
According to the Pew report, Canada’s boreal provides protection
against the global loss of biodiversity, irreplaceable food and cultural benefits to rural communities, and slows the impact of global warming.
The boreal is home to half of the remaining North American Atlantic Salmon and in February 2010, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced the creation of the Eagle River Waterway Provincial Park, an effort to protect the salmon and the surrounding habitat. The 741,000 acre park was the result of Aboriginal, community and tourism industry support. It is designed to allow a continuation of traditional pursuits and protecting the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
To date, a total of 185 million acres of boreal, including primary river areas and wetlands, have been protected from development, thanks to efforts by the Pew Environment Group, First Nations, key conservation groups, and various government entities. The number represents more than 12 percent of the boreal’s 1.2 billion acre forest.
The study notes that by 2025, human activity will have taken over 70 percent of the planet’s renewable freshwater supply. Of the globe’s major ecosystems, freshwater is ranked as the most endangered, including much of southern Canada and the continental US. Development’s footprint in the boreal forest has increased to 180 million acres.
Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch Canada
Industrial impact in Canada continues moving northward, providing great challenges for protection of its boreal forest.
Hydropower in the boreal
Across the entire country, Canada has at least 626 large dams that create hydropower. Almost 40 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from waters generating from or flowing through the boreal forest. Two of the world’s largest hydroelectric projects are located in Canada’s boreal.
The largest in Canada is northern Quebec’s James Bay project, now called the Le Grande Complex, a mammoth concentration of eight dams that generate the second-largest amount of electricity by any hydropower facility on the planet, second to China’s Three Gorges project.
Dams used for hydroelectricity create many problems for the boreal forest. Among them, migratory fish are blocked from traveling river systems, denied access to upstream spawning grounds. This has led to the extirpation or threatened the runs of various salmon species.
Natural flows of streams, above and below the dams, are altered and in many cases, open the door for invasive species of plants and animals. Dam creation reduces the advantages associated with naturally-occurring floods.
From a historical perspective, Aboriginal communities bear the brunt of negative impacts created by hydropower. This has led to the extirpation or threatened the runs of various salmon species. These include community displacement, loss of traditional hunting grounds from inundations as a result of reservoir creations, decreased access to lands, and habitat degradation leading to declines in fish and game populations.
Valerie Courtois/Pew Environment Group
Canada' boreal forest is home to a staggering number of wildlife species, including the woodland caribou. As its waters empty into the northern oceans and seas, it provides critical habitat for some of the planet's most endangered birds.
Much of eastern Canada’s boreal dumps its freshwater into the massive Hudson and James bays, where it travels northward toward the Labrador Current, then heading south into the North Atlantic.
The western boreal is home to the mighty Yukon River, which feeds the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, before emptying into the Bering Sea. The delta is home to an incredible concentration of nesting and migratory birds, including 2 million ducks, 100 million shorebirds and seabirds, and 750,000 swans and geese.
Also in western Canada is the Mackenzie River, heart of the Mackenzie Basin. The Mackenzie River Basin contains 20 percent of Canada’s land area and is home to the largest north-flowing river in North America, After crossing the entire length of the Northwest Territories, it becomes the 3.2 million-acre Mackenzie Delta, where it joins the Beaufort Sea as the second-largest delta in the Arctic and 10th largest delta in the world.
Reducing boreal flows into surrounding seas and oceans would result in less Arctic sea ice, advancing worldwide average temperatures, the study reveals. It also notes that if this were to remain unchecked, some areas of the boreal could see less precipitation, leading to the drying of ponds and lakes, with levels so low their outflow stops.
Map courtesy of Genevieve Margherio
Rivers that begin in Canda's boreal forest provide essential food supplies for marine life, help create Arctic sea ice, and influence the oceans' currents.
Mining, oil and gas in the boreal
The boreal forest region of Canada is no stranger to mineral interests. Its mineral resources have been targeted for more than 200 years. As a result, there are now more than 7,000 abandoned mines in need of varying degrees of restoration as well as 105 active mines. Of the abandoned mines, more than 3,000 are located within one kilometer of a stream, river or lake.
Canada is the world leader in uranium production, and third-largest producer of diamonds. Exploration rights in Quebec alone stretch over 30 million acres.
Canada is also the United States’ top supplier of foreign oil, sending its southern neighbor more than 2 million barrels of crude oil daily.
One of the major assaults on the boreal forest is surface mining associated with the Alberta oil sands, supplier of more than half of the oil Canada exports to the US. Huge volumes of water are robbed from the Athabasca River and underground saline aquifers.
Wetland habitats must be completely drained and removed to reach the bitumen deposits below. The report notes that 40 percent of the habitat being removed (740,000 acres) for oil sand strip mining are wetlands.
As expected, there are numerous environmental problems connected to the mining industry. Among them, thousands of square kilometers of wetlands loss due to continual pumping to remove water for mining access. Contaminants generated from the mining industry include arsenic, cyanide, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals. Acids, salts and fine sediment particles are also thrown into the contamination mix.
Leaching of contaminants long after mines have been abandoned is a major problem for the boreal, as well. The study gave the recently closed Giant Mine near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, as an example. It contains more than 200,000 tonnes of arsenic dust in underground chambers that will require hundreds of millions of dollars to stabilize or remove it to prevent contaminating nearby Great Slave Lake.
Photo credit: Chad Delaney
Canada's boreal contains the world's largest supply of soil carbon, stored in its peatlands and saturated forests.
Timber harvesting in the boreal
Soil erosion, the aftereffect of logging, is another predator of the boreal. In addition to being the largest exporter of pulp in the world, Canada is also the second-largest pulp producing country on the planet. As a result, erosion’s effect on the boreal is profound.
Forest removal leads to increased silt and water inputs into waterways, double to triple the levels prior to harvests. There are often increased levels of mercury in waterways for several years after harvests. Timber harvests near river banks and shorelines also increases water temperatures and exposes aquatic organisms to higher levels of UV radiation.
The study notes that the US is the largest consumer of Canada’s boreal forest product exports. Much of the timber is used for throwaway products, including junk mail, catalogs and toilet paper.
Hydroelectricity is the primary source of power in Quebec, and it powers almost all homes and businesses there. Additionally, 30 percent of the electricity used in Canada is exported from Quebec. Quebec also exports energy to the northeastern US, including providing more than 25 percent of Vermont’s energy.
Quebec’s World-Class Conservation Efforts
The report notes Quebec’s “world-class” vision for conservation efforts of the boreal. This vision includes Plan Nord, a strategy of establishing protected areas covering 50 percent of Northern Quebec.
During the past eight years, 21.6 million acres have been given protection, for a total of 33.5 million acres, just above 8 percent of the province. The plan also includes raising the 8 percent figure to 12 percent by 2015, with protection from all industrial activities provided to an additional 38 percent.
In 2002, Quebec signed into law the Natural Heritage Conservation Act (NHCA), a plan providing legal guidelines for the province’s designation of aquatic reserves, biodiversity reserves and ecological reserves that generally prohibit land-based industrial activities.
Since becoming law, the NHCA has seen the formal designation of one aquatic reserve, five biodiversity reserves and 70 ecological reserves. Under proposal are 8 aquatic reserves, 78 biodiversity reserves and six ecological reserves. All of these proposed reserves have been made off-limits to industrial activity as the proposals undergo considerations.
Quebec province is also home to 24 national parks. Including the addition of Parc Marin du Saguenay-Saint-Laurent, these parks now encompass 3 million acres. There are also at least eight additional areas under study or proposed as national parks of Quebec.
Among the many other lands being considered as future protected areas with prohibited industrial activity by the Quebec government is the proposed 2-million acres that bounds much of the George river flowing north into Ungava Bay.
The Pew report lists many study areas being conducted by Quebec officials, noting
Clearly there are world-class opportunities for conservation within the boreal forest region of Quebec that will ensure the future of some of the world’s last great waterways and wetlands. Taking advantage of these opportunities will require a careful consideration of the impact of hydropower development on ecological services and biodiversity.Summary of Recommendations
Citing the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework (BFCF), the report calls for preserving 50 percent of the boreal, including the protection of entire wetland, river and lake ecosystems from industrial activities and hydropower expansion.
Reformed mining legislation is another recommendation of the study. Modernizing the legislation in jurisdictions across the boreal should require aboriginal consultation and should aim to improve water quality standards and habitat protection in all phases of mineral activities. It cites the Ontario Mining Act to be used as a model for improved legislation.
Wetlands map courtesy the Pew Environment Group
The Pew report calls for a national peatlands stewardship policy that will result in a "no net loss of wetlands and peatlands."
Reforming Canada’s hydropower policy will be needed if the boreal is to be protected. No new hydroelectric facilities should be approved unless their proponents are able to
demonstrate meaningful participation and consent from affected aboriginal people and minimal impacts on affected ecosystems, following a comprehensive environmental review.
All planned and existing facilities should have state-of-the-art fish ladders, allowing the passage of migratory fish to and from traditional spawning grounds.
Transmission line routes should minimize new disturbances and use existing corridors whenever possible. The establishment of new protected watersheds should compensate for the loss of freshwater habitat and diversity already created by hydropower development.
The report also recommends protecting the vast Mackenzie Basin by fully implementing The Mackenzie Basin Agreement, an effort at combining land use policies by provinces and territories. It calls for all signatory parties to 1997’s Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Water Agreement to follow through on their protection commitments.
Additionally, the Pew report suggests that Canada’s government should create a national peatlands stewardship policy resulting in a “no net loss of wetlands and peatlands.”
Photo courtesy Steve Kallick
Canada has a unique opportunity to preserve its boreal forest and the rich water reserves within it, setting an example for worldwide conservation efforts.