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The Globe and Mail

Canada becomes unlikely world leader in forest conservation

paul french The Globe and Mail

Somewhat to his surprise, one of the top researchers for a global environmental group will tell an international scientific meeting Monday that Canada has quietly become the world leader in forest conservation.

Despite suffering international criticism as climate-change laggards and dirty-oil promoters, over the last few years Canadian governments and resource companies have quietly committed to preserve a greater percentage of their forest ecosystems than anywhere else on earth.

"It's amazing, it's quite extraordinary," said Steve Kallick of the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group, who will detail his findings Monday to the annual conference of the Society for Conservation Biology in Edmonton.

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"The Canadian boreal forest is well on its way to becoming the world's most protected forest landscape."

That's a lot of landscape. The boreal forest, the immense belt of trees that covers the top of most Canadian provinces and the bottom of its territories, covers about 5.8 million square kilometres.

It's a seasonal home to millions of songbirds, a crucial storehouse of carbon and a vast stage - one of the last on earth - where predators and prey, such as wolves and caribou, can play out their ancient drama undisturbed.

Three-quarters of it is intact, making it one of the three largest natural areas left on the planet. If governments follow through on the commitments already made, Mr. Kallick said, two-thirds of that untouched area will come under some form of conservation agreement - nearly 3 million square kilometres.

The Amazon rainforest, one of the other three remaining large forest ecosystems, enjoys protection on only half its range - just under 2 million square kilometres. Russia's taiga region runs a distant third.

And Mr. Kallick said the level of protection being considered in Canada is high. Agreements under consideration would allow highly restricted development on about half the land and no resource exploitation at all on the other half.

The Canadian boreal forest "is far in advance of the other two," Mr. Kallick said. "We're hopeful Canada can inspire these other countries."

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How did it happen? Bit by bit, through co-operation between first nations, environmental groups, industry and government.

Mr. Kallick credits a series of announcements starting in 2007 by the federal government for getting the ball rolling.

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper took action and withdrew from development a series of huge areas in the Northwest Territories that had been the subject of long-standing consideration and negotiation, including the south Nahanni watershed and the east arm of Great Slave Lake.

Provincial governments started getting in on the act. Ontario protected nearly half a million square kilometres of northern boreal forest above the current commercial cutline and Quebec followed suit with 1.1 million square kilometres.

Alberta has promised to preserve 20 per cent of the boreal forest in its oil-sands region, even if it means restricting some mining leases.

"Prime Minister Harper has, by taking positive actions in the Northwest Territories, started a snowball effect," said Mr. Kallick. "Each of these actions then creates more impetus for change and more and more unlikely things are happening."

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Mr. Kallick cautions that many of these promises are just that and lack timetables, funding or lines on a map. Some agreements are time limited and need to be renewed.

Peter Lee, a scientist with Global Forest Watch, will present a paper at the conference underlining continuing pressures on the boreal including oil and gas, logging and hydro projects.

About 90 per cent of logging in Canada still occurs in virgin forest, he said. And about 20 per cent of the boreal is affected by energy development.

But he agrees Canada has come a long way.

"When you do step back, it is quite staggering," he said. "I've never seen anything like it in my lifetime."

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