As resource companies look to northern forests in search of untapped minerals and energy, scientists and conservancy groups say too little heed is being paid to the environmental wealth created by Canada's boreal regions.
The Boreal Songbird Initiative and Ducks Unlimited are marking the United Nations International Day for Biological Diversity on Wednesday with the release of a report that highlights 10 "cool" Canadian biodiversity hot spots.
They include places like Quebec's Tursujuq National Park, which is home to a rare population of landlocked freshwater seals, and the Peel River Watershed, which is known as an ecological "Noah's Ark" because it was an ice-free refuge for many species when most of North America was covered by glaciers.
Jeff Wells, the science and policy director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, said most people understand the importance of the Amazon River Basin to the health of the global environment but the critical role played by Canada's boreal forests is under-appreciated.
"We're trying to increase the understanding that this is the Amazon of the north," Dr. Wells said this week in a telephone interview.
People understand that the Amazon is a large area of intact habitat that is in need of protection, he said, "but the boreal is equally special."
The new report points out that Canada's boreal forest, which spans most of the northern part of the country, is the world's densest terrestrial carbon storehouse – it contains the equivalent of about 300 years worth of Canada's annual greenhouse gas emissions – and is the world's largest source of pristine fresh water.
The forests, which are largely intact, are home to the large animals that are symbolic of the Canadian wilderness, such as elk, caribou, wolves and moose as well as huge numbers of migratory birds and rare species of plants.
While many Canadians imagine the boreal as a far-away destination for wilderness adventure, "it has been seen as a natural-resource, industrial-development frontier land," Dr. Wells said. "When there are people who think about that, and don't think of its important role in the earth's ecology, then it gets out of balance."
The boreal forests affect the daily lives of Canadians, even the majority of us who live in the big cities of the south, he said. They are the nesting grounds of the birds that fly over our heads. They are the source of major watersheds. They offset carbon. They are the spawning places of the fish that we eat.
"We hope [the report] raises the awareness of the entire boreal region and how special it is globally," Dr. Wells said. And, he said, he hopes it will spur more Canadians to become defenders of their forest heritage.
"Policy makers are making decisions right now about its future." Dr. Wells said. "So every Canadian citizen has an opportunity to be a part of it."
The 10 hot spots that were selected for their unique features, as well as the way they represent the diversity of the Canadian boreal forest, are:
- Caribou House in northern Quebec and Labrador which, until recently, was home to the world’s largest herd of migratory tundra caribou;
- The Hudson and James Bay Lowlands, which is a massive carbon sink by virtue of being the largest peatland system on earth;
- Pimachiowin Aki in northwestern Ontario and Manitoba which has been proposed as a World Heritage Site because it is one of the last remaining intact portions of southern boreal forest;
- The Broadback River Watershed in northern Quebec, which is of the few remaining large undammed rivers in that province and is home to one of the last old-growth forests;
- Thaidene Nene, the area surrounding the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake, which features a diverse mixture of treed areas and tundra and is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species;
- The Saskatchewan River Delta, one of the largest freshwater inland deltas in North America, which is a huge carbon sink and home to as many as 200 bird species, 48 fish species and 43 mammals;
- The Peel River Watershed in the Yukon and Northwest Territories which was an ice-free refuge for animals during the most recent ice age and is the habitat of range-restricted mammals like the mountainous Dall’s sheep, the singular singing vole, and the collared pika;
- The South Nahanni Watershed, also in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, which contains dramatic canyons dotted with limestone caves, underground rivers, labyrinths, and sinkholes and mounds with terraced hot springs;
- Tursujuq National Park on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay that is a summer sanctuary for beluga whales and home to a rare population of landlocked freshwater seals;
- Sacred Headwaters in northern British Columbia that contain some of Canada’s most important salmon-bearing rivers.