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Canada will be urged today by more than 1,500 scientists from more than 50 countries to strengthen protection of the increasingly threatened boreal forest, a key component in the planet's battle with climate change.

Only 10 per cent of the forest is currently protected and the spread of logging, mining and oil and gas operations into Canada's large northern forest is putting at risk the largest carbon storehouse on Earth, the scientists state in the letter obtained by The Globe and Mail. The letter will be released today.

Countries with tropical rain forests such as Brazil have long faced international pressure from conservationists, but Canada's forest is in many ways just as important to the planet, said scientist Terry Root of Stanford University, who signed the letter and has also authored several reports as a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"People think, 'Oh, the tropical forests are so exotic and have all these crazy-looking species that we've never seen,'" she said. But Dr. Root and the other scientists note the boreal forest has millions of birds, wetlands that filter water, and a large ecosystem of predators and prey such as wolves and caribou. "The boreal forest is a very, very important place," she said.

With the possibility that climate change could wipe out the habitat of huge numbers of species, protecting Canada's large boreal forest could provide plants and animals with a sanctuary to withstand the climate-change storm until humans reduce emissions to earlier levels, she said.

The letter comes as key debates are taking place in Canada that will impact the forest. The expansion of Alberta's oil sands is an issue, but so are other measures that are considered to be of environmental benefit, such as the expansion of hydro power.

The push to reduce dependence on coal-fired power plants, particularly in Ontario, has led to a renewed interest in large hydro electricity imports from Manitoba, Quebec and Labrador. Provincial officials have been meeting with industry leaders to discuss the merits of a major new power grid that would share hydro power between provinces. While hydro power produces few greenhouse-gas emissions, the power lines and hydro dams raise concerns about loss of animal habitat.

The scientists' letter points out that forests absorb and store carbon dioxide, playing a key role in the fight against climate change. Global warming concerns are based on predictions that human-made emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

The boreal forest, a green band primarily made up of coniferous trees, stretches from Alaska to Newfoundland and from the northern tundra to a varying southern edge that touches Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

"We are concerned that current conservation planning efforts are insufficient to sustain the ecological integrity of Canada's Boreal region, one of the most intact ecosystems left in the world," the letter states. "Specifically, the amount of land in protected status within the Canadian Boreal, now at under 10 per cent, is inadequate and must be markedly increased."