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Q&A: Can Canada's Pristine Boreal Forest Be Saved By Conservation?

'What you're really looking at here is cumulative development. In a sense, death by a thousand cuts'

Interview by David Sassoon

Mar 29, 2011
Map of Canada's boreal forest

The Pew Environment Group released a earlier this month urging protection of the Canadian boreal, the world's largest intact forest and the biggest carbon sink on land.

(Listen to the SolveClimate News podcast episode: Canada's Pristine Forest of Blue: Conservation or Death by 1,000 Cuts)

The study says the "forest of blue," which covers 60 percent of Canada's landmass and contains nearly 200 million acres of surface freshwater, is under threat from oil sands development, mining, logging and hydropower projects, despite efforts to protect large swathes of it. David Sassoon spoke with Steven Kallick, director of the at Pew, who has devoted much of his life to the boreal's conservation.

David Sassoon: What are some of the report's key findings?

Steven Kallick: The most important finding is that this area is the largest intact wetlands complex in the world. It has the most unfrozen surface freshwater of any ecosystem on the planet, and some of the world's largest lakes.

There's no other landscape like it. And the value of this resource goes way beyond the borders of Canada. It has global effects on climate, on carbon sequestration and on migratory wildlife that really make it a global concern.

Sassoon: What inspired the need for the report?

Kallick: We saw this paper on global surface freshwater, and it was quite apparent that Canada's boreal forest stood out as the one place where you have both a biological treasure and a political opportunity. It really differentiated itself from Brazil and Russia, in that we felt we could work in Canada successfully.

The argument is, if we don't do conservation planning in advance of this development, then this forest will end up in a few decades as degraded as every other temperate or tropical forest in the world. And that's what we don't want to see.

Sassoon: What does all that water mean for people around the world?

Kallick: One of the things that science is just starting to figure out is that the existence of that much water in the summer causes quite a bit of evaporation and probably has a pretty significant impact on rainfall patterns in our mountains in North America.

We have also seen — because of all the work that's been done on Arctic sea ice — that water flowing out of Canada's boreal forest is a major necessary component in the mechanism of creating sea ice in the high Arctic. And that's important for cooling the entire planet.

Of course, we know that the boreal forest is a major carbon sink. The amount of carbon stored in the boreal forest just in Canada is thought to be 26 to 27 times the annual industrial output of carbon on the planet. It's a tremendous volume of carbon that's safely stored away in the wetlands and the peat bogs of the forest.

Sassoon: In what ways are these resources, and the ecosystem services they provide, under threat?

Kallick: There are some that are quite dramatic. And you can see them from outer space, such as the development of the tar sands in Alberta, where they have to remove the boreal from the surface before they can strip mine the bitumen that they use to make synthetic oil.

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