The world’s biggest forest is in our own backyard and we need to protect it

Canada’s immense boreal forest covers half of the country and is the largest intact forest in the world. It influences the planet’s climate, temperature, and oceans, but only a fraction is preserved. Graham Duggan

The boreal forest is the largest forest in the world, wrapping right around Earth’s entire northern hemisphere like a giant green headband. It acts as the lungs of the planet, producing much of the air we breathe and influencing the world’s climate. 

What happens in the boreal doesn’t necessarily stay in the boreal. It’s important to all of us. - Biologist Jill Johnstone

Canada’s part of the boreal covers 300 million hectares and stretches over half of our country’s landmass. If you drive north from just about any city in Canada, you'll end up in the boreal forest.

This vast woodland is home to many of Canada’s iconic animals and hosts 300 species of migratory birds during the spring and summer months. With millions of lakes and rivers crisscrossing the forest, it is also the world’s largest source of surface freshwater.

In comparison to the world’s five largest forests including the Amazon and the Congo, the boreal is the most untouched and offers one of the best opportunities to ‘get it right’ when it comes to conservation.

Like one giant neighbourhood, the boreal’s trees are interconnected through a massive network, allowing them to share resources, work with other species, and create their own weather. Biologist Jill Johnstone, featured in the documentary What Trees Talk About,  studies these interconnections, and how disturbance can alter the function of the forest, “It makes a lot of sense to think of these forests as very much an integrated community. You pull one string, and a whole bunch of things come along with it.”

This giant forest is vulnerable.  Mining, logging and development activities are pushing further into the forest every year. At the current rate, the boreal is losing 3,000 football fields worth of forest every day — the same rate that we’re losing Earth’s tropical rainforests.  “I think we need to appreciate, value and respect the integrity of the boreal forest, as we rely so heavily on its wholeness, here in Canada and around the globe,” says Johnstone.

North America’s Nursery

The boreal forest attracts 325 bird species to its lands each year, with 1 to 3 billion birds migrating north to nest and raise their young amongst its trees. It’s known as ‘North America’s Bird Nursery’, and almost half of the continent’s birds rely on the forest and wetlands for breeding habitat. However, that nursery is turning into a nightmare. In Ontario alone, up to 85,000 bird nests are lost every year.

For the birds, that means an attack on both home fronts — exposed to lost habitat both here at home, and in their tropical wintering grounds. Without taking action, silent forests without birds chirping or the dawn chorus could be a thing of the future. And it’s not only the migrating birds that are at risk.

Canada’s grey jays, just one of species that stick around all year, are also now seeing hard times. These birds cleverly store fresh foods like berries, mushrooms, and worms, underneath the bark of the spruce trees in their territory. The spruce resin helps to preserve this larder, and over winter, the jay feeds itself and its chicks from this natural refrigerator.

But recent years have seen warmer winters, and the jay’s food stores have been spoiling too early, limiting their food supply and slowly starving their chicks. With multiple warm winters, the grey jay population has dropped.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Climate change is spoiling the grey jay's food stores too early.
Canadian Icons Are Disappearing

Canada’s boreal forest is home to an incredible array of iconic species, including beavers, lynx, wood bison, and woodland caribou. Many of these animals are also being squeezed out of their habitats and their populations are now declining.

The woodland caribou is just one of the boreal species that is on the brink. Once found ranging across the country from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador, their numbers have dropped significantly over the years. Across the country, caribou are threatened by the break up of intact forest, which allows moose and deer to infiltrate, compete for food, and bring predators with them.

Life would be tough without it

Without the boreal forest, life in Canada, and around the world, would be very different. Here at home, the country would be much drier and hotter, negatively impacting everything from food production to water supply.

The boreal wetlands, lakes and rivers filter billions of litres of fresh water, with much of it flowing into the Arctic and northern seas. This water becomes critical to forming sea ice, helping to cool the Earth and supporting marine biodiversity — it is crucial to the health of the world.

What Trees Talk About
Canada’s Boreal Forest Is A Thriving Social Community of Trees That Work Together

It produces the air we breathe and collects the carbon we emit, all while supporting wildlife and humans, including over 600 Indigenous communities and those who rely upon on it. Combined, the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel estimates that all of these services would cost $700 billion each and every year, but the boreal forest does all of this, for free.

How to protect the world’s largest forest

“There is no single activity that threatens the future of the boreal forest. It is a culmination of activities ranging from pollution and climate change to wildlife disease and land development, " says Jill Johnstone.

Since 2007, the amount of forest that has come under some form of government protection in Canada has doubled, and now at twelve percent. Much of the protection comes from provinces and territories, but there is still work to be done in order to keep the large areas of land intact and avoid the fragmentation that could diminish the forest’s ability to function.

Protecting a forest that stretches across half of Canada may seem like a daunting task but there are real things you can do to help preserve the boreal and all the wildlife that call it home.

  • Get involved. Many nature and conservation organizations are conducting campaigns to help the boreal. Check out some of the larger campaigns listed above, as well as ones in your local area.
  • Buy Responsibly. Reduce your wood and paper consumption, and only purchase sustainable products and that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
  • The Three R’s. Always reduce, reuse and recycle - at home, at work, and out in public. Work to implement proper recycling programs at school or in your workplace and find out more about your local recycling programs.
  • Spread the Word. Raise awareness and educate others on the importance of the boreal forest and how vital it is to protect the intact land that we still have left. Highlight the importance to the natural ecosystems, to all Canadians, and others around the world.

Jill Johnstone is insistent that everyone needs to consider the future of the forest, “What happens in the boreal doesn’t necessarily stay in the boreal. It’s important to all of us.”

For more, watch What Trees Talk About on The Nature of Things.