Now is the time for action to preserve Manitoba's vital boreal forests
New report describes boreal forests as crucial for wildlife, human welfare and planetary health
As our motorized freighter canoe skimmed across the choppy waters of Wallace Lake, on the southern tip of Manitoba's South Atikaki Provincial Park, Prof. William O. Pruitt, Jr. waved his arm across the gunwale at the thick stands of conifers just back of the shoreline.
"There's at least a hundred years of work left to do," said the late boreal ecologist and zoologist at the University of Manitoba in response to my question about how much more research was needed to fully understand the boreal forest — Manitoba's (and Canada's) dominant forest ecosystem.
That was more than 20 years ago, when I was working on a story about the Taiga Biological Station, which was established by Prof. Pruitt in that park — about 215 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
Now, the critical value of those regions is highlighted in a new and comprehensive report titled The Exceptional Value of Intact Forest Ecosystems, published in the Feb. 26 issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution.
As one specialist says, the paper is "a seminal synthesis of why intact forests are so very crucial" for wildlife, ecosystem functioning, human welfare, and planetary health.
The entire Atikaki Provincial Park region and the neighbouring Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in Ontario — a total of 29,040 square kilometres of boreal forest spanning the borders of both provinces — is being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage designation because of the intact boreal forest.
It is Pimachiowin Aki — "the land that gives life," in the Ojibwe language.
I've come to appreciate the beauty and resilience of the boreal forest during numerous wilderness trips in Manitoba and other provinces over the years. It's a defining feature of our grand country.
The boreal zone is home to an extensive range of mammals, insects, fungi and micro-organisms, including 150 bird species — which is half of the bird species in Canada, according to Natural Resources Canada — and endangered species such as woodland caribou, or boreal caribou, as the population in the boreal zone is known.
Significantly, 70 per cent of Indigenous communities in Canada are located in forested regions.
"As the terrestrial human footprint continues to expand, the amount of native forest that is free from significant damaging human activities is in precipitous decline," says the new report in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
It notes a range of "globally significant environmental values" this type of forest supports, including providing a habitat for wildlife in peril, carbon storage, Indigenous culture and water provision, among others.
The paper further asserts that maintaining and, where possible, restoring the integrity of dwindling intact forests is "an urgent priority for current global efforts" to halt the ongoing biodiversity crisis, slow rapid climate change and achieve sustainability goals.
Overall in Canada, northern boreal forest regions remain largely intact, but southern boreal regions have been broadly affected by modern land use, according to Global Forest Watch Canada's 2010 Atlas of Canada's Intact Forest Landscapes.
While there have been major impacts to the boreal forest in Manitoba from a host of different types of industrial development — including forestry, mining, hydro and the construction of roads and power lines associated with such development — there are still many very large intact forest and wetland ecosystems in Manitoba, says Jeff Wells, a research associate of the Cornell University lab of ornithology who has done significant field research on boreal songbirds in northern Manitoba.
Those forests still have a lot to teach us.- Martin Zeilig
Meanwhile, Manitoba clearly recognizes the vast array of values the boreal forest provides, including responsible resource management and protected areas.
The Province of Manitoba continues to support the bid to have Pimachiowin Aki declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, says a spokesperson for Sustainable Development.
A decision on that bid is expected in July 2018.
"Maintaining as much intact forest as possible is one of the smartest and most economical solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss and maintenance of the life-support systems we humans require to have air to breathe, water to drink and a healthy future for ourselves and generations to come," writes Cornell University's Wells, who has done field research in Pimachiowin Aki.
He also applauded the new $1.3-billion federal government commitment to conservation, as announced in the 2018 budget.
Wells emphasized that this is a perfect time for Manitoba to work with its Indigenous governments and communities to support their land-use planning efforts and their proposals for protecting and managing the intact forest and wetland landscapes within their traditional lands.
"These intact forests typically provide more environmental and social values than forests that have been degraded by human activities," say the authors of the new Nature Ecology & Evolution report.
Let's listen to those wise words. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to maintain Manitoba's, and Canada's, natural heritage.
Those forests still have a lot to teach us.