Seeing Canada through the trees: Why Canadians can lead the world in forest conservation

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Dan Kraus is senior conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada

Forests define our Canadian geography and identity. One-third of our country is covered with trees, and forests occur in every province and territory. Jobs in forestry employ more than 200,000  Canadians and support many Indigenous and northern communities. Our forests are the reason why I’ve had days in the backcountry when I’ve encountered more tourists, such as Germans in the Yukon, or Japanese in Algonquin Park, than Canadians.

It’s easy to think that our forests are endless, and it’s a mindset we’ve held for a long time. But we need to change our thinking. Although there are vast areas of forest in our northlands, these places represent some of our planet’s last stands of large intact forests. In southern Canada, we have lost and degraded many of our forests, impacting both nature and people. In fact, if some Canadian regions were separate nations, such as the farmlands of southwestern Ontario, they would rank with developing countries including Haiti and Madagascar for their loss of forest cover.

Forests in southern Canada have been heavily impacted by land use change, fragmentation and invasive species. In some regions of southern Ontario, forests have been reduced to less than seven per cent of the landscape and are continuing to decline. Invasive forest insects and diseases have taken a heavy toll on many tree species, including white ash, American chestnut and white elm.

Canada’s northern boreal forests are unfamiliar to most Canadians. Here In these hinterlands, we can find the more intact forests than anywhere else on the planet. These forests are also the largest storehouse of terrestrial carbon in the world, holding nearly twice as much carbon per square kilometre as tropical forests. It’s estimated that the annual fall migration from the boreal forest alone includes three to five billion birds.

There are opportunities for Canada and Canadians to do more to become world leaders in forest conservation. In Canada’s north, we have a unique opportunity to create the world’s largest network of protected forests in the world. Canada may rank third for total forest cover (behind Brazil and Russia), but if there’s anywhere in the world where intact forests can be maintained, my bet is on Canada.

Increasing the area of protection in the boreal forest from the current 8.3 percent to 17 per cent to help meet our international commitments for the Convention on Biological Diversity.  If we protected at least 50 per cent of Canada’s boreal forest, the total protected area would be larger than Mexico and Central America combined.

Unlike forests in the north, the vast majority of southern forests are on private lands, and their protection and restoration requires thousands of individual actions. Fortunately, many land owners, farmers, corporations and governments are taking steps to protect these private forests.  A partnership between TD Bank and the Nature Conservancy of Canada between 2012 and 2016 helped protect 160 square kilometres of forests in southern Canada. The Government of Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program has matched funding from provincial governments and individuals to protect more than 4,300 square kilometres in southern Canada, including many forests.

Finding conservation solutions for our southern forests is important for nature and people. These forests provide habitat for many species, but also provide services to our communities. From recharging the groundwater that we drink, to holding floodwaters during storms, to providing places for recreation, this natural capital is important to maintaining our quality of life. There’s no doubt we have made important progress, but is there is still urgency for forest conservation in Canada.

We have a unique conservation challenge in Canada. Can we protect our northern forests, which represent some of the last large, wild forests on the planet, while protecting and restoring the degraded, threatened forests of southern Canada, where most of us live?

We have the opportunity to do both. What would be more Canadian than committing to conserve more forests than any other nation?