Canada's wetlands. (Image by: Chad Delany, Pew)

Canada’s boreal forest is in the news again this week with a study released yesterday by the Pew Environment Group. But while the Pew study argues that the preservation of the forest remains a top global priority, the Canadian timber industry may see a spike in demand for wood from Japan when it begins the rebuilding process following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit March 11.

The Pew study, A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, the World’s Waterkeeper, focuses on the water dimensions of Canada’s boreal forest, which the Pew Environment Group (PEG) says has received little research attention in the past. In the 76-page paper, Pew highlights the essential ecosystem services that the vast forest provides for both the Canadian and international communities: a “vital bulwark” against biodiversity loss and global warming; 25% of the world’s wetlands, which, when combined with peatlands, store more than 147 billion tonnes of carbon; and a key freshwater contributor to Arctic sea ice through river flow. They estimate that these services are worth $700 billion annually. Canada’s boreal forest represents 54% of the world’s remaining boreal regions, with the only other in Russia.

What makes the boreal forest so essential, the report argues, is its “free-flowing and unfragmented nature.” Its critical role in regulating the global climate comes from cooling caused by the photosynthesis period and heating caused by evapotranspiration, as well as by its contributions to Arctic sea ice from the way it decreases the salinity of the water, allowing it to freeze more quickly. In addition to the Arctic, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans both receive massive amounts of freshwater flow from Canada’s boreal.

The study acknowledges the work currently done by the Canadian government at all levels, and by both local and international organizations, outlined in the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, to protect the forest, pointing out that more than 12% has already been strictly protected.

Yet the PEG points out that much more needs to be done to protect the 1.4 billion acre boreal ecosystem. Among its recommendations is the need to protect the entire Mackenzie River watershed, which alone covers 20% of Canada’s land mass, and to complete the implementation of the Mackenzie Basin Agreement, which links land-use and water policies to preserve the watershed.

The report also warns of increased industrial pressures in the boreal forest, estimating that 728,000 km² (180 million acres) has been affected by the forestry, mining, oil and gas extraction, and hydropower sectors, and noting that major policy reforms are needed to conserve the forest’s vast water resources. These include reforms to both hydopower and mining policy. Provincial advances, such as Ontario’s new Mining Act, which aims to reduce mining’s environmental footprint and was passed with industry support, should be used as a model for other mining reforms, including those currently underway in British Columbia and Quebec.

PEG’s warnings highlight the ongoing challenge that policymakers and environmental groups face on a regular basis to avoid development in favor of conservation. But in certain dire situations, such pressures are difficult, and perhaps even immoral, to avoid.

The widespread and horrific damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for example, is a case in point. The natural disaster has washed away complete towns and infrastructure, including paper mills and other related businesses. With a devastating death toll (at time of writing) at almost 4,000, a missing toll at more than 15,000, and an estimated half a million people homeless and in temporary shelters where evacuees are surviving on little food and no water or elecriticity, the possibilities for public health problems are likely to increase, and raw materials will be urgently needed for temporary shelter. While those materials may come from China or Australia – despite damage done to Australian suppliers in Japan – news reports say will likely also come from Canada, which has strong relations with Japan, particularly in British Columbia. A report by Canada’s Globe and Mail says that Canadian and Japanese producers have been working together since the Kobe earthquake in 1995 on new products such as engineered wood that is designed to withstand greater earthquake impacts than cement, and that Canada will work to assist the Japanese with housing in both the short and long-term.

While it’s unclear what the Japanese demand will entail in the months ahead in terms of actual felled trees, there is one thing that we can be certain of in this time of crisis: the need for strong conservation in Canada’s boreal forest and the need for timber around the world – whether during periods of unusual crisis or on a more day-to-day basis – will continue their ongoing, challenging balance between serving humanity’s immediate and long-term needs.

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