Thinking big about the boreal

February 8, 2011

What is the boreal, why is it important and how do we rescue it?

Most Manitobans have been to the boreal, but many are unaware that it’s called that. It’s the place with the pines, spruce and birch trees,  graced by wetlands, rivers and lakes. The Whiteshell Provincial Park is a good example of boreal that you have likely visited. The boreal stretches from coast to coast across Canada and is home to over 600 First Nation communities and a host of wildlife such as caribou, moose,  foxes, eagles, owls, waterfowl and songbirds. It’s where many of us go to relax, recreate and recharge.

I recall the many family-fishing trips that I went on as a kid. On one outing, we rented a boat and navigated around Rocky Lake and the wild rivers that feed it. I recall marveling at this spectacular place that’s nested in the ruggedly wild boreal north of Lake Manitoba close to the Saskatchewan border. For a fleeting moment, as we rushed by to a locally acclaimed fishing spot, I caught my first glimpse of a bald eagle. I remember how struck I was by how proudly it perched atop a tall old pine tree. This memory holds strong and I attribute this experience to sparking my path toward protecting the majestic boreal landscape and its web of life.

Beyond the awe-inspiring and special moments that many of us have experienced in the boreal, it is also fundamentally vital to our existence. The boreal is deemed the northern lungs of the earth, the world’s largest source of fresh water, and nowhere on land will you find a bigger carbon storehouse. In fact, its trees and soils hold 186 million tonnes of carbon. Sound like a lot? I can tell you that it is. This equates to keeping 27 years of global emissions from fossil fuels out of our atmosphere, which slows the accelerator pedal on climate change.

We are lucky to live in a place that a domestic beer commercial calls “the best backyard in the world.” That’s the boreal, of course. My thanks to the good beer brewers for reminding us of that. We are fortunate that we have many vast wilderness expanses that remain unbroken. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario share the largest section of intact boreal on the planet.

There is trouble in this paradise. Logging, mining, oil and gas and hydroelectric projects that proceed without sufficient planning for the boreal’s health, and consequently the future of our planet, continue to expand their reach into pristine territory at a raging pace. More than 30 per cent of Canada’s boreal has already been allocated for industrial developments. Species such as woodland caribou are now threatened with extinction due to habitat loss. It is no surprise there is a growing drive by scientists, conservation organizations, communities and citizens to protect the boreal now while we still have the opportunity.

How much of the boreal do we need to protect? According to over 1,500 highly respected scientists from around the world who wrote a letter to Canadian governments in 2007, we must protect at least half of it from industrial developments while allowing only carefully managed development on the remaining landscape. We must think big about the boreal! Protecting “50 per cent or more” of the boreal is what it’s going to take to ensure it remains a healthy part of the Earth’s life support system and stays a place that we embrace as a precious natural getaway.

The good news is that if we act now there are still enough big boreal spaces and enough time to accomplish this monumental task. In the next decade, many decisions will be made about the boreal’s future. We need to make them count in favour of protecting the boreal and consequently everyone’s well-being.

Please take the time to send a letter or an email to Premier Selinger to let him know how you feel about our government making a commitment and establishing an inclusive process that will result in protecting over 50 per cent of Manitoba’s boreal region. Ask your friends to do this too. As we know, in the digital age, this is a very easy thing to do. You can take it a step further by calling a local environmental group that is focused on the boreal and offer to volunteer or learn about other ways to get involved. Safeguarding the boreal will only happen if individuals like you take personal action. Please think big about the boreal and use your influence to create a Canada that we can all be proud of and future generations will thank us for.

Ron Thiessen is the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) – Manitoba chapter.

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