Peace River running through the boreal forest. (Photo: Mary Grace McKernan)

The Boreal Is Burning

The world's largest intact forest is crucial to slowing climate change, but in Canada it is under assault from wildfires, logging, and oil tar sands drilling.
Nov 30, 2015· 9 MIN READ
Hillary Rosner writes for National Geographic, Wired, Scientific American, and other publications.

There is a vast forest that covers millions of square miles, an endless tract of pine, spruce, larch, and fir. It helps sustain life on Earth and fight climate change by absorbing huge quantities of the carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere. It’s home to rarely seen wildlife and has sustained indigenous people for millennia. And it’s under assault from a dizzying array of forces, which seem to be vying to see which can carve it up, flood it, or burn it down the fastest. This threatened landscape is the boreal forest. While remote, it’s also close to home.

As close as Canada.

As global climate talks begin this week in Paris, much attention will be focused on the rainforests of the Amazon. The thing about North America’s boreal, though, is that it is largely intact—one of the world’s last remaining unbroken continental landscapes. But that’s changing. Across Canada, where the boreal covers 1.2 million square miles, less than 13 percent is protected. As of 2010, scientists estimated that logging, oil drilling, and other development have disturbed roughly 360,000 square miles of Canadian forest. Campaigns are under way to save the boreal while there’s still time. But it’s an uphill battle, and the stakes are enormous.

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“The worst thing we have going on around climate change is, we’re not paying attention to the transformation of primary ecosystems,” says Harvey Locke, a Canadian conservationist with a deep connection to the boreal forest. “That’s one of the largest single sources of emissions in the world.”

An Ocean of Trees

Globally, boreal forests store a third or more of the planet’s terrestrial carbon—largely in soil, peat, and permafrost. If we lose these crucial ecosystems, we risk triggering even more dramatic global warming.

The boreal is a bit like the planet’s oceans: so vast that people tended to think, until quite recently, that humans couldn’t possibly make a difference there. As with the oceans, though, we now know our impact—both direct and indirect—is ruinous for the boreal, which comprises about a quarter of the world’s remaining “frontier” forest.

“We’ve all just assumed the boreal is this big, vast, never-ending forest, full of bugs, tough to travel in,” says Mark Hebblewhite, a Canadian biologist at the University of Montana. “In our lifetime, though, the boreal of Canada has been transformed into a giant industrial landscape.”

Why? We want power. And gasoline. And furniture. Rising global demand for energy and timber over the past two decades helped open up the boreal to tar sands oil development and fracking. Once logging roads penetrated the boreal, it made it easier for miners to gain access to the forest. Today, 80 percent of Canada’s mines operate within the boreal. Many provincial governments, meanwhile, subsidize the fragmentation of the boreal by giving companies tax breaks, waiving their responsibility to clean up toxic contamination, and by building roads and rail lines to transport oil and timber. Even efforts to go green have hurt the boreal as huge swaths of forest are set to be leveled for supposedly carbon-free hydropower projects.

“In the long run," says Jeff Wells, science and policy director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, a non-profit working to protect the forest, "global economic natural resource extraction markets are looking towards the places where the resources are most abundant and high quality with the least amount of interference from government or the local population. The final frontiers on Earth where this combination is found also tend to be the final conservation frontiers—the most intact ecosystems."

Alberta’s oil sands are the poster child for fossil-fuel-driven destruction, thanks in part to the Keystone XL pipeline controversy. But other parts of the boreal are being transformed far more quietly, with devastating consequences. In the Peace Region, in northeastern British Columbia, more than 20,000 fracking wells now carve up the forest, with plans for up to 80,000 more. “This is ground zero for the fragmentation of the boreal in Canada,” says Tim Burkhart, the regional coordinator for the Yellowstone-to-Yukon project, an international effort to conserve a tract of land stretching 2,000 miles. “The pace of change on the landscape here far outstrips the tar sands in Alberta.”

                            (Map: TakePart)

A time-lapse video posted on YouTube by the Blueberry River First Nations, one of Canada’s indigenous tribes, shows how their ancestral lands have become completely overwhelmed by oil wells. More than 14,000 permanent wells have drilled on Blueberry River territory over the past 50 years, along with more than 6,200 miles of pipelines.

“Our way of life is being destroyed out there,” Blueberry River Chief Marvin Yahey said at a March 3 press conference announcing a lawsuit against the British Columbia government to stop a massive hydroelectric project called Site C. The third dam on the Peace River, which flows nearly 1,200 miles across the province and Alberta, Site C would flood a valley more than 50 miles long, destroying important farmland and tribal sites as well as obliterating virgin forests that are key migration corridors for wildlife. The provincial government, which is plowing ahead with logging and road building for the roughly $7 billion project, maintains that the dam will provide “affordable, reliable, clean electricity” for 100 years. Burkhart sees it differently. “Site C is the straw that will break the camel’s back,” he says.

Tim Burkhart, Peace Valley conservationist and regional coordinator for the Yellowstone-to-Yukon project. (Photo: Mary Grace McKernan)

Blueberry River is one of several First Nations whose land and rights are protected by Treaty 8, an agreement signed by Queen Victoria in 1899 that, among other things, assures the tribes the right to continue their way of life, including hunting and fishing on ancestral lands. They argue that Site C directly violates these rights.

Oil and Caribou

Such development has proven disastrous for Canada’s iconic woodland caribou, perhaps the most dramatic wildlife casualty of industrial activity in the boreal. Once plentiful throughout the country, caribou populations are tanking. In many areas, they’ve been wiped out entirely; in others, there are so few animals clinging on that it’s only a matter of time before they’re locally extinct. Notoriously shy and hard to spot, woodland caribou live in the old-growth forest, where thick woods make it difficult for wolves—their main predator—to hunt. Compared with other prey, such as deer, caribou breed later, reproduce less often, and only give birth to one calf at a time. But as roads and logging have penetrated the old-growth forest, more open habitat has attracted moose, elk, and white-tailed and mule deer. Where those animals go, wolves follow.

“Woodland caribou are the bycatch,” says Dave Hervieux, the Alberta government’s woodland caribou specialist. In a paper published in 2013 in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, Hervieux and his colleagues—including Hebblewhite—tracked more than 1,300 female caribou in 14 herds across Alberta for as long as 18 years. They found that “virtually all of Alberta’s woodland caribou populations clearly demonstrate widespread and dramatic declines” and that those declines “are continuing and even accelerating” as oil drilling fragments their habitat. A herd in Banff National Park went extinct during the study period. “The hard part of where we are at now,” Hervieux says, “is that many habitat changes have already occurred. Many of those occurred before we really understood the nature of the problem. But those disturbances are there on the landscape.”

Hervieux says the caribou plight, with its “intersection between economy and conservation,” is the most challenging wildlife crisis he’s seen in three decades working for the government. The only small bright spot is a 10-year wolf management program in an area called Little Smoky, in the west-central part of the province. Since 2005, the government has been culling wolves—whose populations in the area are abundant and growing—to help keep the caribou alive. The goal is not to eliminate wolves but to keep their numbers down. It’s been a success, says Hervieux, in that the Little Smoky caribou herd still exists. In the absence of the wolf cull, it would be gone.

Woodland caribou grazing in the summer near Fort St. John, British Columbia. (Photo: Getty Images)

Wolves are a flash point, and the idea of culling them strikes dread and anger in the hearts of many conservationists. But in parts of Canada’s boreal, it may be the only hope—not just for the caribou but also for the forest. “To not manage wolves,” says Hervieux, “we’re really making a decision. That the populations of caribou can go. And the corollary is that we probably won’t manage their habitat. No caribou, no habitat conservation.”

That would be disastrous for much of the Canadian boreal, particularly the Peace Region. Larry Innes, who works with indigenous nations on forest conservation, describes the area as beset by “monster truck madness”—a reference to the heavy construction vehicles at work in the area.

The Boreal Is on Fire

But even as humans are directly destroying the boreal forest, we’ve also deputized nature to do some of the work. Thanks to rising greenhouse gas emissions, the boreal forest is heating up at a rate almost three times that of the planet’s average. That’s because the forest floor is free of snow for longer periods (particularly in spring, with earlier snowmelt), so less sunlight is reflected back to the atmosphere; instead, it's absorbed into the ground, increasing the rate of warming. Big fires and other forest clearing exacerbate the problem. And as temperatures rise, permafrost thaws. That melts the vegetation that was frozen in the soil, and as it decays it releases carbon dioxide and methane—both greenhouse gases—into the air, which perpetuates the cycle on a global scale. Rising temperatures in turn can trigger more wildfires and damaging insect outbreaks.

“The severity and rate of forest fires is increasing in Canada, especially in the north, as a consequence of decreasing summer precipitation and warmer temperatures,” says Ronnie Drever, forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy Canada. “As people go north for development reasons, we’re going to set more fires. That’s a real worry.” A study published in 2013 found that boreal forests are burning at a rate greater than any time in the past 10,000 years.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Science, researchers concluded that “projected environmental changes of unprecedented speed and amplitude pose a substantial threat” to the health of the planet’s boreal forests. A new NASA-funded study, the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, will investigate the ecological impacts of rapid global warming in the boreal forests of Alaska and northwestern Canada, including wildfire, permafrost thawing, and habitat loss.

Photographer Mary Grace McKernan spends time with the concerned citizens of the Peace River Valley in British Columbia, Canada.

One scientist who has spent his career working in the boreal hopes that climate change will offer a window to saving the forest—by protecting it as a sort of carbon storage tank.

“Along with efforts to decrease greenhouse emissions from industrial sources and all that, we think a second piece should be how to maintain the carbon that’s in the bank already,” says Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “In the trees, in the peat, in the soil. There should be an accounting of that, and any projects that take place should have to account for the release of those greenhouse gases.”

Migratory songbirds are particularly threatened by the shifts under way in the boreal. The younger, more open forest attracts more mammal predators. It also shrinks habitat for birds that prefer large tracts of forest. Wells is also concerned about fish. “When you have to build lots of roads to access things, you have to put them over streams and rivers and bogs and such, and you change the flow dynamics,” he says. “If you don’t have the right kind of culverts, you cut off fish populations from each other.” New roads also open the door to hunting and fishing. “A lot of these previously inaccessible lakes or areas that were traditional lands used by indigenous people and so got light pressure, now you have this influx of people from outside. It’s pretty well documented that you see a decline in the size and number of fish in lakes.”

Wells’ group is part of a loose coalition of conservation organizations pushing to protect at least 50 percent of the boreal landscape from industrial development.

The movement is gaining traction. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have pledged to protect at least half of their northern areas. This summer, Quebec reached an agreement with the Grand Council of the Crees to protect 2.3 million acres of the Broadback River Valley, which is 500 miles northeast of Montreal. Recently, a coalition of First Nations in Manitoba succeeded in preserving a vast chunk of their land, which is now close to receiving World Heritage Site designation.

In the Northwest Territories, two First Nations tribes are negotiating with the Canadian government to comanage a new national park on nearly 12,000 square miles. In Newfoundland, a new forest management strategy sets aside nearly half the island over a 10-year period. “That’s a remarkable achievement,” says Aran O’Carroll, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, a conservation partnership between industry and environmental groups working to implement sustainable forestry.

There’s also hope in new governments that have recently taken power in Alberta and Ottawa. Alberta’s new progressive premier, Rachel Notley, broke a 44-year reign of conservatives in the province. She has committed to embracing wind and solar power and ending Alberta’s economic dependence on dirty fossil fuels. In October, Justin Trudeau became prime minister, ending a decade of conservative rule. Trudeau has vowed to make climate change a priority, including phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels.

These are promising developments. Meanwhile, the changes to the boreal forest continue apace. “The boreal is one of the underappreciated gems of the planet,” says Hebblewhite. One we can’t afford to lose.