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Canada’s Boreal Forests — Now Cold, Dark, And In Need Of Our Care

George River caribou management meeting, (c) Valerie Courtois
George River caribou management meeting, (c) Valerie Courtois

On this almost shortest day of the year when children worldwide are thinking of Santa and the North Pole, I’ve been thinking about the now bitterly cold ecosystems somewhat to the south of him, but very much further north than most of us!

I could not escape doing so, because last month, I was invited to Laurentian University to participate in a conference they organized called “Thinking Extinction.”  A long way north for me — and in mid-November, too, but it also meant I got to have dinner with Margaret Atwood. Her visions, entertaining certainly, are a powerful motivation for us to follow a different future for our planet.

Here are my remarks about my trip there.

It is fitting that this examination should be taking place in Sudbury, because it raises issues that need to be addressed in Ontario’s northern boreal forests.

philosophy_thinkingextinctionpostereng_oct2013We have all heard various versions of the statistics—the rapidly rising number of endangered species around the world, the loss and degradation of vast amounts of wild habitat, the valiant efforts of conservationists trying to save the last few of a soon-to-be extinct species. When, in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore talks of species going extinct a thousand times faster than normal, he got those numbers from my work.

Sometimes we think of these kinds of problems as limited to tropical and third-world countries. There is no doubt that those parts of the world are bearing the brunt of the tremendous pressures that move species towards the extinction precipice.

I have worked much of my life in nations like Madagascar, Colombia, and Brazil where a unique and rich legacy of biodiversity is being lost at a horrific pace. The people of those nations also face a multitude of social, economic, and political issues that are primary influencers of the sad state of loss of the people’s natural resource legacy. I will be talking about these experiences at this weekend’s conference.

Yet even in Canada, a country that by world standards is wealthy, governed with effective rule of law, and with an educated and concerned public, we see the same trends in biodiversity loss.  Just this month, a report by Canada’s environmental watchdog issued serious warnings about how the country’s deteriorating biodiversity is threatening the survival of a range of species. “It is time to look for new approaches,” wrote Neil Maxwell, the interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.  “Without concerted and committed efforts, more key species and critical spaces will be lost.” One of the most symbolic of Canadian animals, the woodland caribou, which graces one side of Canada’s 25-cent coin, has been lost from half its historic range and Environment Canada itself estimated that only 17 of the remaining 57 boreal woodland caribou populations had more than a 50% chance of being self-sustaining.

There is also something very different about Canada that may give woodland caribou and other species better odds for survival. Much of Canada’s boreal forest region is still largely ecologically intact. In fact, it is one of the world’s largest remaining regions of still-intact forest.

george-river-caribou-1That’s why I joined with 22 other Canadian and international scientists in July to release a report that provided clear-cut recommendations for how Canada could be at the forefront of positive and balanced conservation solutions.

The report entitled “Conserving the World’s Last Great Forest is Possible: Here’s How” pointed out that responsible development requires that comprehensive land-use planning precede major industrial development decisions (an urgent need as development plans unfold in Ontario’s Ring of Fire),  and that local communities must have a lead role in land-use planning decisions. It also pointed out that maintaining ecological process and species like woodland caribou that rely on them means that at least half of large ecosystems need to be free of development and maintained as large habitat blocks.


Boreal forests in the Northwest Territories, (c) Ducks Unlimited
Boreal forests in the Northwest Territories, (c) Ducks Unlimited

So when we are “thinking extinction” at this conference in Sudbury it is important that we not fall into the trap of thinking that what is happening in far away tropical climes and developing countries cannot happen here, because it already is.

Yes, for now, Canada’s vast northern boreal remains the world most intact major forest regions, and this gives Canada the opportunity to lead the world in finding the right balance between conservation and development. Conversely, Canada stands to lose what the rest of the world can only envy if it fails to learn from the mistakes of others and move ahead with progressive solutions.

So let’s make sure we are remember the lessons learned from losses and apply them to positive creative solutions to ensure that life and beauty remain a part of the natural heritage here in Canada, as well as around the world.

Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at the Nicholas School, Duke University, and an advisor to the Pew Foundation’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign.



  1. Sarah Arnold
    January 2, 2014, 12:40 pm

    My cousin,Blake,lives in Alaska and he says that the sky is apsalutly beautiful.

  2. Bashiruddin Hosein
    Trinidad and Tobago (West Indies)
    December 26, 2013, 6:47 pm

    The wondrous natural beauties are all being decimated slowly.. it hurts us all…

    however, I believe intiatives like yours proves a fighting chance in the conservation realm. A helping hand is always better, hence, if there are voluntary reforestation projects involved, I will be delighted to assist, so are others i know.

  3. michael lee
    December 26, 2013, 5:39 am

    Forest protection is so important that when you lost our precious forest and animal species,it is too late to recover.

  4. Richard Stafursky
    Brattleboro, VT (US)
    December 23, 2013, 5:23 pm

    We should not be pessimists. Canada may have the “Last Great Forest”, but remember, all species’ forests and species’ grasslands can be returned to variants of the natural landscape, but the natural landscape nonetheless. “I have heard people rant and rave and bellow that we’re done and might as well be dead.” (South Pacific). Yes, some species will be lost, yet natural forces and processes can win this 21st century. Believe in the species’ forest and the Species’ Planet will carry us along for the ride.