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Report Finds Canada's Boreal Forest Key to World's Survival

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Canada may hold the key to the world’s survival, steward as it is of the world’s largest intact forest, which contains more unfrozen water than any other ecosystem, a major U.S. think tank announced on March 16 as it called upon the country's aboriginal, provincial, territorial and federal officials to make sure it stays that way.

In an open letter to Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Clément Chartier, Métis National Council president, and Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the governments of Canada’s provinces and territories, the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel entreated the country to step up with stricter conservation measures.

Their plea stemmed from a report based on decades of research culled by the Pew Charitable Trust, which found that the boreal forest stretching across much of northeastern Canada contains 25 percent of the planet’s wetlands, millions of pristine lakes and thousands of free-flowing rivers for a total of 197 million acres of surface freshwater. As a buffer against climate change, it provides $700 billion in value annually; is one of the last refuges half the North American Atlantic salmon population, as well as other sea-migrating fish; and maintains freshwater flows that help create Arctic sea ice, cooling the atmosphere and supporting marine life from sea algae to polar bears. The forest also stores more than 400 trillion pounds of carbon in lakes and river delta sediment, peatlnads and wetlands, said the Pew report, A Forest of Blue: Canada's Boreal Forest, the World's Waterkeeper.

This could all change with the encroachment of industrialization into these areas, scientists heading the study said.

“At a time when clean water supplies are disappearing, the vast reserves in Canada’s boreal are increasingly important to protect,” said Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign, in a statement. “Canadian provinces and First Nations have already made major strides defending the integrity of the vast lakes, rivers and wetlands in the forest, but they need to do more to guarantee that Canada’s water stays pure and abundant, watershed by watershed.”

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The report comes as the AFN and the National Aboriginal Forestry Association (NAFA) prepare for their March 29-30 forum on First Nation Forest Land Stewardship in Ontario. The goal, the two bodies said in a joint statement, is to find ways that First Nations can actively manage forest land and resources.

“This is a complex and highly politicized issue which centers around the intersection of aboriginal and treaty rights and forest and natural resource management regimes,” the statement said.

The Pew report acknowledged that First Nation and environmental groups, along with federal, provincial and territorial governments, have been working with the Pew Environment Group to protect the region, setting aside 185 million acres, including key wetland and river areas, or 12 percent of the 1.2 billion-acre forest.

But more needs to be done, the science panel’s letter said.

“Protection of Canada’s boreal forest, along with limiting greenhouse gas emissions, should be among the top global conservation priorities, and the work to protect it can only be led by Canada’s federal, provincial and Aboriginal governments,” the letter said. “Canada has the unrivaled opportunity to protect the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystem and the responsibility to enact sound conservation and sustainable development policy to safeguard the boreal forest. The longer we wait to act, the fewer the conservation options that will continue to be available. Without prompt action, Canada may miss the opportunity to protect this global treasure.”