Intact Forests

Recent scientific studies, including a paper on the Exceptional Values of Intact Forests coauthored by our Senior Scientist, Dr. Justina Ray, have shown that forests that are intact – largely free of human development and roads and large in area – have much higher resilience, and high biodiversity and ecosystem service values than similar fragmented or disrupted forest areas (click here for more on the value of intact areas). These lands are often directly managed by Indigenous peoples. In Canada, our work is focused on areas including the vast boreal forests and wetlands of the far north in Ontario (north of 51 degrees latitude) and the northern boreal mountain region of northern BC and southern Yukon.

  • We are working to improve government-led land-use planning and impact assessment practices, including the need for a regional strategic environmental assessment and cumulative effects assessment in the far north in Ontario. Without a comprehensive assessment of what kind of future Ontarians and First Nations want for the far north, the government’s current piecemeal planning processes is destined to lead to “death by a thousand cuts” outcome for species, ecosystems, and First Nation communities in this globally significant region.
  • The Muskwa-Kechika area has been recognized as an ecological treasure.  Land-use planning in the area focused on the need to conserve large core areas, but these plans need further development. We are undertaking new field-based research to develop a better picture of what needs to be done to keep the Muskwa-Kechika intact.

Carbon Storage and Climate Change

Intact forests are also important for carbon storage and climate change mitigation. Canada’s boreal forests, wetlands, peatlands and soil store billions of tonnes of carbon. Boreal forest ecosystems hold almost twice as much carbon per unit area as tropical forests and, together with wetland ecosystems, are estimated to store more than 200 billion tonnes of carbon in Canada – the equivalent of 26 years of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Canada has 4.3 million km2 of intact forests in the boreal zone -- the second biggest expanse of the remaining large tracts of continuous forests on Earth. Peatlands, meanwhile, comprise 12% of Canada’s land area, with almost all of this area located in boreal ecosystems. These special wetland ecosystems are known to store a huge amount of carbon through the accumulation of thick organic soil layers. A significant block of intact forest and peatlands is located in Ontario and Québec, almost entirely within areas not currently allocated for forestry. The peatlands within these areas are at significant risk from future mining and hydro development, while most national and international attention on the value of forest carbon storage is focused on managed (logged) forests. This results in intact forests being ignored when it comes to international reporting on carbon and a lack of understanding of the true value of the carbon these storehouses hold.

Scientific research has shown that converting lands to other uses, such as industrial agriculture, while fragmenting forests through oil-and-gas development and industrial forestry or destroying wetlands and peatlands with open pit mining, peat harvesting or hydroelectric development, adds to the carbon in the atmosphere and reduces the carbon storehouse provided by natural ecosystems. Government policies and plans around climate change, land use and impact assessment processes all need to value and protect the significant carbon services provided by intact forests in the fight against climate change. Learn more about our work to combat climate change.

We are working to improve land-use planning and impact assessment processes to help ensure they properly value and protect intact forests. Because these areas are also First Nations homelands, processes that recognize the cultural and spiritual value of these intact areas must also be developed.

Photo credits: Banner | Garth Lenz ©

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