Amazon of the North

Canada's boreal forest is as ecologically important as rainforests

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Canada’s boreal forest is part of the largest intact forest left on earth, a vast coniferous ecosystem that encircles the northern reaches of the globe. It’s also under serious threat from industrial development. Like similar pressures that now endanger the more familiar Amazon rainforest, the rampant development in Canada could affect life far beyond the boreal forest, beginning with many of North America's birds.

Made up largely of pine, fir, and other coniferous trees, the boreal forest, or taiga, is actually 50 percent bigger than the Amazon rainforest. In North America, it spans a third of Canada's landmass and much of Alaska. According to a new study written by Peter Blancher of Bird Studies Canada, the boreal forest is the breeding ground of up to 5 billion birds each year—including warblers, sparrows, swifts, finches, hawks, and falcons. For several species, more than 90 percent of their global population breeds in the hemisphere’s northernmost forests. The study estimates that a third of North America’s songbirds are born there, and that more than 40 percent of the continent's waterfowl use the forests of Canada and Alaska as well.

Forests play a key role in regulating the planet's atmosphere. Much of the threat to North America's huge green “lung” comes from massive timber harvesting. The United States bought $20 billion worth of Canadian forest products in 2001 alone, most of it cut from the boreal forest. “Much of the paper Americans receive every day as junk mail, advertising inserts, and catalogs comes from Canada's boreal forest,” says Marilyn Heiman, director of the newly formed Boreal Songbird Initiative in the United States. “Boreal trees provide more than a third of all newsprint used in the United States.” According to Jamie Clark of the National Wildlife Federation, the report “is an important step in understanding the diversity and abundance of bird life that still exists in Canada's boreal region” and why this wilderness needs to be conserved.

As noted in Strangely Like War (Chelsea Green), a new book on global deforestation by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan, about three-quarters of the world's original forests have already been felled. “When a forest is cut, not only trees are killed,” they note. About 50,000 plant and animal species are being driven extinct each year, they add, often because the ancient forests that support many of them are disappearing.

Adapted from Environment (July/Aug. 2003), a publication that keeps an eye on threats to the natural world and the cultural attitudes that often underlie them. Subscriptions: $47/yr. for individuals (10 issues) from 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.