YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories – The scale of the conservation effort is staggering: 470,000 square miles – half the size of the Louisiana Purchase, five times the size of the U.S. national park system – forever shielded from logging, mining and damming.
It is part of an ongoing and unprecedented drive to protect Canada's northern boreal forests, peat bogs, wetlands and tundra – a drive that is also changing how land managers view their stewardship, civic leaders approach economic growth and companies view their bottom line. And for the first time, some of the protections have a climate component.
"It’s our gift to future generations," said Alan Latourelle, chief executive officer of Parks Canada, the agency managing the nation's parks, which is in the process of doubling their size. "We’re the last generation that can do that."
Preserving wildlife, notably migratory birds and the iconic woodland caribou, is the paramount purpose. But climate change mitigation is part of the equation: Canada's peat bogs and forests, if left undisturbed, store a tremendous amount of carbon – 233 billion tons, according to some estimates, or almost one third of the carbon stored in the Earth's atmosphere. More than 80 percent of that is stored within the country's boreal region, and politicians are beginning to write protections for that carbon into the law.
"This is the first time in Canada, and quite possibly the world, where a government is creating a law that intends to protect carbon," said Janet Sumner, president of the Wildlands League, an Ontario non-profit.
The conservation drive, which started over a decade ago, is being carried out on separate tracks by the three provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba; the Northwest Territories; a key logging industry association; environmentalists and Parks Canada.
The myriad parts are working toward two main goals: The first will preserve half of Canada’s northern boreal region, about 470,000 square miles, by creating a network of parks off-limits to loggers, miners and other developers. The second will ensure that the other half is developed under stricter ecological standards. The two goals involve almost 940,000 square miles – more than a quarter of Canada's land mass. And while only a small fraction of the necessary regulations are in place now, conservationists hope to have the land fully protected within 15 years.
"Canada is setting a world record in the contest to save the world’s last great forests," said Steve Kallick, Director of the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign. "With this much of the forest protected, there’s going to be a natural regulator on the throttle of growth that will avoid the kind of climb, stall and crash cycle of development that you typically see on frontiers."
A canoe trip on the north arm of the Great Slave Lake, deep in the Northwest Territories, offers a glimpse of what this means practically. Jason Charlwood, a conservation specialist with Ducks Unlimited, points to hundreds of water birds, freshly arrived from the south, sitting on one of the spring’s last pieces of floating ice. The cluster includes majestic tundra swans and red-faced sandhill cranes, along with green-wing teals, lesser scaups, pintails, northern shovelers, widgeons, and the ubiquitous green-necked mallards.
"This place is really important for them" he whispered, noting that the water is full of algae and small insects that migratory birds gobble up to give them the strength to reach their nesting grounds in the tundra farther north.
As a result, conservationists and the Tlicho nation have asked the federal government to designate this spot, and the 255 square miles around it, as the North Arm National Wilderness Area. In three years, the place is expected to be fully protected.
The threat here is development that could follow the construction of a pipeline likely to be built along the Mackenzie River from the Great Slave Lake to rich gas fields near its estuary in the Arctic Ocean. The result: While aboriginal hunting will continue, any development activity that is allowed cannot interfere with the conservation of wildlife.
The seeds for the conservation effort were planted in 1996 a few miles away in Yellowknife, when the Northwest Territories began a process call the Protected Area Strategy. The aim was to turn nearly a quarter of the territories' land into wilderness areas. The process brings together First Nations, as Native Canadians are called here, conservation biologists, business interests and various layers of government. The first three agree on what to save, and the governments enshrine that into law.
The conservation effort is a marked departure from the paradigm that has driven preservation to date in Canada's southern half – a philosophy that caribou biologist Justina Ray, head of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, describes as "develop what we want and try to salvage the best of what’s left." Whether it will work depends on how it’s implemented, she adds.
Overall, the effort recasts how one of the world's last intact ecosystems will be preserved and managed. All indications suggest the northern latitudes are changing far more rapidly than expected in response to climate change. As more of the boreal opens to development, the protections become crucial, proponents say.
One of the package's more progressive elements is its inclusion of carbon mitigation. Ontario explicitly mentions carbon sequestration and storage as an objective in its conservation plan. And an accord between a loggers trade group, the Forest Products Association of Canada, and environmental groups calls on industry to reduce greenhouse gas "along the full life cycle from forest to end of product life."
The effort does have its detractors.
In Ontario, logging communities have denounced the Far North Act as harmful to their livelihood. Some First Nations object to a secret deal between loggers and environmentalists.
But logging is in some ways a sidebar. Proponents say the Far North Act will have little effect on the timber industry because it affects an area farther north where trees are relatively small, grow less densely and are not economical to harvest.
Rather, the main threat to the region is the so-called Ring of Fire, an area holding a wealth of minerals waiting to be mined as warmer weather and depletion of cheaper sources increase their attractiveness. The new law ensures that such development, when it happens, will do the least possible damage to wildlife and carbon stocks, proponents say.
"Conservation on this scale," said Pew's Kallick, "helps assure that growth cannot overdraft ecological balances, that an ample reserve of natural resource capital will remain in the bank for future generations to use."
Christopher Pala is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who has traveled the world covering various topics. He is author of The Oddest Place on Earth: Rediscovering the North Pole. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.