CHAPTER 3

THE BOREAL FOREST

The European colonization of Canada began through the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes but a second entry into the heart of Canada was through Hudson’s Bay. The Hudson’s Bay Company reached into the boreal for its exploitation of the region’s furs. The territories and the ranges of native trappers and their relationships to their environment were reshaped by the HBC injection of commercialism into their lives.

3 – 1: To theorists, boreal suggests northern forest. To the experienced boreal traveler, it brings to mind waterways. They are the highways in the boreal.

The ecological productivity of the boreal was the foundation for this early flirtation with commercial exploitation of North American resources. The first major commercial confrontation over profit share and natural capital also took place in the boreal when the Nor’westers challenged the HBC.

3 – 2: Ecological productivity of the Boreal was the basis for the beginning of commercial exploitation.

Resource exploitation in the boreal did not end when the furs became non-profitable. As Europeans explored the boreal, they also discovered mineral riches. Mining grew in the boreal region from small-scale, low-impact digs to industrial-scale operations that moved huge amounts of materials from the earth’s crust, where they had been protected from the effects of atmospheric oxygen, and deposited them in slag heaps in the oxygen-rich air.

The products of oxidation of those heaps of raw rock produced acid mine wastes. These chemical wastes ran off into the watery environments of the boreal with chemical impacts that are still going on. In some cases, the processing of mine ore has also changed the air over the boreal, causing acid to be washed out of the air by rain with devastating effects on both terrestrial and watery boreal environments.

Early colonizers of the boreal used some of the wood crop for their protection and sustenance but soon exploitation for export and for profit also became driving forces for the forests of the boreal. Fibre!

3 – 3: Which has had the greater impact: the human quest for minerals and energy sources, digging up materials from within the earth's crust, or, removing the forest, if it is allowed to regrow?

3 – 4: Which has the greatest global environmental impact: cutting the forest and hauling it out, or, processing the pulp and transporting its products?

Profit from international demand for fibre for paper became a more important consideration than the rates at which the boreal “green magic&rdquo could produce that fibre from sunlight, air, water and a severely limited supply of mineral nutrients. Fibre mining impacted the extent and nature of the boreal forest in an inexorable wave that followed an advancing line of ease of access. In many cases, those forest access roads were paid for with tax dollars devoted to expanding the industry.

Gradually, Canadians living far to the south became aware of the boreal’s natural values — all those values other than monetary worth. Recreational exploration of the boreal by canoe was uncommon until the 1950’s when Eric Morse and his parties of voyageurs from the Ottawa elite began to retrace the routes of the original voyageurs1. By the end of the century, many paddlers from all roles in life were spending time following the rivers down across the boreal. They started a revolution in how society valued the boreal forest and, incidentally, a new multi-million dollar business.

3 – 5: As we matured culturally and economically, we developed a new set of values for the boreal. The outdated utilitarian value of wood fibre now is challenged by the rising values of aesthetic stimulation and spiritual refreshment.

By 1999 the boreal had attracted the attention of Canada’s Senate. The Boreal Forest subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry published Competing Realities: the Boreal Forest at Risk which said the boreal was increasingly under siege. Among 35 recommendations, they asked for a national, natural landscape-based forest use plan with up to 20 percent of the boreal for intensive wood production and up to 60 percent for less intensive wood production, with protection of biodiversity as a main objective. They also asked for up to 20 percent to be fully protected to preserve ecological and cultural heritages. That report was a clear ‘heads up’ to all, but all did not respond as hoped. Some did.

The Canadian Boreal Initiative and the “Canada’s Boreal Forest” program of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society responded to the increasing public interest and the increasing conservation values being placed on the boreal ecological zone. Globally the public view was shifting from trees to the whole forest and all its components and all its ecological processes — a holistic view. Public pressure was becoming a real force in the thinking about commercial exploiters of forests.

Defence of the boreal forest by the public must be broadly based; it cannot be solely scientific. But significant change in Canada’s policies on the boreal cannot depend solely on media charisma. There is a lot of scientific knowledge of the boreal and any serious public discussion must incorporate a valid understanding of the basic ecological evidence about the functioning of the boreal.

Together, the boreal forests of Siberia and Canada cover about 10% of the planet. Canada’s boreal forest contains more than one-quarter of the world’s remaining forest. Boreal simply means northern. This forest is the most northern environment where full-size trees are able to grow.

Boreal ecozones in Canada.

Circumpolar distribution of boreal forest.

3 – 6: Boreal forest is not homogeneous. Not wall-to-wall spruce. The boreal, like many ecological regions is a mosaic: land and water, uplands and lowlands. And – especially in the boreal – burns in various states of regrowth.

The boreal brings to mind conifers, particularly spruce, but as we shall see the boreal forest is not wall-to-wall spruce. It is about 30 percent wetlands — marshes, bogs, lakes and rivers — more freshwater than any other area on earth. Canada’s boreal forest stretches from Newfoundland to the Yukon and the world’s boreal extends on across the Bering Strait into Siberia and on west through Scandinavia to make this a virtually circumpolar ecological zone.

The boreal forest has very special values for those who have traveled and lived in it and have become linked to the natural processes of the habitat. That requires a pace and a way of life that differs drastically from the everyday lives of most of us.

3 – 7: In the Boreal, camps are near rivers or lakes. Travel elsewhere is difficult. Prairie people would feel closed-in in this ecosystem but some of us feel secure and peaceful here just as prairie dwellers do under their big skies.

3 — 8: A grey spirit in the forest reassures us that some things are still alright.

Even as the blackflies go off duty for the night and the mosquito crew takes over, the sunset behind the lob-topped black spruce skyline brings a peaceful stillness to camp that is offered rarely on earth.

If the local wolf pack decides to cross the dusky river in plain view and calls their legion together for the night’s processes, they give to us a pleasure that cannot be fabricated anywhere in the technical world beyond. The boreal forest still allows real solitude, real beauty and real spiritual renewal.

Biogeographers distinguish seven different ecozones within Canada’s boreal. Here we will focus mainly on the “boreal shield’, the “taiga shield” and the “Hudson plains”. Across these ecozones and within each of them, the boreal is a mosaic — a patchwork of habitats — that vary in bedrock, soils, depth to water, climates near the ground, rates of natural processes and, consequently, the species that can live there.

3 – 9: How selective forces in the Boreal created this shape is not entirely clear but it does survive well. Moose may not be as delicate in form as other deer but, seen in their primal habitat, they have unquestionable beauty.

As the boreal sweeps westward across Canada it gets less and less precipitation, dropping from annual mid-range values of 70 cm (28 inches) in the eastern boreal to 64 cm (25 inches) in the centre of the country and as low as 30 cm (12 inches) in the northwestern boreal. But less than half of the precipitation is available in the growing season and much of the winter’s snow sublimes, changing from solid to vapour and evaporating directly back into the air.

3 – 10: The boreal does not receive a lot of precipitation and only about half of that comes during the growing season. Much of the snow falling on conifer branches will evaporate directly from snow to water vapour rather than adding to water available for summer growth.

In northwestern Manitoba, during the four growing months, as little as 2.5 cm of rain may fall in each month. That means only 10 cm of rain for the whole growing season — almost a desert.

The boreal may not receive huge amounts of rain but it is highly impermeable so water remains on the surface. The best way to travel across it is by canoe. Half or more of most areas are surface water. It is a mosaic of dry sites and wet sites. Neither is homogeneous so it also is a mosaic within the dry sites and within the wet sites.

Vegetation growth in wetlands seems to be controlled by a complex of variables that can be thought of in three main groups: how wet it is and how much the water level fluctuates, how acid it is, how much nitrogen and phosphorus are available. The outcome of all those interactions dictates where the wetland will be on a gradient from high production and decomposition (eutrophic), to low production and decomposition (oligotrophic). The outcome of these interactions also determines whether the boreal wetlands will be marshes or bogs or fens.

The interactions of these variables determines total nutrient availability which governs both the production by “green magic” and also the rate of decomposition. The interaction of these two major natural processes determines whether the wetland will be a highly productive marsh, an alkaline fen with moderate or poor production, or a sphagnum bog with very low production, an equally low rate of decomposition and a build-up of peat.

3 – 11: Both the boreal waters and the boreal lands are mosaics of many habitats. Animals use an array of these habitats to fill their changing needs over the seasons. Movement through the mosaic is essential to survival.

3-12: The boreal is a mosaic of different habitats. The habitat type in any particular location is controlled by the interactions of several environmental variables as shown here for wetland habitat types.

The characteristic plants of peat bogs hold on to their habitat mainly because the nutrient supply is too low for most other species to compete with them. The acidity in a bog makes any nitrogen that is present especially difficult for plants to obtain. Some very special plants found a way around this shortage. They took up eating animals as a way to get their nitrogen supply. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are one of these ‘carnivorous’ plants. Their leaves are modified to form a pitcher and the plant has evolved glandular tissue that secretes digestive enzymes into the pitcher. When an insect or a small frog falls into the pitcher, its proteins are digested and the pitcher plant gets its supply of nitrogen.

Pitcher plants are serious carnivores, so they also have evolved a nasty field of hairy spines lining the pitcher, all pointing downward, so when a hapless prey tries to crawl out of the pitcher, it is foiled. The bottom of the pitcher holds the evidence of this predaceous lifestyle; insect exoskeletons, frog bones and memories.

3 – 13: Pitcher plants. The basal leaves are folded and seamed into cups – the pitchers – and the blossoms are on long erect stalks rising above the sphagnum bog.

3 – 14: An opened pitcher reveals the ‘stomach contents’ of this plant that is a carnivore – beetles, flies, frogs – all sources of nitrogen that is very scarce in acid bogs. Biogeochemical carnivory, if you like jargon.

3 – 15: Yet these mosquito wigglers swim happily in the digestive juices in the pitcher plants ‘stomach’. They have evolved a protein bond that the plant’s digestive juices can’t break.

Biochemical defence.

3 – 16: Sundew, another plant that has difficulty finding nitrogen in bogs, solved the problem in a slightly different way. Dew drops of bait entangle the black flies that are attracted and leaf extensions bend over and hold the flies against the leaf. Here digestive juices dissolve the prey so the leaf can absorb them and their nitrogen.

Another predator plant that has gained a habitat in acid bogs due to the nitrogen shortage is sundew (Drosera). Instead of evolving a pitcher-like ‘stomach’, sundew went for tentacles with sticky bait on their tips. When a black fly takes the bait, it gets stuck to the tentacle, the tentacle bends over and applies the prey to the leaf surface. The leaf secretes enzymes that digest the black fly allowing other special cells of the leaf surface to absorb the nitrogenous proteins.

3 – 17: Sphagnum peat bogs build their own soil, totally organic, mainly of dead sphagnum. A specialized set of plant species is able to live on a bog.

Sphagnum peat bogs are an interesting example of the interactions that control vegetation types in the boreal mosaic. Sphagnum moss is the dominant plant in these bogs. It not only tolerates acidic habitats, it produces them. Sphagnum grows at the tips and as it does the plant dies back at the base. As the tissue stops growing the outer surface tissue decays until it becomes a coating of very fine particles. These colloidal particles attract and hold charged ions. The colloids attract alkaline ions out of the surrounding water, hold them and prevent them from being chemically active. The strength of an acid depends on how many free hydrogen ions it can produce. Because the alkaline ions, held by the sphagnum colloids, are unable to neutralize the hydrogen ions in the surrounding water, that water is made more strongly acidic by the unfettered hydrogen. Because of this action of the plants, a bog can be as acidic as household vinegar. This despite the fact that there are no natural acids in a bog that can drive the acidity that high.

3 – 18: The garden trade is a market for peat moss. Peat moss is the organic soil that supports peat bogs and their ecosystem. To harvest the peat moss in modern times, large bogs are drained to allow machine harvesting.

3 – 19: The peat moss is actually the dead lower portion of sphagnum moss plants, which grow at the tips and die back below.

In nature, the peat is saturated with water and is unusually acidic so bacteria don’t grow in it. In nature, the peat is essentially sterile.

As a result of this acidity, along with the lack of oxygen in the bog water, dead plant material from the slow growth of bog plants does not decompose and builds up great depths of peat. Decomposition is slower than production. Many bogs build a dome of peat that will last for centuries, as long as rain is its only source of nutrients and no nutrients flow in from surrounding lands. Such peat accumulations are so resistant to decomposition — so sterile — that humans buried in Scandinavian bogs have been recovered with very little change to their looks after several hundred years of interment. In WW I, the sterility and resistance to micro-organisms made peat useful as a wound dressing. First Nations peoples knew this utility long ago. These sorts of interactions among plants, fungi, bacteria, water, dead organic matter, mineral ions, available plant nutrients, and the chemical characteristics of the environment, such as acidity, are examples of some of the processes that are commonly abbreviated as “the ecology” of the boreal.

3 –20: Black spruce can achieve minimal survival on the organic soil produced by sphagnum if nutrient availability and water levels permit.

3 – 21: The north edge of the boreal forest is a zone of minimal growth for black spruce. Here, in the Taiga, climate also become an important variable.

In this brief look at boreal wetlands, we have neglected the rivers and lakes that are the best canoeing. And the alder swamps that are wet but no place to canoe.

3 – 22: Marshes store large amounts of solar energy in large amounts of edible plant matter. They are essentially high energy food depots inserted in a low energy matrix.

3 – 23: No other ecoregion on the globe is characterized by such a high density of lakes as in the boreal forest. Investigation of ecological processes linking the forest to the lakes is in early stages. For example, as global warming progresses, forest fires are likely to be more frequent and are expected to cause increased runoff into lakes, changing the food chains by increasing productivity and increasing the concentration of mercury in top predator fish. Industry involved in this pollution process is all at great distances from the boreal lakes that will be affected.

Dry sites in the boreal have just as much variation as wetlands — heterogeneous mosaics across the land. Patches of jack pine may occupy sandy ridges or old burns. Other old burns, other clearings, may be pure stands of aspen. Bare rock or raw scars from burns or erosion, will support only small plants until accumulating organic matter can support larger plants. Cutovers or well-drained, productive soils may have white spruce stands. Poorly drained, organic soils will be the classical black spruce boreal swamps. The type of forest is determined by similar variables to those affecting wetland types.

3 – 24: Patches of pioneer species such as poplars or birch, are spatio-temporal reflections of fire patterns.

3 – 25: Patches of black spruce can be extensive because imperfectly drained lowlands are extensive. Except for very hot fires, they are too humid to burn, redirecting the fire into drier, better drained patches.

3 – 26: White spruce is adapted to less saturated soils than where black spruce succeeds. Nutrients are more available, the growing season can be marginally longer and growth can be faster.

3 – 27: Jack pine is a ‘fire pine’. Its cones are opened by fire and patches of jack pine fill old burns.

Even on well-drained sites with well-developed soil, the fertility of that soil is extremely low. Soils that develop in the boreal are usually a soil type called a podzol. The word is derived from the Russian meaning ‘ashy’. It is an appropriate name because below the black organic upper soil layer, there is an ashy-grey layer in a podzol. This layer is caused by the ‘podzolization’ process that forms soils in the boreal. The rainwater that leaches down into and through the soil profile is made acid by products from the conifers’ litter. That acidic solution dissolves and washes minerals from the upper part of the soil leaving the nutrient-poor ashy-grey layer characteristic of a podzol. Podzolic soils are low in nutrients and combine with other factors such as short growing season to hold down the rate of green plant production in the boreal. Everything else follows.

Which tree type can occupy a site is controlled by the interaction of 1) soil type, water level in the soil and its variation, 2) acidity of the soil solution, 3) decomposers and decomposition rate, and 4) the resultant availability of nutrient ions. But which trees survive can also be governed by above-ground forces such as amount of sun energy at the site, or evaporation by winter wind or erosion of living tissues by wind-driven ice crystals.

3 – 28: Soil does develop under boreal forest, although it takes centuries, and is characteristically a soil type called a podzol. The acidic leachate from the conifer litter dissolves the iron salts and washes them off the sand grains, leaving an ashy-grey layer that characterizes a podzol.

3 – 29: In the boreal forest, the season for decomposition is short, the litter is resistant to decomposition and so, organic matter accumulates in the forest floor litter. Here the thick organic mat overlies the ashy-grey of the podzol along the cut bank of a river. There is more organic matter in the boreal forest floor litter than in the trees themselves.

In general, life in the boreal is limited by climate. The growing season is short because the sun drifts to the south early. “Green magic” shuts down for lack of light but having your tissue frozen shuts down your chemistry anyway. But then all living things in the boreal must have found a way to make it through the winter.

3 – 30: Natural processes in the boreal are controlled by seasonal limits. Winter sets major limits. Solar energy input is low. The growing season is short. Low tissue temperatures limit rates of chemical reactions. Desiccation is high. Freezing must be prevented. Without adaptations to winter, a species is excluded.

3 – 31: Where winter precipitation is enough, the snowpack can provide excellent insulation and many plants are able to overwinter under the snow without their tissues dying. This lycopod not only survived under the snow, it has reproductive spores ready for spring.

Plants need to protect the structure they have produced and save enough in their storage reservoirs to start again in the spring. Many find the safest way is to shelter underground. Those that stay above risk tissue damage from freezing unless they provide antifreeze safeguards. Worse, if they are unprotected out in the open they can lose their bodies to mechanical destruction from wind and from ‘sandblasting’ by blowing ice crystals. Big, tough neighbours upwind help but snow is better. Not only does a snowpack give mechanical protection but it also is great insulation. Deep snow protects the living things that it covers and it also protects against the uprooting effects of ice lenses in the soil.

3 – 32: Above the snow in the Taiga, pioneering spruces can be killed by the abrasion of ice crystals being blown at high speeds over the surface of the snow. Until a significant clump of trees provides mutual shelter, single trees and small clumps such as this one are repeatedly killed back.

3 – 33: Reradiation of infrared from the earth can raise the temperature under a moderate depth of snow to slightly above freezing. Insects can be active under the snow at these temperatures.

In much of the boreal, growth and survival are limited by shortage of available nutrients. Some forest patches in the boreal have outstanding growth. An accumulation of good soil washed into an area can do it. Flood plains of rivers can provide an input of nutrient-laden silt as fertilizer. Such patches are exceptions.

3 – 34: Soil manufactured from the bedrock and organic matter can accumulate in low spots where moisture also builds up. The combination can support unusually high storage of solar energy by fast growing (‘pioneer’) shrubs such as willows and deciduous trees such as poplars.

More generally in the boreal, nutrients from bedrock are supplied at very slow rates. Even when nutrients are released to the soil, the acidity of the soil solution may limit nutrient uptake by the plants. Under such conditions, it would be an unwise strategy for a plant to ever let go of nutrients once they have been captured and built into the tissues. Evergreens only drop and replace their needle-like leaves at intervals of several years. Not every year like the profligate deciduous trees on the fertile soils of the south. Before evergreens drop a needle, nutrients are withdrawn from the needle and safely recycled inside the plant.

The needles that are dropped become part of a deep organic layer that forms the litter and upper soil layers. The nutrients in that layer are recycled back into the plants with as little loss as possible. A symbiosis exists between trees and fungi that live close to their roots. These mycorrhizal fungi increase the effectiveness of getting those precious nutrients back into the tree and into the internal nutrient circulation within the tree. Waste not, want not.

In Sweden’s boreal, forest ecologists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Faculty of Forest Sciences in Umea have shown that the little plants, not the ‘dominant’ spruce, may be the more important in governing the processes in the boreal forest2.

3 – 35: Understory plants such as this lingonberry account for half of the total production in boreal forest and control many of the ecological processes.

The understory shrubs account for about half the plant growth produced by the boreal and made available to plant-eaters and to the forest floor litter. Mosses and lichens account for another significant portion. Trees grow slowly in the north.

Forest floor plants such as the feather mosses, and the underground fungi that attach to the tree’s roots (the mycorrhizae), can control the tree’s access to nutrients. Scarcity of nutrients such as nitrogen can limit tree growth in the nutrient-poor habitat of the boreal forest. Mosses can grab the nitrogen first and hold on to it. When the underground fungi can get the nutrients, they help to feed them into the trees.

3 – 36: Mosses in the boreal forest floor produce a significant portion of the total plant production and also can capture the majority of some incoming nutrients, such as nitrogen, and make them available to the trees only later.

The feather mosses also produce insulating effects that control litter accumulation and soil microclimates. In the cold north, a little insulation can exert important controls on litter decomposition and on characteristics of soil chemistry such as acidity.

The effects of the understory shrubs and mosses extend to animal life. Decomposer microbes and other small fauna are directly affected by chemical products from the understory plants. Effects of water-soluble products have been shown to extend beyond the forest floor and reach young trout and water-fleas in forest streams.

The boreal forest landscape is not constant. The mosaic pattern of the many types of habitat patches is changed frequently by disturbance.

Historically, natural disturbances were common. Forest fire was the dominant disturbance, and for many vegetation types, the most important driving force.

3 – 37: The greatest natural force of change in the boreal mosaic has been wildfire. As global warming takes effect, widely across the boreal region. The western boreal receives very low precipitation and will be most affected.

3 – 38: Historically, forest fires have been a major disturbance variable in boreal forests. The mosaic burned by a fire has been dictated by how wet and how humid various landscape components were at the time of the fire. Fires sweep dry patches but may be stopped by wet lowlands.

Naturally, in a landscape that was nearly half wetlands in many areas, fires did not range freely across the boreal. They burned up to the edges of wet environments and went out.

Some forest types such as jack pine are promoted by fire. Heat is needed to force open their cones and cause a rain of seeds that gives jack pine the competitive advantage in the burned patch, at least temporarily. If no jack pine were available to seed the burn, the wind-blown seeds of fireweed and, later, of aspen would capture the burn. Pioneer species such as aspen can grow well for a short time after a forest fire when the accumulation of ashes provides an injection of fertilizer. Neither of these pioneer vegetation types would hold the advantage for long.

3 – 39: Jack pine cones stay on the tree, tightly closed, for many years until a hot fire causes them to open and later drop their seeds to capture the burned patch for jack pine and ground lichens.

3 – 40: Nutrients are highly available immediately after a fire. Highly mobile plants such as this fireweed move into burned patches and produce a bumper crop of nutritious forage for herbivores.

Eventually other vegetation types that are better adapted to the long term struggle for nutrients in a short, northern growing season will take over. In poorly drained sites, even if a crown fire managed to skim over them, forest types already in place and best suited to wet sites, such as black spruce and tamarack, would hold on to the site. But on the drier, highly burnable sites, the pattern of the mosaic of vegetation types would keep moving through space as the forest moves through time.

We took over the role of director of the mosaic pattern in the boreal forest following WW II. Many trained fliers became available and a growing North American commercial economy demanded fibre for paper and wood for other uses. Government agencies had high cash flow. So in Ontario, for example, the Department of Lands and Forests built the largest civilian airforce in the world — to fight forest fires. Fires hindered the commercial exploitation of the boreal so they were attacked very effectively and made into an insignificant driving force compared to their historic, natural role.

3 – 41: Human influence has caused large variations in the frequency and the spread of fires. Fire suppression was most intense in the last half of the 20th century. Current policy shifts are increasing the use of fires in managing parks and possibly elsewhere.

Combined with fire-fighting, the boreal was invaded by armies of forest harvesters taking out the timber and fibre that the fire-fighters had protected. The dynamics in the landscape mosaic of the boreal were being shaped by the commercial needs of big corporations such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, rather than rainfall, wind, and lightning strikes. The pattern changed. Later, as tree nurseries and tree planters tried to keep up with the tree removers, the pattern changed again. Single-species stands became common.

3 – 42: Fire suppression was rationalized by the economic needs for tree harvesting. The dynamics of the boreal forest were strongly controlled by commercial interests, many of them outside Canada.

3 – 43: Canadian economic policies allowed interests such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune to control the boreal forest’s ecological processes.

The new boreal patterns also changed the opportunities for insects and fungi that could initiate outbreaks. The new distribution of patches generated by the pattern of cutblocks and new, lower diversity from reforestation provided new opportunities for insect and disease outbreaks. More opportunities for trained fliers and for chemical companies. More constraints on boreal birds, mammals, fishes and insects.

3 – 44: Integrated forest systems are commonly being replaced with plantations, meaning single tree species.

3 – 45: Forest harvesting, often with government supplements, is transforming the boreal from wilderness to patches licensed to companies for exploitation.

In most parts of the boreal, the invasion by commercial enterprises was by land, so road networks had to penetrate the wilds. The unmarked landscape became more and more marked. The marks are mainly linear. Geometric disturbances such as roads, pipelines, seismic lines and cutblocks are primarily associated with industry. Although these are not all expanses of removed habitat, the fragmentation and disturbance may make large areas of habitat unavailable to many species. Some believe that simply the presence of a road, even a track, changes the value of a forest as natural capital.

3 – 46: Geometric disturbances, many of them linear, are associated with industry and are early signs of transformation of the boreal forest.

3 - 47: Much of the boreal has been opened to other uses by roads built for forest harvesting, often with significant government subsidy.

A study by Global Forest Watch and The World Resources Institute edited by Karen Holmes in 2002 looked at “low-access forests” as a category of high quality forests that could support far-ranging species and/or preserve some habitat in the face of periodic natural disturbances such as forest fires. Low-access in that study was defined to still include disturbance by logging roads, seismic lines and cutblocks. They found that over 80 percent of large, low-access forest in North America is in Canada. Over 66 percent of Canada’s forests, mostly in the boreal, remain in large, low-access tracts. About half of those forests are in Quebec, the old Northwest Territories and Manitoba. Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario have just over half of all the large, low-access Canadian forests. However, the World Resources Institute recently reported that “over half of the forests in 7 of Canada’s major regions have been fragmented by roads and other access routes”. According to Nature Conservancy Canada, almost a third of the boreal forest is within one kilometre of such roads.

Once government agencies or commerce establishes access into the boreal, whether by road or by air, a large segment of the public follows. The access routes bring disturbances to a different level, both qualitatively and in intensity.

Woodland caribou habitat is degraded both by the presence of a road or cutline and also by the activities of humans that accompany that industrial disturbance geometry. Even the well-meaning canoeists and other ‘green’ tourists deliver impacts.

3 – 48: Some species, such as woodland caribou, have sharp thresholds of disturbance that signal the decline of their population in an area. Many other species also decline under disturbance but do not have dramatic thresholds and, so, can slowly decline without catching our early attention.

3 – 49: Woodland caribou have declined to sparse levels in almost all their populations. The success of their population on the Slate Islands in Lake Superior is often ascribed to lack of predators but may actually be related to lack of disturbance such as industrial activities or roads.

Very little of Canada’s boreal forest is fully or even partially protected. Historically, both government and industry have viewed our boreal forest as fibre to be cut and marketed. Only a few meticulous conservation plans, such as Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries’ 115,000 square kilometre Forest Management Area in northeast Alberta, have been established in the boreal.

3 – 50: Some others thrive under disturbance and may compete with those that are declining.

Some natural values3 of the boreal are now being reinterpreted for their value outside the ecosphere and in the technosphere — that sphere of technological activity where most of us live. The boreal is better than carbon-neutral if left to natural processes. The boreal forest area is the largest store of carbon on earth. This is not because boreal trees store a lot of carbon in their trunks but because the soil and litter of the boreal are a vast carbon depot. Dead plant matter in the soil and litter is prevented from decomposing for very long times. (See Feature Box.) Add to that the undecayed organic matter in the peatlands of the boreal region and you get an estimated 154 billion tonnes of carbon in long-term storage in the boreal. That carbon, fixed from the air by “green magic”, is slowed in its return to the air by up to a few hundred years. We now put a dollar value on that.

Anielski and Wilson, with the Canadian Boreal Initiative, have calculated that the boreal forest in the Mackenzie watershed alone, in neutralizing carbon additions to the atmosphere and supplying and filtering water, has a value of $448 billion per year. More than half of that value is in storing carbon and neutralizing its effects on the atmosphere. In comparison, industrial development in the Mackenzie watershed, including oil and gas extraction, has a market value of only about $42 billion per year. Further, they estimate that development in the watershed costs billions in degradation of natural capital. So, when calculating balance sheets in our plans for sustainable development, the value of our natural capital must be given realistic values in those balance sheets. Losses from that natural capital must be included as real and important losses.

Carbon Stored in the Boreal

       Forest
Type
Kilograms Carbon
Wet
Black
Jack
per square metre
Peatland
Spruce
Pine
Aspen
Above Ground
0.5
5.5
3.9
10.3
Below Ground
50.4
39.0
3.3
7.6
Total Ecosystem
50.9
44.5
7.2
17.9

Understory plants, decomposer microbes, invertebrates and fungi, along with climate, are responsible for the boreal forest being a carbon storehouse. Although the slow-growing boreal forest does not remove carbon dioxide from the air at a great rate, its slow growth covers an immense area. The climate that makes it slow-growing also makes it ‘slow-decomposing’. Thus the carbon taken from the air by the “green magic” of the boreal plants is released from that plant matter only very slowly. The peat lying under ‘muskegs’ and the deep black organic layers of the spruce forest floor are accumulations of “green magic” production from long ago.

If we increase the rate of decomposition in the boreal, by global warming or by increasing the drainage, we will release not only a lot of carbon dioxide but also a lot of methane. This form of carbon is saturated with hydrogen instead of oxygen and is even more effective as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Fortunately, recent studies indicate that as subsurface, carbon-rich boreal litter warms, new plants may explode in the new habitat and store more carbon than is released as methane by the warming process. In addition, boreal peat bogs contain about 15% more mercury than mineral soils. If climate warming facilitates more intense forest fires this mercury could be released into the air, distributing it widely and increasing the conversion to methyl mercury, the most toxic form.

3 – 51: Many ecology classes have been told of the ‘spruce-moose’ biome but it is a lot more than that.

As in many ecological systems, we humans tend to focus on the structures (such as species) rather than the processes. We tend to focus only on selected parts — on large charismatic species rather than the less prominent, little species that may be the drivers of the processes that enable all those big, dramatic structures. Hence the boreal was known to many generations of ecology students as “the moose-spruce biome”.

3 – 52: Some of the prominent members of the boreal community are much smaller than moose but may be the most effective means of boreal conservation that we have.

We need to abandon our bias toward structures (including species lists) and charismatic species and refocus on ecosystem processes — natural processes — if we are to understand the boreal well enough to make good policies and management plans for the long-term survival of this very special, and most important of the world’s remaining forests.

3 – 53: Once you come to know it, the boreal skyline will inscribe indelibly on your soul.

1see: Morse, Eric W., Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada - Then and Now, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. 1969.

2Nilsson, M-C and D.A. Wardle, “Understory vegetation as a forest ecosystem driver: evidence from the northern Swedish boreal forest,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Vol. 3, pp 421-428.

3see: Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism, Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 1999


Image Sources — Chapter 3

Image Photographer Location
1GMSpanish River, ON
2GMMoose River drainage, ON
3GMMoose River drainage, ON
4 GM Albany River, ON
5 GM Nipissing River, ON
6 JA Fort Chipewyan. AB
7 GM Fort McMurray, AB
8 GM Thunder Bay, ON
9 JA St. Mary’s River, NS
10 JA Nova Scotia
11 GM Northern Ontario
12 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
13 GM Mer Bleue, ON
14 GM Algonquin Park, ON
15 GM Algonquin Park, ON
16 GM La Vérendrye Park, QC
17 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
18 GM Ile aux Coudres, QC
19 GM Ile aux Coudres, QC
20 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
21 GM Albany River, ON
22 JA Lake Athabasca, AB
23 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
24 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
25 GM Albany River, ON
26 GM Little Current River, ON
27 GM Old Squaw River, ON
28 GM Hearst, ON
29 GM Albany River, ON
30 JA Nova Scotia
31 GM Manotick, ON
32 GM Thelon River, NU
33 GM Manotick, ON
34 JA Lake Athabasca, AB
35 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
36 GM Moose River, ON
37 GM Nemegosenda River, ON
38 GM Whitehorse, YT
39 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
40 JA Athabaska Lake, AB
41 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
42 GM Lavant, ON
43 GM Hull, QC
44 GM Hearst, ON
45 GM Hearst, ON
46 GM Northern Alberta
47 GM le Renous, NB
48 GM Dreaver Lake, SK
49 GM the Cassiar, BC
50 GM Nipissing River, ON
51 GM Coppermine River, NT
52 GM Coppermine River, NT
53 GMNemegosenda River, ON

Maps with permission from Natural Resources Canada
Diagrams copyright Aileen Merriam.
JA – copyright © Jeff Amos
GM – copyright © Gray Merriam