Deforestation in Canada

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Over a million acres of forest are cut in Canada. Andre Gallant/The Image Bank/Getty

Deforestation, or the loss of forests, is progressing at a fast pace worldwide. This issue gets much attention in tropical regions where rainforests are converted to agriculture, but large swaths of boreal forests are cut each year in colder climates. Canada has long enjoyed an excellent standing in terms of environmental stewardship. That reputation is being seriously challenged as the federal government is promoting aggressive policies on fossil fuel exploitation, dropping climate change commitments, and muzzling federal scientists.

What does Canada’s recent record on deforestation look like?

An Important Player in the Global Forest Picture

Canada’s use of its forest is significant because of the global importance of its wooded lands – 10% of the world’s forests are located there. Most of it is boreal forest, defined by stands of coniferous trees in subarctic regions. A lot of the boreal forest is far from roads and this isolation makes Canada the steward of much of the remaining primary or “pristine forests” not fragmented by human activity. These wilderness areas play important roles as wildlife habitat and as climate regulators. They produce large amounts of oxygen and store carbon, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a key greenhouse gas.

Net Losses

Since 1975, about 3.3 million hectares (or 8.15 million acres) of Canadian forest were converted to non-forest uses, representing about 1% of the total forested areas.

These new uses are primarily agriculture, oil/gas/mining, but also urban development. Such changes in land use can truly be considered deforestation, as they result in permanent or at least very long lasting loss of forest cover.

Cut Forests Does Not Necessarily Mean Lost Forest

Now, a much greater amount of forest is cut each year as part of the forest products industry.

These forest cuts amount to around a half million hectares a year. The main products issued from Canada’s boreal forest are softwood lumber (typically used in construction), paper, and plywood. The forest products sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP is now only slightly more than 1%. Canada’s forestry activities do not convert forests into pastures like in the Amazon Basin, or into palm oil plantations like in Indonesia. Instead, forestry activities are done as part of management plans prescribing practices to encourage natural regeneration, or the direct replanting of new seedling trees. Either way, the cutover areas will return to forest cover, with only a temporarily loss of habitat or carbon storing capabilities. Around 40% of Canada’s forests are enrolled in one of the three leading forest certification programs, which require sustainable management practices.

A Major Concern, Primary Forests

The knowledge that most forests cut in Canada are managed to grow back doesn’t detract from the fact that primary forest continued to be cut at an alarming rate. Between 2000 and 2014, Canada is responsible for the greatest total loss, acreage-wise, of primary forest in the world. This loss is due to the continued spread of road networks, logging, and mining activities.

Over 20% of the world’s total loss of primary forests occurred in Canada. These forests will grow back to, but not as secondary forests. Wildlife necessitating large amounts of land (for example, woodland caribou and wolverines) will not come back, invasive species will follow the road networks, as will hunters, mining prospectors, and second-home developers. Perhaps less tangibly but just as importantly, the unique character of the vast and wild boreal forest will be diminished.

Sources

ESRI. 2011. Canadian Deforestation Mapping and Carbon Accounting for Kyoto Agreement.

Global Forest Watch. 2014. World Lost 8 Percent of its Remaining Pristine Forests Since 2000.

Natural Resources Canada. 2013. The State of Canada’s Forests. Annual Report.