Canada’s boreal forest stretches all the way from the Yukon/Alaska border in the west to the eastern shore of Newfoundland.
It’s made up of trembling aspen, white birch, balsam fir, jack pine, black and white spruce, for the most part. Northwards, it merges into the sub-arctic taiga and tundra; in the south, it gives way to grassland or mixed woodlands. It covers almost six million square kilometres and has been rated as “one of the world’s greatest treasures,” along with its Siberian counterpart and the Amazon rainforest.
The International Boreal Conservation Science Panel met recently in Baltimore and came out with the assertion that half of the total area should be protected from industrial developments because of its ecological significance and value as a massive carbon depository.
The panel estimated that about one-eighth had already been adversely impacted by industrial developments – forestry, by which they mean timber harvesting, mining and oil and gas exploration.
The only activity that the panel would accept is traditional hunting by aboriginal peoples (does ‘traditional’ exclude ATVs, high-powered rifles and skidoos?) and there should be co-management.
This position, taken by a group of eminent biologists and environmentalists, looks at the ecological significance of the area and presents one side of an argument, thus clearly illustrating the philosophical gulf between conservationist and industrialists that presents governments with a difficult dilemma.
What might be the local and national economic benefits of permitting some development, and what might be the environmental costs? What measure of environmental harm, if any, is acceptable in the short and long terms? What constraints on development could be enforced, not just written, to minimize environmentally harmful impacts without compromising the viability of a project? How and by whom should decisions be made? What time frames should be envisaged? Whose interests are predominant?
These difficult questions should be addressed in open debate using science, facts and data, rather than rhetoric and unsupported hyperbole.
Think back a century and imagine a discussion on whether one could approve the conversion of prairie grasslands to wheat fields, a significant ecological and social change.
The social impact was immediate, alteration of habitat proved harmful to bison, burrowing owls, many other creatures and a way of life; national benefit came slowly.
How would a benefit/cost analysis have looked then and how would it compare with one today?
Can we embark on a similar examination of the pros and cons of possible industrial ventures in our pristine boreal forest?
It is particularly challenging when some of the values are difficult or impossible to quantify – can you put a dollar value on clean water, the last golden eagle?
What are the lost opportunity costs if development is not sanctioned? How does one apply the law of unexpected consequences?
There is no magic formula that will provide an answer. When all the issues have been explored and debated, the eventual decision will reflect the bias of the decision-makers and, whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to please all of the protagonists.
Only time will tell if it was the right solution.
Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. firstname.lastname@example.org