Conservation groups: Manitoba poised for big gains on boreal forest protection
Winnipeg, Man.—Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) say Manitoba is set to emerge as a national leader in boreal forest conservation following significant progress last year to protect a region essential to the province’s environmental and economic health.
The two conservation organizations are celebrating the ‘Top 6’ reasons the boreal forest has a brighter future in 2015.
- New collaborations with First Nations on establishing and managing provincial parks.
- A nation-leading strategy to protect threatened boreal woodland caribou.
- Commitments by Manitoba’s major political parties to develop comprehensive policies for the province’s north.
- Passage of legislation to protect vulnerable boreal peatlands.
- Prairie drainage rules aimed at improving the boreal waters of Lake Winnipeg.
- New approaches to building roads that will conserve wetlands in areas under industrial development.
“The boreal forest region of Manitoba is a globally-significant asset, and we’re extremely fortunate that most of it is healthy and intact,” said Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Manitoba chapter. “There were plenty of reasons to cheer in 2014 about boreal conservation, and there’s a great opportunity in 2015 to keep building on those successes.”
“Manitoba has a unique chance to chart a future for the boreal region that finds a balance between sustainable development and protection of the forest and its wetlands,” added Chris Smith, head of boreal conservation programs at Ducks Unlimited Canada. “We’re hopeful the momentum of the past year will continue with bigger things in the New Year.”
Increasingly, Manitobans are recognizing the importance of maintaining a healthy boreal forest.
The region covers approximately 80 per cent of Manitoba – at 570,000 square kilometres it is larger than nations such as Spain, Sweden and Japan – and is part of the Canadian boreal forest, the world’s largest remaining intact ecosystem.
It supports the livelihood of dozens of Indigenous and other northern communities. The boreal region of Manitoba is also the only one in Canada to prominently feature at least four of the country’s seven major boreal ecozones – Boreal Plains, Boreal Shield, Hudson Plains and Taiga Shield.
The vast majority of Manitoba’s boreal region, roughly 470,000 square kilometres, remains intact and free from industrial development. It is home to more than 8,000 lakes of one square kilometres or larger.
As in the rest of Canada’s boreal region, the development of much of northern Manitoba has only recently become technologically and economically feasible. Other provinces have begun seeking ways to balance a desire for both economic growth and protection of the environment and natural heritage. It’s an opportunity no longer available to most jurisdictions in the world.
Optimism that Manitoba can balance sustainable land use activities, a long-term vibrant economy and the ecological integrity of the landscape is rooted in pledges by both the New Democratic Party and the Progressive Conservatives to develop comprehensive strategies for the province’s north.
Here are the Top 6 Reasons the Future of Manitoba’s Boreal Forest is Looking Brighter in 2015:
Conservation Partnerships with First Nations
Manitoba took significant steps in 2014 toward meeting the province’s goal of creating 10 new or expanded parks by 2020, including the year-end expansion of Whiteshell Provincial Park. But perhaps no actions were more significant than those taken to solidify important agreements with First Nations on the creation and management of two protected areas within the boreal forest, Chitek Lake Provincial Park and Walter Cook Caves Ecological Reserve.
Chitek Lake Provincial Park, Manitoba’s 88th park, covers more than 1,000 square kilometres of intact boreal forest and wetlands in the north interlake. This park, home to Manitoba’s only free-ranging wood bison herd, was nominated for protection by Skownan First Nation and will be co-managed by the province and Skownan.
Chitek Lake is the first to bear a new provincial land designation (Indigenous Traditional Use) that will support Skownan’s cultural and economic integrity. It recognizes the park is a significant traditional land use area.
The Walter Cook Caves Ecological Reserve, northwest of Grand Rapids, protects a unique complex of limestone caves and sinkholes that provide habitats for boreal flora and fauna, including the northernmost hibernation sites of the Little Brown Bat in Canada. This culturally important site was nominated by Misipawistik Cree Nation and named after one of their members, the late Walter Cook. Misipawistik will co-manage the reserve with the province.
The designation of these important areas serves as a model of cooperation between First Nations governments and the provincial government on the conservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage.
This follows Manitoba’s longstanding, and internationally applauded, support of First Nations in their efforts to win UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for Pimachiowin Aki, the culturally and ecologically significant area of intact boreal forest east of Lake Winnipeg, which has been inhabited by indigenous people for 7,000 years.
The actions in 2014 bode well for future efforts to establish a network of protected areas where Indigenous peoples and other levels of government partner to accomplish mutual goals for the benefit of all people in Manitoba.
Manitoba Sets Standard on Boreal Caribou Conservation
While efforts to protect boreal woodland caribou faltered across much of Canada in 2014, Manitoba emerged as a rare bright spot for this iconic-but-threatened species. The province’s draft caribou recovery strategy, released last April, tops all others in the nation with a proposal to protect and manage 65 to 80 per cent of intact suitable boreal caribou habitat.
This level of protection is vital if caribou are to have a chance at long-term survival, because the biggest threat they face is habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activities. A forest without woodland caribou is unacceptable to Manitobans. “The loss of such an iconic species would be an indicator that the boreal region is no longer a healthy and fully functioning ecosystem,” said Thiessen.
Boreal woodland caribou still inhabit the majority of their historical range in Manitoba. But they no longer inhabit the southern part due to human encroachment.
It’s important that Manitoba, in 2015, turn this draft caribou strategy into a reality with a final plan that adds crucial timelines to achieve the proposed benchmarks.
“Manitoba’s unprecedented commitment to establish large areas of caribou habitat that are exempt from forestry is good news for this threatened species.” said Thiessen.
“We all need the boreal ecosystems where caribou live to be healthy as we plan for vibrant economies with First Nations and others.”
Political Parties Embrace Comprehensive Planning for Manitoba’s North
With Manitobans preparing for an election in 2016, voters concerned about the health of the province’s boreal region have cause for ballot-box optimism: Both leading parties have pledged to deliver a robust and detailed policy for the north.
When the Progressive Conservatives launched their “Northern Lights” strategy last June, leader Brian Pallister vowed to develop a “sound northern strategy that is both comprehensive and clearly articulated.” The Conservatives also promised their plan would be driven by input from Manitobans who live and work in the north.
The “Northern Lights” strategy followed the NDP’s release in 2012 of “Tomorrow Now: Manitoba’s Green Plan.” The NDP’s plan declared it has “never been more critical” to protect the boreal forest, and committed to a “forward thinking approach that balances sustainable development with conservation.”
“We are pleased that the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives have decided to take a comprehensive approach to the north, and we look forward to working with them to ensure that their proposals have strong conservation components,” said Thiessen and Smith.
“It’s extremely encouraging to see that both parties now agree it is essential to chart a clear course for the future of the north, and we believe the policy must balance development and conservation in the boreal forest. We look forward to seeing more detail of those plans.”
A Progressive Peatlands Strategy
The peatlands of Manitoba’s boreal forest play an invaluable role in protecting the province’s fresh water quality and quantity, and guarding against climate change.
More than 40 per cent of the boreal forest is made up of wetlands, and the majority of these wetlands are peatlands, often referred to as muskeg.
In 2014, Manitoba took a major step to protecting this resource with passage of a first-in-Canada law that provides a balanced approach between the protection and wise use of peatlands, and which prohibits the harvesting of peatlands in all provincial parks and 82 wildlife management areas.
The Peatlands Stewardship Act creates what the government calls ‘no-go zones’ for commercial peat development and allows the province to ban mining, forestry, agriculture and hydro developments on peatlands designated as significant.
“Peatlands are vital components in the hydrology of the forest, helping maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems, including water that often makes its way into Lake Winnipeg,” said Smith.
They purify Manitoba’s water, contribute to flood and erosion control and provide important economic, social and cultural benefits, Smith added.
Peatlands are also ‘climate kings’ that sequester and store large densities of carbon – a staggering 19 billion tonnes, or almost a century’s worth of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions – that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere. In essence they help moderate climate change, but they are also extremely sensitive to disturbance.
When drained, burned or cut off from surrounding water tables, carbon that has been captured and stored as peat over thousands of years can be released.
Manitoba’s legislation will contribute to the conservation of peatlands which help sustain the estimated 1.6 million waterfowl that nest and raise their young in the boreal region. Peatlands also provide habitat for songbirds, moose, the threatened boreal woodland caribou and hundreds of other species of plants and animals.
Under the law, peat and peat moss will no longer be treated as a mineral, but an organic natural resource that will be managed in an integrated way within the broader environment.
The new legislation also provides the horticultural peat industry with greater certainty in where peat harvest can and cannot occur. It will also ensure peat harvesters file recovery plans for areas of operation that will set them on a trajectory of restoration.
Planning For a Healthier Lake Winnipeg
New sustainable drainage regulations proposed in 2014 marked a significant commitment to restoring the health of Lake Winnipeg, which in 2013 was designated by the Global Nature Fund as the ‘Threatened Lake of the Year.’
The proposed regulations are aimed at helping to protect Lake Winnipeg and will prevent drainage of wetlands whose loss would allow algae-accelerating nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to be released downstream.
While designed to help address environmental problems such as flooding and nutrient loading into Lake Winnipeg that are often associated with land use in our southern watersheds, the regulations set an example for how to ensure the long-term health of this boreal lake and the rest of its watershed.
Fully 70 per cent of Lake Winnipeg’s watershed within Manitoba is contained in the boreal forest region – but only 30 per cent of the nutrients going into Lake Winnipeg are currently attributed to runoff from the boreal forest. It’s critically important that activities in the boreal forest do not contribute to increased nutrient loading in the future.
Wetlands are often called the “kidneys of our watersheds” because they filter, assimilate and store nutrients that are used in agricultural production.
The health of Lake Winnipeg connects environmental, social and economic issues in Manitoba’s prairie and boreal regions, and the proposed drainage regulations are a positive step.
But additional policies that ensure the protection of watershed services within the boreal forest region itself are also desperately needed, and will be vital to the lake’s health over the long term. Protection and wise management of the boreal forest is the key to a healthy future for Lake Winnipeg.
Building More Eco-Friendly Resource Roads
Healthy boreal wetlands need healthy water flows, it’s that simple.
But figuring out how to make that happen in Manitoba’s working forest is a more difficult task. That’s because roads that are essential to industry can sometimes block the natural movement of water and contribute to sediment loads.
In 2014, efforts by conservation organizations and the forest industry to conserve Manitoba’s boreal wetlands and limit negative impacts caused by roads began to pay dividends.
Ducks Unlimited Canada and its partners completed a three-year project aimed at finding ways to improve road performance, minimize the impact of resource roads in sensitive wetland areas, reduce costs and improve road safety.
Many of these boreal wetlands are highly connected systems, often transporting water and associated nutrients long distances.
Forest engineers in collaboration with project partners designed improved crossings – including newly-imagined ‘corduroy’ roads – to allow water to flow under road beds, rather than only directing the flow through culverts which can easily block or impede water flow during spring runoff or heavy rains.
“This project is a great example of how conservation groups and industries that operate in the boreal forest can work together to accomplish common goals and advance sustainable development,” said DUC’s Smith, who lives in Cranberry Portage.
“It helps ensure that Manitoba’s wetland complexes stay healthy. The other really important part is that it helps solve some problems for the companies – because poor road crossings of wetlands can be an operational hazard that impacts their bottom line.”
DUC undertook the project in partnership with Louisiana Pacific Canada, Spruce Products Ltd., Weyerhaeuser Canada and FPInnovations, a not-for-profit forest sector institute. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) provided financial resources through a conservation grant.
The creative solutions that emerged from the project were recently published in a well-received ‘operational guide’ to help industry identify the different types of boreal wetlands and pursue better road planning and building practices.
This work is being expanded into a National Handbook, with the hope that these made-in-Manitoba solutions will be expanded to larger road projects including municipal roads and provincial highways.