Running Out of Time in Canada's Boreal Forest

By Teresa Earle with photography by Fritz Mueller

Boreal forests cover 40 per cent of Canada's land mass, and they're getting trashed. These complex forests are like lungs for the planet. So why are we taking so long to figure how to take care of them?

“I’ve heard it before. People say: ‘We’re not Alberta—this is the Yukon and it’s different here’,” says Dr. Brad Stelfox, “But Alberta started out just like the Yukon and with a similar footprint.” Dr. Stelfox is an Alberta researcher who has made many trips to the Yukon to share his province’s experience with overlapping human land use practices. His presentations are illustrated with maps, graphs and photographs that show what has happened to the Alberta landscape over time due to human activities.

Stelfox is in the Yukon to talk about cumulative effects of linear development on the environment. Many managers and researchers are realizing that incremental effects of developments often lead to larger, unintended impacts. Some describe cumulative effects as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Stelfox explains that although the land base is limited, land uses are increasing in size and intensity. In the Yukon, several potential or existing projects will have to deal with these issues, such as a natural gas pipeline, a railroad, seismic activity with oil and gas development, forestry development and power lines.

“Humans also have basic impacts that leave footprints that we tend to overlook, like communities or roads,” Stelfox points out. “You can’t just point a finger at industries.” He believes that the Yukon can learn from Alberta’s experience and take steps to be more proactive in planning for future land uses. “Yukon has the opportunity to do strategic planning. In Alberta, there’s a commitment to doing this, but we don’t have the flexibility anymore.”

Stelfox describes some of the natural and human factors that change the boreal landscape. “Natural disturbances like fire and flooding have significant impacts. First Nation people have shaped the landscape with fire and hunting for 10,000 years. The distribution of water for agriculture has had a major impact in Alberta, as has the influence of livestock and agriculture.”

“Human settlements—cities, communities, farmsteads—also create footprints, as do highways, rail networks and grids. In Alberta, the energy sector has also created a significant footprint through seismic activity, wells, roads and pipelines, as well as coal and peat mining.” He points out that protected areas are also a land use practice. “Lands are set aside by society for a number of reasons that provide value—tourism, recreation, ecological services, a base for science, hunting.”

“From different developments we get increased employment, taxes, and royalties, but if society requires certain eco-services, we need to manage the landscape for those, too.” To address potential conflicts, Stelfox advocates balance and planning.

He uses complex modeling tools to compare business-as-usual (the status quo) with best practices approaches. Using software and planning exercises, stakeholders can lay out different land use options and work together to develop a collective plan. “For example, you could plan thinner seismic lines or shared roads for energy and forestry sectors. Better communication is needed to identify the issues and harmonize land uses, and you need to overlay the needs and visions of multiple jurisdictions.”

Stelfox describes two approaches in landscape management. The ad hoc approach resembles a row of silos or towers. “It’s a series of independent agencies acting on their own, each with growth goals on a finite landscape, each affecting the goals of other land users.” Often, this is the default model that governs landscape management.

An integrated and planned future landscape approach is where all these ‘silos’ or interests are instead part of a wheel where each feeds into a central planning and decision-making process. “All land users identify landscape goals, and a range of land use options are explored and simulated.” Stelfox explains, “Issues are described and discussed and you identify proactive mitigation strategies. The option that best achieves the collective landscape goal is adopted and monitored.” The challenge, he says, is how to maximize benefits while minimizing footprint. “In all cases there are trade-offs, but it’s key that those are known up front.”

“What will you see in 10, 40 or 100 years?” Stelfox asks. “What is society’s collective vision of the future landscape? Can that vision be achieved with your current approach to land use management? Yukon has few people and little development. There is one window of opportunity, and as we march through time Yukon’s flexibility is diminishing.”