part of the massive intact north american Boreal Forest: the Sahtu region of the Mackenzie Valley, Northwest Territories, Canada (Photo J. Wells)
Due to the course of human history, there are now only a handful of places on Earth that are not severely altered by the footprint of large-scale industrial activities. Those within parts of the Earth where trees are dominant are termed “intact” or “primary” forests. A few weeks ago I joined more than a hundred other scientists and conservationists for a three-day conference at Oxford University in England to discuss the issues, needs, similarities, and differences related to the science and conservation of the world’s forest landscapes that are considered intact.
The conference, Intact Forests in the 21st Century, included presentations on the issues of how best to map and identify intact forest landscapes, methods for inventory and identification of conservation values of intact forests, ways of communicating about the importance of intact forests to the public and policy makers, elucidation of the major threats and stressors that are eliminating or degrading intact forests, and strategies for achieving conservation of these forest landscapes.
Five regions of the globe have very large forested landscapes that contain large tracts of intact or primary forest: the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska, the Boreal Forest of Russia and Scandinavia, the Amazon Forest of South America, the Congo Basin of Africa, and the forests of Papua New Guinea and Malayasia. While this “Family of Five” forest areas are called by some the “Last Five,” it is important to point out that there are other areas of forest around the globe, some of which, while perhaps smaller at the global scale, are intact and others which are recovering from past human impacts and that need conservation attention as well.
But certainly the “Family of Five” was a major focus of presentations at the conference and the range of research and conservation initiatives that are underway in these regions is impressive. At the same time, it was clear from all presentations that there continues to be rapid loss of these last intact forest landscapes on the planet, with consequent loss of animal and plant species as well as degradation of the ability of forests to provide clean air and water, and to store away carbon pollution.
The Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska was highlighted for its global significance containing as it does, at least a quarter of the world’s last large intact forest landscapes that have in storage over 200 billion tons of carbon and that support billions of migratory birds and a host of mammals, fish, insects, and plants. Also highlighted was the fact that the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska is the ancestral homeland of hundreds of Indigenous communities whose governments are increasingly taking the lead in achieving balanced protection and stewardship of their lands and waters, and the animals and plants found there. Some of the major problems in the region were also given attention including the plight of rapidly declining Boreal Woodland Caribou populations in Canada and the opportunity for increasing protections as governments strive to achieve conservation commitments embodied in the Aichi Biodiversity Treaty by 2020. The long-term impacts to the Boreal Forest of the very large footprint of industrial forestry as well as from mining, oil, and gas; large-scale hydro, and other global industries was demonstrated as well.
As the conference reached its conclusion, delegates came together to show a global voice and vision for the world’s remaining intact forests and their conservation through an Intact Forest Declaration that attendees and others will be signing and spotlighting in coming months. By sharing our knowledge, ideas and understanding among those working for conservation across all the world’s Intact Forest landscapes, we hope we can increase the collective conservation gains for all of the Family of the Five and beyond.
Me with Tom Evans (right) of the Wildlife Conservation Society who was one of the key organizers of the Intact Forests in the 21st Century Conference. Behind us is an amazing graphic put together by two artists to encapsulate the range of presentations and messages of the conference.