Lessons Learned: Protecting the Boreal Forest (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine article)

In 1899, Governor Theodore Roosevelt spoke to the New York State Assembly about the value of conservation and the threat of extinction: “When I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel just as if all the works of some great writer have perished.” Shortly thereafter, President Roosevelt acted on the sentiment behind his words, creating federal protection for forests and wilderness throughout the nation.

Nearly a century later, Roosevelt's system of parks and protected areas lives on, and so too does the case for conservation. Aware of the need to protect wilderness and the life that it shelters, in 1992 Pew launched a program to conserve intact old-growth forests and wilderness ecosystems. By the late 1990s, Pew's program had gained considerable momentum, and an evaluation found that it had made important contributions to wilderness protection in its first seven years.

Building on this early progress, the Environment program (now called the Pew Environment Group) continued its efforts in the United States, but also began to craft a conservation strategy for Canada's great boreal wilderness. This far-reaching expanse of publicly owned forest and taiga represented a particularly ripe, yet largely untapped, opportunity.

In 1999 Environment staff launched a campaign to protect Canada's boreal forest, ultimately setting the goal of protecting 100 million acres of wilderness by 2010. For context, the entire area overseen by the U.S. National Park Service currently totals 84 million acres, of which 52 million acres are national parks.

Now involving more than 1,500 scientists from around the world, more than 75 major companies, 115 Canadian First Nations and many Canadian and international environmental groups, the resulting wilderness protection campaign had three principal elements: (1) a regional aspect made up of ground-level efforts designed to protect specific areas; (2) a national collaborative approach designed to engage the forest industry, First Nations (Canada's aboriginal groups), government and others to build broad support for protection from within Canada; and (3) an international advocacy strategy designed to promote awareness of the need for wilderness conservation among consumers and other key constituencies who would encourage cooperative action to protect Canadian wilderness.

Designing an Evaluation, Understanding and Refining a Program

In 2006, Pew's Environment and Evaluation staff agreed that this Canadian wilderness protection strategy was sufficiently mature to be well suited for a mid-course evaluation. From 1999 through the end of the evaluation period in December 2006, approximately $35.4 million had been invested in Canadian wilderness conservation, with major support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation.

The evaluation had three principal objectives: (1) understanding the ways in which the campaign contributed to new wilderness protection in Canada; (2) identifying the decisions and external circumstances that helped or hindered the campaign's progress; and (3) providing recommendations to improve the likelihood of meeting Pew's long-term 100-million-acre conservation goal.

The evaluation was conducted by a team of senior evaluation and conservation experts made up of David LaRoche, an independent consultant with more than 25 years of experience in environmental conservation; David M. Gardiner, formerly the executive director of theWhite House Climate Change Task Force and senior administrator for policy analysis at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Gary Bryner, Ph.D., professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

The team used a range of methods to inform their work, including more than 90 interviews with key stakeholders, case studies of specific wilderness- protection efforts, a review of land-protection records and policies, and an assessment of media coverage of the campaign.

Findings and Recommendations

The evaluation found that Pew's strategy had made strong progress toward its goal, and identified the campaign as the decisive player in protecting approximately 60 million acres—exceeding the combined area of Pennsylvania and New York—through the end of the evaluation period in December 2006. Indeed, the evaluation found that the campaign was largely on track to meet its protection goal for the end of the decade if several key recommendations were followed.

Successful Regional Efforts Were Supported by a Strong National Component

The wilderness protection campaign relied in part on a series of regional efforts to pursue specific protectedarea proposals that built on earlier work by conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund-Canada and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

In partnership with local conservation groups and aboriginal First Nations, the campaign worked to map the boreal landscape, plan and develop park and protected-area proposals, raise awareness in affected communities, and identify promising future protection opportunities.

At the national level, the campaign also worked closely with Canadian and international environmental organizations, corporations and First Nations to find common ground around the Canadian boreal forest conservation framework, a visionary plan to protect and sustain this globally important ecosystem over time.

The national aspect of the campaign emerged as a valuable complement to the regional efforts by providing coordination, supporting research and scientific analysis, and raising public awareness more broadly. It also played an important role by assisting First Nations in land-use planning efforts as part of an overall objective to build a broad coalition for wilderness protection.

The evaluation saw continued promise in this combined regional-national approach, but cautioned against assuming that it could be easily replicated in other areas unless the campaign adapted in targeted, opportunistic ways.

A major recommendation: The campaign should carefully apply approaches from areas of greatest success, such as the Northwest Territories, as it focuses on promising opportunities in other provinces and territories.

An International Advocacy Effort Created Momentum and May Have Laid the Groundwork for Future Protection

The Canadian wilderness protection campaign also included an international public education effort designed to both raise awareness of the boreal as a region in need of protection and build on this recognition to generate additional public, industry and government enthusiasm for wilderness protection.

The evaluation found that the international advocacy component was a necessary part of the strategy and provided evidence that this approach had been essential in securing industry agreements to manage approximately 116 million acres in accordance with the Forest Stewardship Council's sustainable-forestry standards.

Although the evaluation did not establish a direct link between this part of the strategy and formal wilderness protections, it did suggest that the broad international campaign built infrastructure and awareness that could prove instrumental in bringing about future wilderness-protection gains.

Facing Challenges in Managing of a Complex Campaign, Refining a Visionary Approach

As the evaluators themselves noted, “The campaign is a highly nuanced enterprise cutting across four cultures, numerous sub-cultures, linguistic divides, multiple levels of governmental structures and numerous sectoral interests.”

Even successful campaigns inevitably face challenges. And in this case the evaluation identified that at times the Canadian and international aspects of the campaign risked being at odds with one another.

For example, some international campaigners viewed the separate Canada-based collaborative approach as being unnecessarily restrained, while some Canadian advocates viewed the international campaign as being overly aggressive.

The evaluation recommended building on existing efforts to:

  • Increase coordination between the different campaign participants and recognize clear and distinct roles for each.
  • Develop and integrate a state-of-theart communications approach into all elements of the campaign, develop and consistently project a clear and compelling message that creates a sense of urgency regarding the need to protect specific tracts of wilderness.
  • Continue to effectively adjust strategy and campaign structure, explore additional opportunities to protect Canada's northern boreal wilderness, and search for ways to continue to extend the reach and impact of the public-education component.


Thanks in part to strong ongoing programmatic work as well as changes instituted as a result of this evaluation, wilderness protection in Canada surged in 2007. By year's end, the program was able to announce that it reached its 100-million-acre goal well in advance of its original timeline (for details, see the campaign's Web site,

In addition to the specific suggestions that the evaluation provided, one key lesson that emerged for program staff was that, in the best cases, the very act of participating in the evaluation process itself can be a valuable source of learning.

Steven E. Kallick, a senior officer in the Environment program at the time the program was designed and now director of Pew's International Boreal Conservation Campaign, noted: “During the recent evaluation of the Canadian wilderness program, we discovered that the scientific work we supported wasn't on track. The evaluators kept asking us how we knew which areas were the most important ones to protect.

“In essence, they were asking us about the scientific basis underlying our policy recommendations. And we found we couldn't give good answers to these questions. I realized then that we had to support better science.”

By focusing attention on key lessons and opportunities for refinement, this evaluation represents a strong example of the type of insight that we in Pew's Evaluation group hope to provide to our colleagues in the program areas. We would be hard-pressed to better describe our goal for institutional learning than did Steve, who quite simply and effectively described the ultimate outcome of this project: “Our evaluation helped us to get better at what we do.”

Scott Scrivner is an officer and Lester Baxter is deputy director in Evaluation and Program Analysis at Pew.