09/22/2008 - It may be the biggest conservation victory for the US in decades. It ensures that massive amounts of greenhouse gases won't be released to add to global warming. It ensures an abundance of birds for generations of Americans to enjoy. And you may not have heard anything about it.
That's because it just happened in Ontario, Canada.
Over the summer, Ontario's premier, Dalton McGuinty, announced that at least 55 million acres – half of the province's boreal forest – will be off limits to development. And he has promised no new mining or logging projects until local land-use plans have support from native communities. The scale of the decision is staggering, and it commits Ontario to setting aside lands more than twice the size of Pennsylvania as parks or wildlife refuges.
Equally impressive was Premier McGuinty's strong reliance on the recommendation by scientists, led by Nobel Prize-winning authors of the International Panel on Climate Change, to make that decision.
Scientists identify the Canadian boreal forest, larger than the remaining Brazilian Amazon, as one of the world's largest and most intact forest ecosystems. It stores 186 billion tons of carbon – equivalent to 27 years of the world's carbon dioxide fossil fuel emissions – and provides habitat for billions of breeding birds, plus many other wildlife species.
There are herds of caribou, healthy populations of bears and wolves, and some of the world's last wild undammed rivers and pristine lakes. Many of the birds either winter in the US or pass through during their spring and fall migrations.
Millions of dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows and Swainson's thrushes are among the songbirds that raise their young in this now-protected region and that will soon be arriving in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Hunters have reason to be happy, too, since those forests also sustain huge numbers of waterfowl like American black ducks, common goldeneyes and buffleheads that grace US waters in the winter.
Placing half of Ontario's boreal forest off limits to development and industrial use helps to ensure that the carbon currently stored there stays put. And it protects the habitat of the abundant wildlife of the boreal forest. Moreover, by protecting large, unfragmented blocks of habitat, McGuinty may help to ensure the survival of still other species that are forced to move north to adapt to our warming planet.
In recent years, scientists have increasingly come to realize that the old benchmark of protecting 10 to 15 percent of an ecosystem is not enough. That level of protection cannot ensure that abundant wildlife, clean air and water, and a stable climate are maintained. Instead, scientists recommend a benchmark closer to 50 percent protection. McGuinty's bold announcement is one of the few instances where a government leader has met these recommended goals.
Politicians operate within the confines of public support. Without strong public interest in conservation, McGuinty would not have made this move. That's a good reminder for those who care about maintaining and protecting our natural resources to make our voices heard so that politicians, on both sides of the border, have the opportunity for bold, environmentally friendly leadership.
And while strong public interest in and support of conservation was important in making this landmark decision, bold environmentally friendly leadership doesn't come from the polls alone. It comes from strong leaders who, as McGuinty did in this matter, put the greater good over everyday politics.
You've got to admire his courage when, in the United States, many leaders seem intent on trying to weaken laws that protect the country's conservation lands. Consider Wyoming: State officials, with the help of a federal judge, recently took a disappointing step toward overturning the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protects roughly the last one-third of the nation's undeveloped national forest lands. Then there is the Bush administration's plans to weaken habitat protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Ontario is setting an example of leadership and large-scale thinking for the rest of Canada and, indeed, for the world to follow. Now it's up to the leaders of the US, whether they work in state houses or the White House, to fight to protect our last wild places.
In the meantime, thanks to the actions of McGuinty, generations of Americans will be able to step out on their back porches this fall and witness the splendor of migration as millions of birds head south from the now-protected lands in Ontario's boreal forest.
Jeff Wells is the science adviser to The Pew Charitable Trusts' International Boreal Conservation Campaign. David Wilcove is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Scott Weidensaul has written more than two dozen books on natural history.