July 7, 2013

Boreal forest: Maine planners stand to learn lessons from Canada's subarctic timberlands

The challenges facing Maine and Canadian forests point up the need for overall land-use planning.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine's more than 19 million acres of forest face challenges that are showing up in Canadian timberlands, too, including stresses that have decimated several species of migratory songbirds and waterfowl.

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Habitat fragmentation is taking a toll on songbirds like the evening grosbeak in the forests of Canada and Maine, experts agree.

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The Canadian boreal forest is home to some of the largest populations of wolves, grizzly bear and woodland caribou.

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Pressure from mining, petroleum operations and oil extraction, along with the spread of farming at the southern edge of the boreal – or subarctic – forest, may ripple through that still largely pristine environment in ways that are raising concern, according to a recent international conference in Canada.

But the experience unfolding in the far north and responses to it may yield help for complex problems Maine is struggling to resolve, too.

A broad-based coalition of ecological monitors, researchers and representatives of indigenous First Nations peoples is seeking to protect the boreal woods and wetlands, birds and wildlife from threats of pollution and habitat loss, according to the gathering of scientists, industry officials, forestry experts, environmental advocates and policymakers at the Wetlands America Trust meeting in late June in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was co-sponsored by Ducks Unlimited and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

North America's boreal forest is the world's largest intact productive ecosystem, encompassing more than 1.5 billion acres of subarctic forest, wetlands, lakes and streams. Nearly 100 times the size of Maine's forestlands, the boreal spans parts of Canada from the eastern portions of Newfoundland and Labrador to the border between the far northern Yukon and Alaska.

But during the last half century -- and particularly over the past two decades -- the kinds of industrial, forestry and agricultural pressures common to the United States for 200 years have begun to rumble through the vast boreal forest, too.

Those signals are alarming to environmentalists, because relatively untouched land is diminishing worldwide, even as the implications of that loss become more evident.

"We acknowledge that people and birds and habitat share the same landscapes," said Dale Humburg, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited. "How to accommodate all those uses – there's a challenge there."

The southern portion of the boreal borders Maine, and many of the characteristics and conditions of the state's North Woods parallel those found in Canada, said Humburg.

"The big difference is that the boreal forest is a lot more sensitive to change," said Amanda Mahaffey, northeast regional director of the Forest Guild, a nonprofit group of foresters advocating sustainable forestry management. It grows more slowly than forests in Maine, so any injury there would take more time to heal, she said.

Both types of forest are facing more wildfires, invasive insects, disease and extreme weather – almost all believed to be exacerbated by global climate change. And many of the difficult problems are creeping from south to north, Mahaffey said.

But how all the contributing causes and effects are linked is almost impossible to say, and no easy solutions are available.

"There are so many complex factors, and it's so complicated," Mahaffey said. "The forest (in Maine) has been changing over time, but it has accelerated over the last 30 years." And combined pressures "have increased the intensity of the challenges faced by forest managers," she said.

And by birds and wildlife.

The Canadian boreal forest is home to some of the largest populations of wolves, grizzly bear and woodland caribou, and the region provides critical breeding grounds for almost half of North America's migratory ducks, geese and songbirds.

Many ornithologists, entomologists and wildlife biologists agree that habitat fragmentation, caused by industrial development, resource extraction and population sprawl is taking a toll on these birds and animals.

"It's a little bit hard to generalize overall," said Jeff Wells, science and policy director of the Boreal Songbird Initiative and senior scientist at the International Boreal Conservation Campaign. But the decline in certain bird species in the boreal is taking place equally in the forests of Maine.

(Continued on page 2)

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