Boreal forest of Canada

Canada's boreal forest comprises about 25% of the circumpolar boreal forest that rings the northern hemisphere, mostly north of the 50th parallel. [State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, The Boreal Forest, Canadian Forest Service, ISBN 0-662-40014-3, p. 43] Other countries with boreal forest include Russia, which contains the majority, and the Scandinavian and Nordic countries (e.g. Sweden, Finland, and Norway). The boreal region in Canada covers almost 60% of the country’s land area. About 310 million of the roughly 545 million-hectare region is forested. [ Canadian Boreal Initiative online,; State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, p. 43.] The Canadian boreal region spans the landscape from the most easterly part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to the border between the far northern Yukon Territory and Alaska. The boreal region is often characterized as the collection of the eight Canadian boreal eco-zones. While the biodiversity of regions varies, each eco-zone is rich in native flora and fauna. [State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, p. 45, Map “Canada’s Boreal Forest” inside back cover]

The Canadian boreal region represents a tract of land over 1,000 kilometres wide separating the tundra in the north and temperate rain forest and deciduous woodlands that predominate in the most southerly and westerly parts of Canada. The boreal region contains about 14% of Canada’s population. With its sheer vastness and integrity, the boreal makes an important contribution to the rural and aboriginal economies of Canada, primarily through resource industries, recreation, hunting, fishing and eco-tourism. Hundreds of cities and towns within its territory derive at least 20% of their economic activity from the forest, mainly from industries like forest products, mining, oil and gas and tourism. [State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, p. 55] The boreal forest also plays an iconic role in Canada’s history, economic and social development and the arts. [ State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, p. 48]



Canada’s boreal region includes four eco-zones – Taiga Cordillera, Taiga Plains, Taiga Shield and Hudson Plants – that form the northern reaches of the boreal forest, the most thinly treed areas where the growing season and average tree size progressively shrinks until the edge of the Arctic tundra is reached. [State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, p. 40] Three other ecozones form the largely uninterrupted or continuous forest in the lower or southern tier of the boreal stretching as far south as Lake Superior in Ontario and the Manitoba-North Dakota border. These three zones are the Boreal Shield, at 163 million hectares the largest of the eight zones, the Boreal Plains and Boreal Cordillera. [ State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, Map “Canada’s Boreal Forest”, inside back cover] The eighth and smallest zone at three million hectares is a tiny boreal portion of the much larger Atlantic Maritime forest eco-zone – specifically a portion stretching from the northwestern tip of New Brunswick into the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. State of Canada’s Forests: 2004-2005, Map “Canada’s Boreal Region”, inside back cover] Within the boreal region, there are about 189 million hectares that are between 80% to 100% forested and another 65 million hectares with 60% to 80% forest cover.

Post Ice-age development

The Canadian boreal forest in its current form began to emerge with the end of the last Ice Age. With the retreat of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet 10,000 years ago, spruce and Northern Pine migrated northward and were followed thousands of years later by Fir and Birch, so that the species character changed as the temperature warmed further. [State of Canada’s Forests, 2004-2005, pp. 46-47] About 5,000 years ago, the Canadian boreal began to resemble what it is today in terms of species composition and biodiversity. White spruce, black spruce and tamarack are most prevalent in the four northern eco-zones of the Taiga and Hudson Plains, while spruce, balsam fir, jack pine, white birch and trembling Aspen are most common in the lower boreal regions. Large populations of trembling aspen and willow are found in the southernmost parts of the Boreal plains. [ “Canada’s Boreal Forest", Forest Products Association of Canada, map, inside front cover.] One dominant characteristic of the boreal is that much of it is comprised of large, even-aged stands, a uniformity that owes to a cycle of natural disturbances like forest fires, infestations of pine beetle or spruce budworm that kill large tracts of forest with cyclical regularity. Since the melting of the great glaciers, the boreal forest has been through many cycles of natural death through fire, infestations and disease, followed by regeneration. Prior to European colonization of Canada and the application of modern firefighting equipment and techniques, the natural burn/regeneration cycle was less than 75 to 100 years, and it still is in many areas. [ “The Nature of Forest Fires,” State of Canada’s Forests, 2003-2004, ISBN 0-662-37602-1, p. 47] Terms like old growth and ancient forest have a different connotation in the boreal context than they do when used to describe mature or over-mature stands in coastal rain forests with longer-lived species and different natural disturbance cycles.


In contemporary times, the boreal forest has suffered little deforestation, defined as the permanent conversion of forest area to non-forest due to activities associated with agriculture, urban or recreational development, oil and gas development, and flooding for hydroelectric projects. In Alberta, the province with the largest oil and gas industry, more trees are cut for agriculture or oil and gas exploration than for timber. State of Canada’s Forests 2004-2005, p 40] In eastern Canada, over 900,000 hectares of peatlands and forest have been flooded over the past four decades for hydroelectric projects. Even so, the statistics don’t measure afforestation and such deforestation as is occurring is a fraction of the boreal’s 310 million hectares. Canada as a whole has 91% of the forest cover that existed at the dawn of European settlement. More deforestation has occurred outside the boreal region, in more southerly areas of the country. The forest sector annually harvests approximately ½ of 1% of the region. However, this is not considered deforestation given that provincial laws ensure that areas harvested by the forest sector are replanted or regenerated naturally.


Native species

Some trees native to the Canadian boreal include: Black Spruce, White Spruce, Balsam Fir, Larch (Tamarack), Lodgepole Pine, Jack Pine, Trembling & Large-Toothed Aspen, Cottonwood and White Birch, and Balsam Poplar. [“Canada’s Boreal Forest, Forest Products Association of Canada, map, inside front cover.]

Wildlife and land habitat

There may be as many as five billion landbirds, including resident and migratory species. The Canadian boreal region contains the largest area of wetlands of any ecosystem of the world, serving as breeding ground for over 12 million water fowl and millions of land birds, the latter including species as diverse as vultures, hawks, grouse, doves, cuckoos, owls, nighthawks, swifts, hummingbirds, kingfishers, woodpeckers and passerines (or perching birds, often referred to as songbirds). ["Birds in Canada's Boreal Forest: New paradigms for paradise found", State of Canada’s Forests 2005-2006, p 72] It is estimated that the avian population of the boreal represents 60% of the landbirds in all of Canada and almost 30% of all landbirds in the United States and Canada combined. [ Peter Blancher, “Importance of Canada’s Boreal Forest to Landbirds”, Canadian Boreal Initiative and Boreal Songbird Initiative, May 2003, p. ii,]

Water and wetlands

Canada’s boreal landscape contains more lakes and rivers than any comparably sized landmass on earth. It has been estimated that the boreal region contains over 1.5 million lakes with a minimum surface area of 4 ha as well as some of Canada’s largest lakes. Soft water lakes predominate in central and eastern Canada and hard water lakes predominate in Western Canada. Most large boreal lakes have cold water species of fish like trout and whitefish, while in warmer waters, species may include northern pike, walleye and smallmouth base. ["Boreal fresh waters", State of Canada's Forests 2004-2005, pp. 70-71]

pecies at risk

Few species of boreal wildlife are classified under government conservation regimes as being at risk of extinction. However, the decline of some major species of wildlife is a concern and is spurring multilateral stakeholder initiatives to understand the causes of a population decline and identify potential actions to stabilize the species concerned.Woodland caribou, present in several provinces, are threatened by hunting, wolf predation, as well as habitat disturbance from forestry activities, roads, mining and exploration, pipelines and oil and gas production. The Newfoundland population of marten is threatened by habitat loss, accidental trapping and prey availability. [“Forest Associated Species at Risk”, State of Canada’s Forests 2004-2005, pp 77-79;]

Boreal life cycles

Natural regeneration

Since the emergence of the boreal forest after the Ice Age, a natural arboreal life cycle has emerged, whereby natural clearing mechanisms – fire, insects, disease and extreme winds – would kill off large tracts of trees and spark the necessary rebirth. New trees would grow in place of the burn ones. Species like lodgepole and jack pine have resin sealed cones. In a fire, the resin melts and the pods open, allowing their seeds to scatter so that a new pine forest will grow within two decades. It has been estimated that prior to western colonization, this renewal process occurred on average every 75 to 100 years and created even aged stands interspaced with natural fire breaks. Fire continues to cause the greatest amount of forest disturbance because of the predominance of coniferous trees whose needles are more readily combustible than the leaves and bark of deciduous trees. ["Fire in the Forest", State of Canada's Forests, 2003-2004, p. 47]

Fire loss

Despite today’s sophisticated fire-spotting and fire-fighting techniques, forest fires in Canada still burn, on average, about 2.8 million hectares of boreal and other forest area annually. That average annual burn area is equivalent to more than three times the current annual industrial timber harvest. It can be many more times that in bad fire years. [ “Disturbances and Renewal in the Forest”, State of Canada’s Forests, 2003-2004, p. 74] Different parts of the boreal have different burn cycles. The drier western region, which receives lower average rainfall, is more susceptible to fire and more area is burned annually on average in the west than in central and eastern Canada. [State of Canada’s Forests 2003-2004, p 69]

Economic activities

Land ownership

Forest land in Canada is largely Crown land. Over 90% of the boreal forest is provincial Crown land; another 5% is federally controlled and includes national parks, First Nations reserves and national defence installations. [State of Canada's Forests 2004-2005, p. 49]

Industrial activity

About 1,400 communities within the Boreal region rely on resource industries for at least part of the livelihood and stability. Many of these communities were carved out of the forest to support a sawmill, pulp and paper mill, mine or railway maintenance facility. Boreal forestry activities support almost 400,000 direct and indirect jobs across Canada. Forestry, pulp and paper, mining, and oil and gas exploration and development are the largest industries along with tourism, trapping, recreation, light manufacturing and the services to support industry and communities. The forest products sector is one of Canada’s largest export industries, representing approximately 3% of GDP, with about half of the annual wood harvest coming from the boreal forest. [State of Canada's Forests 2004-2005, p. 57]

Roughly one quarter of the boreal forest is managed for industrial forestry. The remaining three-quarters is either in parks, conservation areas, model forests or is considered non-timber-productive, generally defined as unsuitable for managed forestry or inaccessible. As recently as 2003, it was estimated that that the annual harvest in the boreal was about 750,000 hectares per year, equivalent to about 0.2% of the total Canadian boreal forest. [State of Canada's Forests 2004-2005, p. 48] The sharp downturn in the market for lumber because of the collapse of the housing market in the United States that began in 2006, coupled with import tariff and tax barriers, have knocked the bottom out of Canada’s forest industry. In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, where most forestry activity is in the boreal, government statistics suggest that the harvest declined 18% from 2005 to 2006. [ Natural Resources Canada, statistical data,] Given the high number of mill closings from 2005 onward, mostly in Ontario and Quebec, it is a trend that most likely persisted through 2007 and 2008. [“Mill Closures and Mill Investments in the Canadian Forest Sector”, State of Canada’s Forests, 2005-2006, pp 46-55.] Most of Canada’s conventional onshore oil and gas production, including the rapidly expanding oil sands production in Alberta, is located in the boreal region as is Canada’s largest uranium producing zone in northern Saskatchewan and Quebec’s largest hydroelectric generating facilities in the La Grande watershed.

Aboriginal participation

About 80% of Canada’s aboriginal population lives in forested areas – including one million in over 500 First Nations and Métis communities in boreal zones. Of that amount, over 17,000 work in the forest products industry, mostly in silviculture and woodlands operations in the boreal and other forest regions. [ “Aboriginal Partnerships in the Forest”, State, The State of Canada’s Forests, 2007, National Resources Canada, ISBN 978-0-662-46538-6, p. 21; Canadian Boreal Initative,; “Aboriginal Issues in Canada’s Boreal Forest, Summary, National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.]

ustainable development

Since the early 1990s, a strong impetus has been created to focus on conserving Canada’s boreal legacy and sustainably managing economic activity within the entire region. The Canadian boreal is largely intact and available for multiple uses like timber harvest, recreation and hunting. Forestry companies have come to adopt the management practices known as eco-system based management, which takes into consideration criteria and indicators for sustainability – social, economic and environmental. A number of key principles have come to underpin Canadian forestry practices as mandated by forestry legislation, including the obligation for forestry companies operating on public lands to fully regenerate all areas harvested for timber and to consult the public on the preparation of forest management/harvest plans submitted to the relevant provincial authorities.

Certification for sustainable forest management

As a result of growing public concern with sustainable development and conserving the integrity of the boreal forests, conservation initiatives are progressing on various fronts. The area in national and provincial parks and protected conservation areas is approximately 10% of the total boreal area. [ “Sustainable Forest Management in Canada”, State of Canada’s Forests, 2007, p. 6] Most large forest products companies have certified their boreal forestry operations to one of three third-party, independently audited standards for sustainable forest management:

*The Forest Stewardship Council’s FSC Boreal Standard;
*The Canadian standard CAN/CSA Z809;
*The Sustainable Forestry Initiative. [ [ Canadian Sustainable Forestry Certification Coalition - Coalition canadienne pour la certification de la foresterie durable ] ]

Sustainable Forest Management refers to managing a forest ecosystem in a manner that maintains and enhances its long-term health.


In July 2008 the Ontario government announced plans to protect 225,000 kilometres of the Northern Boreal lands. [cite web
last =
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authorlink =
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title = Protecting a Northern Boreal region one-and-a-half times the size of the Maritimes
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publisher = Office of the Premier
date = 2008-07-14
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accessdate = 2008-07-31

Boreal in culture and popular imagination

The boreal forest is deeply ingrained in the Canadian identity and the images foreigners have of Canada. The history of the early European fur traders, their adventures, discoveries, aboriginal alliances and misfortunes is an essential part of the popular colonial history of Canada. The canoe, the beaver pelt, portaging coureur des bois, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Mounted Police, the construction of Canada’s transcontinental railways – all are symbols of Canadian history familiar to school children that are inextricably linked to the boreal forest.The forest – and boreal species such as the caribou and loon – are or have been featured on Canadian currency. Another iconic and enduring image of the boreal was created by 20th-century landscape painters, most notably from the Group of Seven, who saw the uniqueness of Canada in its boreal vastness. The Group of Seven artists largely portrayed the boreal as natural, pure and unspoiled by human presence or activity and hence only partly a reflection of reality. [ “The boreal muse of the Group of Seven; Creating a national identity from a palette of boreal colours”, Canadian Geographic, Jan/Feb 2004,]


External links

*Bird Studies Canada
*Boreal Art/Nature
*The Alberta Centre for Boreal Studies
*Natural Resources Canada
*Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
*Canadian Boreal Initiative
*Canadian Geographic
*Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
*Certification Canada
*First Nations Forestry Program<
*National Aboriginal Forestry Association
*Ministry of Natural Resources, Ontario
*Parks Canada

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