Huge new boreal forest preserve in Manitoba
Efforts to combat climate change and diminishing wildlands have increasingly focused on the vast belt of northern forest that rings the globe south of the Arctic. The boreal forest is a vast repository of stored carbon and, in much of northern Canada, a pristine region populated by wolves and caribou along rivers still teeming with fish.
The forest in Canada's Manitoba province has been under threat in recent years by expanding hydropower development. A major new electrical transmission line has been sought through the wild woodlands east of Lake Winnipeg, a plan many indigenous residents say would threaten a region they have called home for thousands of years.
Now the government of Manitoba has granted permanent legal protection to nearly 2 million acres -- an area the size of Yellowstone National Park -- on the ancestral lands of the Poplar River First Nation people.
The "Asatiwisipe Aki Management Plan" is being celebrated by conservation groups across Canada and the United States, which see it as a crucial step toward protecting the boreal forest not only for the people of the Poplar River and the wildlife there, but as a hedge against a warming planet.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said the Poplar River reserve, about 250 miles north of Winnipeg, is part of a larger, 10-million-acre area being proposed for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"This is really important for us, because we do think it's a priceless world asset, and you only get one chance to do it right," Selinger said in an interview.
"What's unique about it is not only do the First Nations still occupy it, but it's intact. There's a complete ecosystem that generates clean water, oxygen; there's a huge storage of peat that's one of the most effective ways to store carbon dioxide."
Planning for the area was led by the Poplar River First Nation, which will now oversee its preservation and limited development. Other First Nation groups are preparing land-use plans for surrounding tracts that are part of the World Heritage Site proposal, but they have not yet advanced so far in the regulatory process.
He said the proposed power transmission line has been blocked by the government in Manitoba and is now to run on the other side of Lake Winnipeg. But without the legislative protection afforded in this week's decision, he said, that decision could have been reversed.
The U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been working for more than seven years with Canadian conservation groups to secure protections for that part of the forest, has also opposed expanded logging and mining in the region.
"The stunning success of Poplar River’s chiefs, council members, elders, community members and of the Manitoba government over the past years will protect these traditional lands for generations to come," Frances Beinecke, NRDC president, said in a statement. "Poplar River First Nation and the province of Manitoba are making a staggering contribution to the stewardship of the world’s boreal forests -– one of our last unspoiled ecosystems, described by many as the lungs of the planet."
The plan provides for some "sustainable community development" directed by indigenous residents, who make up the majority of the population, while managing for the preservation of woodland caribou, wolves and 30% of North America's songbirds that visit Canada's boreal each year.
Provincial officials said the plan permits First Nation leaders to conduct and approve such enterprises as education programs, ecotourism and interpretive and cultural programming.
-- Kim Murphy
Photo: Poplar River First Nation elder Keith Barens at one of the many small lakes that are part of the new protected area. Credit: Hidehiro Otake. Map: Area proposed for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Credit: Pimachiowin Aki Corp.