TORONTO (Reuters) - The government of the Canadian province of Ontario said on Monday it will conserve a huge swath of the province's northern wilderness in a bid to protect the region's vast boreal forest, as well as polar bears and other wildlife, and to help fight climate change.
The plan to protect permanently at least 225,000 square kilometers (87,000 square miles) of the northern forest -- an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom -- won praise from environmental groups, which said it should serve as an example for other governments.
"We are overjoyed with the announcement," said ForestEthics senior campaigner Gillian McEachern. "This is the largest conservation commitment in Canadian history."
Ontario's boreal region takes up 43 percent of the province's landmass and its vast forest soaks up about 12.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. The protection of a big swath of it is a key part of the province's plan to fight climate change.
Avrim Lazar, the chief executive of the Forest Products Association of Canada said the boreal forest is a "huge wilderness treasure" and said he is glad the government is protecting a large chunk of it.
"It's a great step in the right direction," he said.
He said he hasn't seen any map of a proposed protected area and so was unable to comment on how the conservation proposal will affect the industry's logging plans.
Boreal forests are northern forests that are affected by long winters and are made up mainly of evergreen conifers.
The conservation plan aims to protect polar bears, caribou, wolverine and other wildlife in Ontario's north from climate change and to ensure that forestry and mining development do not destroy the pristine ecosystems.
"(Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty) is providing some direction and some objectives to the process," said Monte Hummel, president emeritus, World Wildlife Fund Canada. "It's an invitation for everybody to come to the table, and in my view that's how things should be solved."
The Ontario government said that scientists and native communities will work together to map and protect a network of conservation lands. As well, the government will work with northern communities and resource industries to create a sustainable development plan.
"Although the northern boreal region has remained virtually undisturbed since the retreat of the glaciers, change is inevitably coming to these lands," McGuinty said in a statement.
"We need to prepare for development and plan for it. It's our responsibility as global citizens to get this right, and to act now."
Reporting by Wojtek Dabrowski; editing by Rob Wilson