VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada’s northern forest harbors a vital freshwater reserve, but the environmental value of the resource is underappreciated and it needs more protection, according to a study released on Wednesday.
The boreal forest, stretching right across much of Canada from the Atlantic into Alaska contains the world’s highest concentrations of large wetlands, lakes and rivers without dams, according to the report funded by an environment unit of the Pew Charitable Trust.
The region’s wetlands and peatbogs have international importance in the battle against climate change by storing up to 25 year’s worth of man-made carbon emissions, according to the report.
Much of Canada’s boreal watershed remains pristine, but environmental conservation efforts for the region have often focused on the region’s forests and wildlife and overlooked the need to protect the water itself, the report’s authors said.
The study did not call for a ban on development in the region, but said there needed to be tighter regulations.
The scientists said billions of dollars are being spent around the world to restore damaged freshwater systems, but many rivers and lakes in the Canadian boreal region remain largely untouched.
“This area provides a real opportunity to get in front of the curve to protect those systems before they’re lost,” said Peter Raven, who chairs Division of Earth and Life Studies at the U.S. National Research Council and who helped review the study’s findings.
Canada’s boreal watershed has been less affected by development than those in Russia and Europe because much of it is less accessible, but the report’s authors warn that technology is overcoming that natural protection.
The report cites the C$16.2 billion ($16.3 billion) Mackenzie River Valley gas pipeline, which was approved by Ottawa last week, as an example of pressures on the region, saying it will open up the “world wildest river valley to development.”
The report also expresses concern about the amount of water demanded by oil sands production in northern Alberta.
The scientists said that while conservation efforts are underway, many environmentalists have focused on protecting trees and wildlife and overlooked the role freshwater plays in the broader ecosystem.
“In general, conservationists have had a higher focus on the role of tropical forests in storing carbon, whereas the vast boreal forests, not only in Canada but in United States and Siberia, are of extraordinary great importance,” Raven said.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson