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Manitoba’s boreal forest
Jun 19, 2014

An investment in environmental protection is essentially an investment in  future prosperity. The Manitoba government recognized this when it announced a Surface Water Management Strategy and investments to protect Lake Winnipeg and mitigate flood and drought damage. A new report from Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Manitoba’s Blue Mosaic, also recognizes the value of protecting the province’s boreal forest as an investment in the future. 
“If Manitoba is going to take advantage of economic opportunities while protecting its natural heritage, which is still possible, long-range collaborative planning in advance of development is essential,” said Mat Jacobson, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ boreal conservation officer. “Fortunately, this sort of long-term thinking is second nature to Manitobans.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts  partners with Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Boreal Songbird Initiative in the International Boreal Conservation Campaign and supports the report.
Manitoba’s Blue Mosaic ranks the province's water and wetlands as among the most ecologically significant in the world. According to the report, Manitoba is one of the few jurisdictions where large-scale conservation of those resources remains possible.
“Manitoba is really special among Canadian provinces,”said Jeff Wells, science and policy director with the Boreal Songbird Initiative and a co-author of the report. “Although people think of it as a prairie province, it has one of the largest boreal forest areas in Canada, and one of the most intact boreal forest ecosystems. 
“And it is all interconnected via water. The Manitoba boreal is dense with wetlands — rivers, lakes, ponds, bogs, marshes, and peatlands — that support a vast amount of wildlife (birds, reptiles, mammals and fish) and provide incredible services to the environment. It’s just this massive living system.” Manitoba’s boreal forest is actually larger in area than Spain, Sweden and Japan.
In Manitoba’s boreal realm, there is 570,000 square kilometres (140 million acres) of surface water. All of Manitoba's rivers either originate in, or eventually drain through, the region. The boreal forest includes more than 8,000 lakes that are at least one square kilometre in size. Lake Winnipeg is the world’s 10th-largest freshwater lake, and Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis rank in the top 35. Two major rivers — the Seal and the Hayes — are entirely free-flowing.
Manitoba's boreal wetlands cover more than 200,000 square kilometres (49 million acres). Peatlands in the boreal forest are estimated to store a minimum of 19 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to nearly 1,000 years worth of Manitoba’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. At current rates, the value of Manitoba’s boreal carbon storage, thus keeping it from reaching the atmosphere, is estimated to be $117 billion.
“We are fortunate that much of the boreal is intact. It provides a unique opportunity to develop policies and to implement land-use decisions that balance sustainable economic development with protection,” said Chris Smith, the co-author of the report, who has lived in Manitoba’s boreal region for 34 years and is head of boreal conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited Canada.
The boreal forest is extremely important for the health of Lake Winnipeg. The forest and its wetlands act as a gigantic sponge, retaining up to 87 per cent of the nitrogen and 95 per cent of the phosphorus flowing through them. Both chemicals are damaging contaminants for the lake and are major contributers to the massive algae blooms that are threatening the lake’s health and viability as an economic resource; that is, the lake’s commercial and recreational fishery and tourism.
Protecting the freshwater of Manitoba’s boreal forest can help ensure that the lake’s condition improves, according to the report.
A mostly intact boreal forest remaining  on the east and west and northern sides of the lake helps to keep damaging contaminants at bay. On the other hand, 75 per cent of the province’s wetlands in the southern region have been drained since industrial development and agriculture began in Manitoba. Much of that area includes the Red River Basin, and wholesale drainage has impaired its natural ability to retain, release and refresh water over time.
The proposed provincial strategy, said Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh, seeks to end further loss of the benefits that wetlands provide and includes a plan to overhaul drainage licensing that would streamline approvals for routine drainage while protecting seasonal wetlands.
“Manitoba’s proposed regulatory process for drainage and water retention will improve wetland protection and help to mitigate the effects of climate change, flooding and nutrient loading on our lakes,” said Dr. Scott Stephens, director of regional operations, prairie region, for Ducks Unlimited Canada. 
Ducks Unlimited estimated that protection of Manitoba’s 275,000 acres of seasonal wetlands would prevent over 200 tonnes of phosphorous from entering waterways annually, equal to about 750 hopper cars of phosphorous.
The province has dedicated $340 million to flood protection and water control infrastructure, including surface water management, drainage retention, dams and control structures, and another $4 million in on-farm water retention projects over the next five years through conservation districts, the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation, the Nature Conservatory of Canada and Ducks Unlimited.
The Canadian Boreal Forest Conservation Framework is a model for how to balance the need for conservation of habitat and opportunities for economic vitality and support of vibrant aboriginal and northern communities. It calls for at least half of the boreal lands in Canada to be protected and the remainder to be subject to world-leading, ecosystem-based resource management and state-of-the-art stewardship practices, according to Manitoba’s Blue Mosaic. The report stated that the proposed designation of Pimachiowin Aki as a UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage site, and the recent announcements of provincial strategies for woodland caribou recovery and peatlands stewardship, are positive steps.
The report indicated that “forward-thinking integrated land-use planning is the best way to achieve balance within the boreal forest. This balance is the best way to ensuring long-term economic viability throughout the region, while maintaining the vital ecological functions of Manitoba’s boreal forests, wetlands and waterways.”
Protecting Manitoba’s boreal forest and the province’s waterways can also involve economic development on a sustainable basis — the environment and economic development are not incompatible. But what is needed is a strong sense of mutual benefit that doesn’t compromise the viability of either over the long run.