Birds already know what has become increasingly apparent to humans: Global warming knows no international borders. Choices that Canada is making right now could affect not only America's backyard birds, but the world's climate as well.
Every year, many of America's most-loved spring birds, which brighten our backyards with color and song, make their way north across the border to breed and nest in Canada's Boreal Forest -- a vast haven of woodlands, lakes and rivers. Unfortunately, the Boreal Forest is being threatened.
A vast array of birds are born and bred in the Boreal Forest. From the tiny ruby crowned kinglet to the mighty great gray owl and endangered whooping crane, the Boreal Forest provides ample habitat and food for nearly 300 species. Twelve million to 14 million ducks depend on boreal wetlands to breed, stage and molt, including large populations of scaup, mallard, American wigeon and green-winged teal. Come the fall, as many as 5 billion birds disperse from the boreal region to the far reaches of North America, South America and beyond, leading some scientists to suggest that the Boreal Forest may have a greater global impact than any other single ecosystem.
One of the largest remaining intact forests on Earth, the Boreal Forest is also the world's largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon. North America's Boreal Forest stores up to 11 percent of the world's terrestrial carbon in its trees, peat, soil and lakes. The Canadian Boreal Forest alone stores an estimated 186 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to more than 20 years of the world's total carbon emissions. Disturbed by logging or other development, this carbon could be released, further contributing to global warming.
Clearcut logging alone claims more than 2 million acres annually, an area equivalent to 4,000 football fields each day. In some areas, the Boreal Forest is being clear-cut at rates similar to those in tropical rainforests. Logging activities were estimated to have resulted in the loss of 46,000 bird nests in 2001 in Ontario alone. Oil and gas development also destroys extensive boreal bird habitat. Production in Alberta's booming tar sands, the largest proven oil reserve outside Saudi Arabia, is forecast to disturb an area the size of Florida with open pit mines, pipelines and well pads. Massive tailings ponds are so toxic that the oil industry must scare birds and other wildlife away with cannons.
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Although the Boreal Forest is enormous at more than 1.5 billion acres, currently, less than 10 percent of the Boreal Forest is protected.
An innovative vision for this crucial ecoregion, called the Boreal Conservation Framework, has drawn support from an unusual array of groups, including leading resource companies from timber, paper and oil and gas; conservation groups from all political spectrums; and First Nations. By placing "Conservation First," we can still identify and protect large, functioning ecosystems critical to migratory birds and preserve a vital climate change buffer.
Even if you never have the chance to visit the Boreal Forest, you are touched by it. This spring, backyard birds should serve as a reminder of the importance of the Boreal Forest. We can support our winged friends and our global environment by urging the Canadian government and all the provincial and territorial governments in Canada to adopt the Boreal Conservation Framework.
Carol Browner is a former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is chairwoman of The National Audubon Board of Directors. Marilyn Heiman is the executive director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative; www.borealbirds.org.
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