Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty made what he claimed is the single largest conservation commitment on the planet July 14 when he announced that 225,000 square kilometres of Ontario’s northern boreal forest would receive permanent protection from “unbridled” resource development.

In doing so McGuinty said he is helping preserve the most carbon rich ecosystem left on the planet in an attempt to reduce global warming.

Under the new regulations, no new industrial projects would move forward without First Nations consent in a new approach that would also provide a standardized system for First Nations to receive resource sharing from industry profits. Until the legislation is actually written, a moratorium has been put into place for all new mining and logging contracts in the conservation area.

Though the forest industry is actually based in the southern potion of the Ontario boreal forest, the current Ontario Mining Act takes precedence over land use decisions in the province. Once the new regime is in place, however, it is expected to create new certainty for the mining industry by clearly defining rules and regulation, including consultation with Aboriginal groups.

“The boreal ecosystem is a very wet and carbon-rich environment and that is because of the soil type, the large peaty bogs,” said Janet Sumner, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. The Society, in conjunction with a number of other environmental groups, has been urging the Ontario government to commit to conservation effort for the past five years. According to Sumner, Ontario’s 27 million hectares of peat bog produce 1,294 tons of carbon for every hectare.

At the same time, what McGuinty is announcing is a bare minimum, according to Sumner. “Most scientists admit now that the boreal forest ecosystem, to survive and thrive as an ecosystem, really needs at least 50 per cent protection.”

Another defining point of McGuinty’s announcement was that the legislation would be designed around certain key ingredients with one major being endangered species. The woodland caribou is among the endangered species that the new legislation is slated to protect. Watershed protection is another key ingredient.

“Wilderness is actually intact ecosystems that are functioning as they were designed and meant to function so that we have a healthy planet,” Sumner addeed. “The more we lose, the less likely that we all can enjoy a healthy environment. The wilderness that we have provides ecosystem functions, it cleans the air we breathe, it filters the water that we all benefit from and it provides a carbon reserve that keeps from accelerating and exacerbating the problems from climate change.”

The new Ontario legislation and consultation system is expected to take 10 to 15 years to be fully in place.

For as much as Ontario might be taking a step forward when it comes to the northern portion of the boreal forest, the situation is dire just south of it, and on the Quebec side it’s even worse according to Greenpeace’s Boreal Forest Campaign Coordinator, Mark Brooks.

Clear cutting at the hands of logging companies Abitibi-Bowater, Kruger and pulp and paper company Kimberly-Clark are common practice in both Quebec and Ontario’s southern portion of the boreal forest. Only 9 per cent of Ontario’s southern boreal forest is protected while in Quebec, it’s less than 6 per cent.

Though it is the provincial government’s responsibility in Quebec to police the forestry and mining industries, conservation practices are not at the heart of the mandate.

“I think we are in a situation right now where the forest industry basically polices itself to a large degree,” said Brooks, who also contends that Quebec’s mining policies “are about facilitating the expansion of mining and the development associated with mining.”

In Quebec, logging and mining industries in the boreal forest do not meet sustainable goals in the industries employed on traditional lands. The Aboriginal communities that inhabit the area do not experience any economic benefits from these industries while the destruction threatens their food supply.

“We are seeing species like woodland caribou, which used to range across the province, retreating further and further north and dying off. Scientists are predicting that in the next 30 years we could see a total extinction or extirpation of the woodland caribou in provinces like Quebec,” said Brooks.

The simple acts of mining and deforestation themselves are not only causes of ecosystem destruction, he added, noting that access roads also cause damage by fragmenting the forest.

“Species like woodland caribou again will not cross roads so you are having these smaller and smaller areas of forest that they can survive in and eventually they are too small to survive in and they start dying off,” said Brooks.

Though both the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Greenpeace were both pleased with Ontario’s announcement as a positive first step, both groups expressed the desire to see similar regulations put into place in both the southern Ontario boreal forest and in Quebec.