On Earth Day, when many schoolchildren across the country are encouraged to plant a tree, the environment ministers of Canada and Ontario pledged to support a major private conservation effort to protect a boreal forest twice the size of Toronto.

The project is the largest of its kind in Canada and includes 1,450 square kilometres of boreal forest that will be protected from industrial development like logging and mining if the deal is done.

Ottawa promised to kick in $17 million for the $46-million Boreal Wildlands Project spearheaded by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). The Ontario government also pledged to contribute $2.2 million.

The boreal wildlands collect and store carbon, and leaving the forests and wetlands near Hearst in northern Ontario intact is the conservation equivalent of cutting out a lifetime of emissions from about three million cars. The area also provides habitat for bears, beavers, moose, wolves, lynx, threatened boreal caribou and countless species of birds, according to NCC.

The non-profit says the purchase will help slow climate change on a global scale.

But while pulp and paper company Domtar Inc. says it’s selling the parcels of lands near Hearst at a discount on appraised value after more than 10 years without harvesting, the NCC is still short about $13 million.

It is now asking for public help to close the gap.

“When we became aware of these properties, they stood out like a beacon,” said Kristyn Ferguson, the program director for Ontario region's large landscapes at NCC. “It was related to not just the size, but to what was on the land — the amazing forests, wetlands, rivers, all those lakes and the wildlife that these properties are supporting,” plus corridors to nearby provincial parks, she said.

The two governments used Earth Day to help launch the project as the province heads into a summer election after years of degrading climate policy and the feds grasp for green credentials after this month approving a massive offshore oil and gas project.

The Boreal Wildlands Project is the largest of its kind in Canada and includes 1,450 square kilometres of forest that will be protected from industrial development like logging and mining if the deal is done.
The almost 1,500 square kilometres of land in the Boreal Wildlands Project features lakes, wetlands, swamps and rivers. Photo supplied by the Nature Conservancy of Canada

Less than 11 per cent of Ontario’s land and inland waters are now protected, according to Ontario Nature, while Canada has committed to conserve a quarter of the lands and oceans it claims by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030.

Asked about the need to expand significantly from here, Ontario's Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister David Piccini said his government was willing to go much further.

“We must distinguish between talk and rhetoric and what's actually being done to get it done,” he said. “And it's important to have ambition, but it's more important to get it done.”

The contenders for the seat of provincial power also used the occasion to pledge environmental action, with the NDP talking about a youth climate corps to help plant one billion trees by 2030 and the Liberals promising to plant 800 million trees over eight years.

The federal Liberals, meanwhile, said nature protection was a key component of their plan to reduce emissions 40 per cent to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and his cabinet colleagues earlier this month approved Bay du Nord, Canada’s first deepwater drilling site — a project climate scientists and environmental activists say flies in the face of climate goals and global recommendations for no new fossil fuel projects.

An analysis by Canada's National Observer columnist Barry Saxifrage shows consumption of the 200,000 barrels a day Bay du Nord plans to extract would release 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, equivalent to seven million to 10 million gas-powered cars.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
April 27, 2022, 10:20 am

This story has been revised to correct the total cost of the project and the federal contribution to it.

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Typo? "Ottawa promised to kick in $17 billion for the $46-billion Boreal Wildlands Project".

I'm guessing "millions" was intended?