The ‘Family of 5’ Primary Forests: A Snapshot of What Remains

Boreal forest and wetlands in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo © Chad Delany
Boreal forest and wetlands in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo © Chad Delany

Here’s a fact that should be disturbing to anyone concerned about our imperiled forests:

The pace of deforestation has accelerated so rapidly over the past 200 years that today our planet harbors only one-quarter of its original old-growth forest—i.e., forest that has never been logged or cleared.

Using detailed satellite imagery and geographic information system technology, scientists have produced moment-in-time snapshots of these remaining forested regions.

The pictures are not pretty.

Clearing of Amazon rainforest in Brazil for agriculture. Photo © Sam Beebe via Flickr
Clearing of Amazon rainforest in Brazil for agriculture. Photo © Sam Beebe via Flickr

A World Wildlife Fund study in April 2015 reported that Borneo lost 25 percent of its forest cover over the past 30 years and that 51 million acres of forest in Papua New Guinea are planned or proposed for logging. Global Forest Watch estimates that 16.5 million acres of forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been lost since 2001.

In the Amazon Basin, the World Wildlife Fund reports that 43.7 million acres were deforested from 2001 to 2012.

Russia, according to the forest conservation group Global Forest Watch, is estimated to have lost 91.4 million acres of tree cover from 2001 to 2013—the bulk of it in that country’s boreal region, where much of the loss was due to human-caused forest fires.

North America’s boreal forest has also experienced major changes.

Global Forest Watch Canada’s most recent estimate indicates that the total area affected over the past 200 years by industrial activities—including forestry, mining, oil and gas, agriculture, hydropower, roads, and other infrastructure—is a staggering 274 million acres, or about 20 percent of Canada’s boreal forest biome.

But all is not yet lost.

While many primary forests—in places such as Madagascar, Tasmania, and the Atlantic coast of Brazil—are critically endangered, a handful of exceedingly large regions remain mostly intact.

The “Family of Five” major intact forest regions. Map © Canadian Geographic Society

These regions—what I like to call the “Family of Five” global forests—stand apart as containing magnificent expanses of wilderness that look very much today as they did a millennia ago. They are:

  • The Congo Basin of Africa.
  • The forests of Papua New Guinea, Borneo, and Northern Australia.
  • South America’s Amazon Basin.
  • Siberia’s boreal forest.
  • North America’s boreal forest, of which the largest portion is in Canada.

These primary forests are unique because they still comprise massive areas that are not yet scarred or bisected and remain mostly free of large-scale industrial development or other infrastructure.

In fact, you could fly over the biggest of these forests—the boreal regions of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia and the Amazon Basin forests of South America—for hours with a view uninterrupted by roads, power lines, and buildings.

That in itself is remarkable.

Even more meaningful for the long-term health of our global ecosystem is the rich natural bounty that thrives within the Family of Five.

Canada’s boreal forest, with 1.2 billion acres still intact, provides a great example.

It continues to harbor healthy populations of large herbivores and the predators that follow them—mammals that are both ecologically important and, due to habitat loss, most likely to disappear from much of the world.

Tundra caribou thunder across thousands of miles in Canada’s boreal region, making some of the world’s last sweeping annual migrations, even as some herd numbers dwindle.

Birds, too, abound. Billions of migratory birds nest and breed in the “bird nursery” of Canada’s boreal forest in spring and summer before returning to tropical forests for winter.

Canada’s boreal region encompasses intact ecosystems that feature some of the world’s longest undammed rivers, biggest lakes, and most expansive wetlands. It also includes some of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon stores, in effect serving as a massive bulwark against accelerated climate change.

Canada’s boreal forest region alone is estimated to contain 25 percent of the world’s remaining primary forest and stores a minimum of 208 billion metric tons of carbon, more than 25 years’ worth of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Boreal forest in Ontario, Canada. Photo © Jeff Wells
Boreal forest in Ontario, Canada. Photo © Jeff Wells

That Canada’s boreal forest biome has endured as one of the planet’s largest and most intact forest ecosystems is due in large part to some very innovative and ambitious conservation efforts.

More than 177 million acres of new protected areas have been established across Canada’s boreal forest region in the past 15 years, with additional protections expected.

The governments of Ontario and Quebec—Canada’s two largest provinces—are pursuing conservation visions that together would strictly protect 50 percent of their boreal regions while requiring industry to adhere to sustainable development rules on the remaining half.

In the Northwest Territories, more than 61 million acres of new and interim protected areas have been set aside as the result of leadership of First Nations governments that have developed sophisticated land-use plans combining traditional knowledge and Western science approaches.

Further, in recent years the Forest Stewardship Council has certified at least 100 million acres of forestry lands in Canada’s boreal region as sustainably managed—a designation that requires companies to meet rigorous standards developed in cooperation with conservation groups.

Canada is at the cutting edge of protecting its forests by balancing conservation with world-leading sustainable development practices. Stakeholders including governments, Indigenous people, conservationists, and industry are taking actions that provide a road map for others working to protect the Earth’s last large intact primary forests.

For the Family of Five, there is little time to wait.

Jeff Wells is a science adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work in international boreal forest protection. He received a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, where he is a visiting fellow.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has published numerous scientific and popular articles, book chapters, and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk (2007), Boreal Birds of North America (2011) and Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (2017).