Changing Planet

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.

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).
  • E. Daniel Ayres

    The health of the standing timber in many, if not all, of these areas is at critical risk for irreperable damage by climate disruption and world wide air pollution. Yet not mentioned in this piece that gives the impression logging is the major threat.

  • bryony edwards

    There are clearfelled wasteland in Victoria Australia under the FSC’s stewardship. I suspect they are far too cosy with forestry corps.

  • Susan graham

    Ok so what can we the people do to save trees and forest s in countries we don’t live in? Is their a world wide movement to lobby and advocate for their survival?
    Like no trees no human life.

  • Dr UN Nandakumar

    We have to take urgent measures to arrest this onslaught on our forest as otherwise we may have to pay heavy price for it. We have already started paying the heavy price for our callous & foolish actions and we will be forced to pay more if we continue this mistake any further !!!

  • Andy Dodgson

    Bryony Edwards, there are plantations that can be included under the sustainability criteria of FSC where clearfelling can be a permissible option but the company responsible would have to meet several other strict standards before being able to display the FSC logo on its products or enter an audited Chain of Custody. I would be very surprised if a big logger had any undue influence on FSC. If you suspect that is the case, report your feelings to their international head office.

  • Malaysian

    A hectare of rainforest in Borneo contains more tree species than all of Europe. Why don’t you write more about who is decimating the precious rainforest in Borneo and Papua New Guinea? This “feel good” piece of yours highlights what remains, but what remains isn’t very valuable at all, which is why they are still here.

  • antoinette

    is a pain ton know that so much of our forest cover is gone and so little is left!! I do hope the family of five keep their primary forest intact!!
    All these information comes as no wonder that the climate of our world has changed so much,now in Ghana it should be raining but sad to say the rains are not as they used to be.

  • Hubert Worrell

    save the forests

  • Tony Bennion

    We need to save what is left and grow up as a species!We have some serious education to get on with!

  • Joseph Logan

    I always wondered what the people from the ancient Mayan, Pueblo, and Easter Island civilizations thought when the cut down the last remaining trees before their civilizations collapsed? Watching the behavior of Western Civilization I now understand, a few people stridently raised their voices to protect them while the greed of the majority ignored the pleas and chopped down the last remaining hope.

  • Jilla Edward

    The FSC certification system is extremely corruptible and the complaints process likewise. Such a shame for our forests and people wanting to buy ethical timber products.
    Forests are our best tried and true carbon capture and storage mechanisms we have. Just imagine if we could allow those areas that were once rich healthy forests, wildlife arks and climate moderators to be regrown and restored. The underlying problem is that there are just far too damned many of us!

  • Steve Wraggett

    Trees do nothing but give. They are as important to the survival of the planet and all living things upon it as are clean water and clean air. World ideologies where the environment and nature are concerned need to to be altered toward preservation, sustainability and to become the primary motivation for human activity. Without this motivation, we have no life.

  • Sebastian Kirppu

    It is scary to see how human civilisation is destroying functioning ecosystems which might be our last hope coping with climate changes.
    It would have been interesting to see a similar map on what has happened the last 200 years according to the natural old growth forest cover in the world.
    For example Sweden would then have had large dark green areas of pristine forest landscapes left. But the truth is that Sweden might be the country in the world which has devastated its natural forest ecosystem the most during the last 50-60 years. There is almost nothing left of our natural oldgrowth forests. But still the Swedish forestry industry market themselves as the world´s most environmentally friendly forestry and tells the world that there has never been as much forest in our country as today.
    This is outrageous!

  • marianne clancy

    after finishing autobiography of female scientist Lab Girl by Nancy Horan, today on my walk around green Eugene oregon I realized that the last words of the book remind us to tend to our trees in our yard to start with, water, nourish, set money aside when they are 20 yrs old and need a tree doctor. Carve your kids height notch into them and have them tend the tree when you are gone. One tree at a time. Plant a tree each year. No one can say they can’t do something about this. No one!

  • Toto cotagni

    You got some wrong or completely outdated estimates. Borneo has not lost 25 percent of its forest, 25 percent is what remains today, if you are an optimistic one. Probably less than that. Did you hear of those huge forest fires? Palm oil plantation? Legal and illegal logging? Shifting cultivation? Using primary forest trees to run pulp and paper mills and feed the japanese and chinese wood market? One million ha rice plantation? You can read an open acces scientific paper on PlosOne 2013, by JE Bryan et al.: “Critically, we found that nearly 80% of the land surface of Sabah and Sarawak was impacted by previously undocumented, high-impact logging or clearing operations from 1990 to 2009”. And Kalimantan, even though less researched because of political obstacles, is in the same situation, may I add.

  • Barbara Smith

    No mention of a rapidly warming planet that is devastating forests through massive forest fires, droughts, and the pine bark beetle infestations.

  • Barbara Smith

    No mention of a rapidly warming planet that is devastating forests through drought, massive unchecked forest fires, and pine bark beetle infestations.

  • Chris McC

    Well, I’m not surprised any of the reasons behind the deforestation are not elaborated on since Murdoch bought NG LOL

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