Missing the forest despite its trees

21 04 2015

An exchange on Alert-Conservation.org over the intactness of boreal forests has just erupted. Bill Laurance asked me to weigh in as an independent appraiser of the debate, so I copy my thoughts below. You can read the original exchange between Jeff Wells and Nick Haddad (& colleagues) here.

Despite its immense size, there is little doubt that the ugly second cousin of forest conservation is the boreal region covering much of Alaska, Canada, Fennoscandia and Russia. Indeed, extending some 1.4 billion hectares, of which well over 60% is found in Russia alone (1, 2), the entirety of the boreal forest is more than double the area of the Amazon forest. Yet despite this massive expanse, the impressive biota it shelters (2), and its important contribution to the global carbon (1), nitrogen (3) and oxygen (4) cycles, the boreal is an oft-overlooked region in terms of global conservation priorities and possibilities (5).

The exchange between Haddad & Sexton and Wells regarding the former researchers’ recent paper (6) highlights this problem, of which even many expert ecologists are often only vaguely aware. Wells takes particular issue with Haddad and colleagues’ assertion that the boreal forest is highly fragmented, claiming to the contrary that the (North America) boreal forest is “… truly intact … ”. While Haddad et al. respond that they did not differentiate between ‘natural’ and human-caused fragmentation, my view is that the exchange misses some important concerns about the state of the boreal forest.

Wells correctly points out that the boreal zone in North America is “massive”, but can his other claim – that it is “truly intact” – stand up to scrutiny? Citing one of my own papers from 2009 (2) to demonstrate (correctly) that the boreal forest of North America holds a stunning array of species, Wells neglects to highlight that in that same paper we also identified the extensive, artificial fragmentation that has occurred there and in other parts of the boreal zone over the last few decades. For example, we showed clearly that only 44% of the entire biome is considered to be ‘intact’, defining the term precisely as “areas ≥ 500 km2, internally undivided by infrastructure (e.g., roads) and with linear dimensions ≥ 10 km”. Satellite imagery has also confirmed that between 2000 and 2005, the boreal biome experienced the largest area of gross forest cover loss compared to any other (7). Despite recent evidence that so-called edge effects (characteristics of a disturbed matrix that penetrate some distance into habitat fragments) are probably of a smaller spatial magnitude in boreal compared to other biomes (8), it is disingenuous to claim that North America’s boreal forests are “truly intact”. Read the rest of this entry »