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Boreal areas worth $117B: study

Groups place huge value on carbon-offset equivalents

Forest and marshland near The Pas. Putting dollar values on resources lets scientists emphasize their worth to society.

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Forest and marshland near The Pas. Putting dollar values on resources lets scientists emphasize their worth to society. (MARC GALLANT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Manitoba's vast boreal wetlands may be more than an ecological gem -- they may also be worth $117 billion in carbon offsets.

That huge financial figure comes courtesy of a new ecological study that sings the praises of Manitoba's often overlooked boreal region.

The 20-page study, Manitoba's Blue Mosaic, is a collaborative effort of Ducks Unlimited and the Boreal Songbird Initiative supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the world's most respected authorities on environmental research. It offers a glimpse into a scientific reality few people know about.

"Looking at the boreal from an international perspective, Manitoba has long been an internationally important but hidden global-biodiversity secret," said study co-author Jeff Wells in an email.

Wells, based in Maine, is the science and policy director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

The three organizations, which routinely collaborate on boreal studies, teamed up this time to drive home the message Manitoba's natural wealth is held in its wilderness as much as in its timber and mines.

"There are incredible aquatic, water and wetland places in this province. Sixty to 65 per cent of our population lives in Winnipeg, yet 80 per cent of the province is boreal forest and contains these incredible places that most people don't even know," said another co-author, Christopher Smith, a wildlife biologist with Ducks Unlimited.

The report focused on the importance of balancing conservation with development, Smith said in a phone interview from his office in Cranberry Portage.

"We have to have economic development. I live in the north, and I wouldn't be able to go to Walmart in Flin Flon if there wasn't a mining community there and an ore body that supports an economy," Smith said.

"But we have this unique opportunity in Manitoba where a lot of our boreal has yet to be developed to profile the biological values and the social values, the ecosystem services that natural systems provide. We have an opportunity to develop these resources very wisely. That's the take-home message."

The study is timely given last week's environmental pledge by the province to channel $320 million toward cleaning up algae pollution in Lake Winnipeg. Much of that is related to the loss of wetlands coupled with the huge loads of phosphorus and nitrogen that run off farm fields and enter the lake.

"Part of what we're really happy about is the province is going to put in regulations going forward that prevent further drainage of prairie wetlands, which do this natural purification thing, so that's helping Lake Winnipeg," Smith said.

Not surprisingly, the study focuses on the province's wealth in its myriad lakes and wetlands that filter water across the northern plains and act as a gigantic nursery for birds and animals, including endangered species such as woodland caribou.

"Covering more than three-quarters of the province, Manitoba's boreal forest is home to millions of migratory birds (including dense regions of nesting waterfowl), some of Canada's most iconic large mammals, deep carbon stores that help to cool the planet and some of the most impressive networks of wetlands and waterways on Earth," an announcement for the study noted.

In fact, the dollar value of Manitoba's boreal wetlands, to capture and store carbon emissions and slow down the rate of climate change, is a staggering $117 billion, the study concluded.

That means the province's wetlands, which cover 40 per cent of Manitoba's land mass, capture and store a lot of carbon. If the equivalent amount of carbon were emitted by industry, the value of the wetlands to hold it all would be worth $117 billion on carbon-offset markets. The consensus on such markets is they will someday be used routinely by industries that emit carbon, such as coal mines. They'll buy credits on carbon markets and in turn will sponsor wetland restoration and tree planting to offset their emissions.

Looking at nature with dollar signs is a way scientists emphasize the importance of nature to the public, government and industry.

"It's a hard thing for conservation organizations to do, but we're finding that unless we put a dollar value on nature, a lot of people will not value it, unless they see it's worth something," Smith said.

"It's our case study to say, 'Doesn't it make sense to keep nature in place as opposed to degrading it and then we have to clean it up?' Then maybe governments will create a tax value to it so people don't destroy these wetlands," he said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

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Updated on Monday, June 16, 2014 at 6:56 AM CDT:
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