11/11/2014 12:42 EST | Updated 01/11/2015 05:59 EST

The World Should Learn From Canadian Conservation

Many of the stories told at the World Parks Congress will emphasize work in parts of the world struggling with fragmented landscapes, greatly depleted wildlife and ecosystems on the edge of collapse. But conservation in Canada is uniquely different.

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Autumn, taiga, Western Siberia.Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. Russia.

The world's largest event focused on parks and protected areas opens this week in Sydney, Australia. The World Parks Congress takes place just once every 10 years, and will play a major role in shaping the agenda for protected area conservation over the next decade. The Nov. 12-19 event brings together over 4,000 delegates -- policy experts, scientists, elected officials, Indigenous peoples, conservationists and others -- to share the newest ideas and understanding about protected areas science and management.

Many of the stories told at the World Parks Congress will emphasize work in parts of the world struggling with fragmented landscapes, greatly depleted wildlife and ecosystems on the edge of collapse. Conservation work in these nations tries to find ways to restore habitat, reintroduce wildlife populations, and develop technological fixes to clean their water and air.

But conservation in Canada is uniquely different.

Canada is at the forefront of continental scale conservation issues. That's because Canada possesses a rare treasure, a global biome that is one of the last, large still intact regions left on earth -- the boreal forest. The forest itself sets Canada apart from most of the world, but so do the continental-scale conservation approaches being embraced across the nation.

What makes conservation in Canada stand out in global venues like the World Parks Congress? Here's an unofficial "top five" list:

One of the World's Last Great Primary Forests

Canada's boreal forest region spans an impressive 1.2 billion intact acres (485 million hectares). It contains about 25 per cent of the world's primary forests -- regions that have large blocks of habitat with little or no footprint from large-scale industrial resource extraction industries, and limited conversion of forested land to agriculture.

This last-of-its-kind intactness has also made the boreal forest a great reservoir of abundance for wildlife. More than 300 species of birds, that together total between 1 billion and 3 billion individuals, make the boreal forest their home for nesting and raising their young. Large mammals like caribou, moose, musk ox, wolves and grizzly bears have found a last North American haven within the boreal forest.

While many of the world's great rivers are now dammed, the boreal forest region still has free-flowing rivers that allow fish to move hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres to spawning grounds.

The trees, peat, soil, and permafrost of the boreal forest holds some of the largest terrestrial stores of carbon on the planet -- more than 208 billion tonnes from one (potentially low) estimate. As climate change puts additional stresses on wildlife, habitat, and ecosystem functions, and also forces the range of plants and animal to move north, the intact nature of the boreal forest is becoming increasingly important as a refuge for species.

Indigenous Conservation Leadership

Many of the most impressive conservation gains in Canada's boreal forest region have occurred because of the leadership of Indigenous communities and governments. The list is long, and growing: The Innu Forest Guardians in Labrador, the Cree, Inuit, and Innu in Quebec, the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, Mushkegowuk Council, and Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario, the communities of Pimachiowin Aki in Manitoba and Ontario, the Dehcho and Lutsel K'e Dene First Nations of the Northwest Territories, the Tlingit of British Columbia and the Gwich'in of Yukon. These Indigenous communities have launched some of the world's most significant conservation actions. They are implementing sophisticated large landscape plans that integrate traditional knowledge and western science, and properly balance conservation and responsible development.

Very Large Protected Areas

In most of the world, protected areas are small in size. In highly fragmented landscapes, it can be a triumph when even a few dozen hectares of habitat are protected.

By contrast, the top 10 largest permanently protected areas in Canada's boreal forest region are all as large, or larger, than Yellowstone National Park. More telling: If you also consider interim protected areas and Indigenous land withdrawals, the number of protected areas larger than Yellowstone rises to 16. At least five are approximately the size of the entire U.S. state of Maine, or the African nation of Rwanda.

These protected areas are vital for sustaining northern biodiversity, including populations of birds, large mammals, fish, and ecosystem functions.

Their size makes it possible for species to shift distributions without the barriers encountered in landscapes fragmented by development. They also make it more likely that long-distance migratory species like caribou, fish, and birds will continue to find suitable migratory habitat across the landscape.

Provincial Government Vision and Leadership

The provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec have shown world-class vision by recognizing that past levels of land protection were too low to ensure the highest likelihood that biodiversity survives and vital ecological functions thrive.

Both provinces have pledged to ensure that at least half of their northern lands are placed in protected areas off-limits to industrial land-use. The protected areas networks expected to be created from these pledges will cover more than 800,000 km² -- an area larger than France.

Industry and Conservation Leaders

Several industries have stepped forward over the past decade to support the need for continental scale conservation in Canada's boreal forest region. These progressive businesses joined with First Nations and leading conservation non-profits to sign onto that the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, which calls for protecting at least half of Canada's boreal forest from development.

This vision led to the formation of the Boreal Leadership Council, a group of leading-edge industry, Indigenous, and conservation organizations pushing for adoption of best-in-the-world conservation planning and practices for the boreal forest. Within the forestry sector, the landmark Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement was signed three years ago between members of the Forest Products Association of Canada and the leading conservation non-profits working in Canada.

The agreement brought a truce to the so-called "Wars in the Woods" and established solid working relationships to advance a series of conservation proposals across Canada.

As delegates gather in Sydney to plan future global parks strategy, it's worth taking time to celebrate and learn from these amazing world-class successes already being achieved in Canada.


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