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The Boreal Forest Region


Birds eye view of the Boreal Forest regionThe Boreal Forest exists as a nearly continuous belt of coniferous trees across North America and Eurasia. Overlying formerly glaciated areas as well as areas of patchy permafrost on both continents; the forest is a mosaic of plant and animal communities amid varying environmental conditions. This region may also be referred to as the Coniferous Forest or the Taiga, which is actually the Russian name for the same type of forest that covers so much of that country as well. However, the term is used in North America as well where the boreal ecozone extends from Alaska to Newfoundland, bordering the tundra to the north and touching the Great Lakes to the south.

The Boreal Forest Natural Region is the largest in Alberta.  It consists of broad lowland plains and extensive hill systems.  The bedrock is buried deeply beneath glacial deposits and outcrops occur only rarely along major stream valleys.  Major surficial features are moraines in the uplands, and glaciofluvial and glaciolacustrine deposits in the lowlands.  The land generally slopes to the north and east but the most prominent highlands are located in the northern part of the Region.
 

Boreal LandscapeThe landscape in this particular region is covered almost entirely by trees, with aspen and balsam poplar dominating the evergreens. In the northernmost areas evergreens form a seemingly endless carpet, broken only by water in the form of fens, bogs, lakes and rivers. Inside the Boreal Forest of Alberta are extensive expanses of aspen parkland in the Grande Prairie, Peace River and Fort Vermilion areas. There are also four major river systems that drain most of Alberta's north country.   The presence of extensive wetlands is a major characteristic of the Boreal Forest Natural Region as well. 

The Boreal Forest Natural Region is very diverse topographically, climatically and biologically.  Many of the changes are gradual and subtle which makes division into subregions difficult and seemingly arbitrary.  However, the Boreal Forest may be divided into six sub-regions based largely on distinctive climate, topography, soil and vegetation - Dry Mixedwood, Central Mixedwood, Wetland Mixedwood, Boreal Highlands, Peace River Lowlands, and Subarctic.

A forest fire in the boreal forestBecause much of this region is blanketed by trees, fire is a very real threat to the region, particularly if the province experiences an unusually dry summer.  If conditions are too dry, fire is a crucial disturbance factor in the boreal ecoregion. However, while forest fires can be very disruptive for wildlife as well as local communities in the boreal region they are not completely negative in terms of environmental impact. They can actually facilitate the destruction of old, diseased trees along with the pests that are associated with those trees. Many animals are able to escape natural fires and some trees such as aspen and jack pine actually require fires to stimulate their reproductive cycles. Furthermore, the nutrient-rich ash left behind helps fuel plant growth. A patchy mosaic of plant communities left in the wake of fire action provides the variety required to sustain different species of wildlife. 

Boreal: Industrial zoneAlthough the human population in this ecozone is relatively sparse, there are many small communities that rely on various resource extraction industries such as forestry and mining. These activities have had severe impacts on many areas and these will face increasing pressure for resource exploitation in the coming years. For generations, the boreal forest has also been home to First Nations people including the Cree, Métis, Dene, and Athabascan. Traditional Aboriginal lifestyles are also deeply tied to the continued existence of wildlife.


Information provided by and printed with the permission of Alberta Community Development, Parks and Protected Areas.

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