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A Changing World

Canada’s boreal forest has evolved slowly over many thousands of years through the process of succession -- the constant change and adaptation of its composition and structure to meet the demands of shifting and varied climactic and environmental conditions. Natural disturbances such as fire, floods, windstorms, insect infestations, and disease outbreaks all contribute to boreal forest evolution by clearing old growth areas and creating space for renewed growth. Aside from its own natural evolution, the boreal forest region has remained a relatively stable ecosystem for most of its history. Humans have been present in the boreal forest for much of the time that there has been a boreal forest, but human presence did not carry a significant impact on the region until the recent past when the human relationship with the boreal forest shifted from a sustenance based lifestyle to an industrial one.

In the northwest, an early shift in attitude towards the boreal forest occurred in the late 1700s, right around the time that European fur traders and settlers began to arrive in the region to develop a fur trade industry there. With the new European arrivals came a view of the boreal forest that was quite different from that of their Aboriginal counterparts. While the Aboriginal Peoples of the boreal forest saw the forest as a source of life, European traders viewed it as a source of wealth. The boreal forest was vast, and supported a large population of mammals whose fur was prized in Europe. Furs, especially those of the beaver and northern river otter, were harvested at unprecedented levels, disturbing the populations of both species. The decline in the fur trade industry worldwide allowed for slow species recovery, but other industries began to exert large changes to the boreal forest.

Since the late 1800s, human agriculture and ranching, forestry, and oil and gas exploration and production in the northwest boreal forest have carried an increasingly heavy impact on the boreal forest region. Even though the boreal forest has a short growing season, significant amounts of boreal forest land have been cleared to meet the interests of the various industries that have a presence there. Forested land has been permanently cleared and wetlands drained for agricultural purposes; air, water, and land pollution has increased in the region as a side effect of oil and gas exploration and production in the region; and forestry clearcutting and replanting practices have led to disruption of established ecosystems.

As modern understanding of the boreal forest region increases, calls for a responsible human relationship with the forest have risen as well. The boreal forest can only provide if its resources are not squandered beyond its ability to replace them.

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