In Canada’s Boreal Forest, a Wildlife Biologist Balances Conservation and Development

  • by Sheldon Alberts
  • May 11, 2016
  • Features

Chris Smith is standing in knee-deep water at the edge of a boreal marsh, surrounded by thick growths of cattails, reed grass, shrubs, and sedges. As he sloshes through this lush aquatic environment, Smith realizes that his well-worn hip waders are slowly filling with water.

“Just as I predicted: They’re leakers,” he announces. Despite this ill-timed outdoor wardrobe malfunction, Smith is grinning.

A wildlife biologist with more than 35 years of experience, Smith relishes any opportunity to share details about the myriad types of wetlands found near the edges of First Cranberry Lake in Canada’s boreal forest region.

He points in quick succession to several varieties—a shore marsh, a graminoid fen, a shrubby fen, a hardwood swamp—before regaling several visitors with the inside jokes that conservation scientists tell during wetlands training sessions.

“We would just come up with these great terms like, ‘Don’t bog me down,’ and ‘I’m feeling really swamped,’” he laughs.

Humor and passion for the outdoors come in handy in Smith’s line of work. He heads Ducks Unlimited Canada’s boreal conservation programs, managing the nonprofit group’s science-based efforts to protect forest and wetlands in the region, which stretches across 1.2 billion intact acres in northern Canada.

© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Chris Smith, who lives and works in Canada's boreal, believes there is plenty of common ground for environmentalists and loggers to cooperate on development and conservation planning.

Smith also leads Ducks Unlimited’s work with forestry companies to improve their environmental practices, which includes raising awareness about the importance of healthy wetlands and the need to balance environmental prosperity with economic prosperity in the resource-rich boreal.

The best part of Smith’s job: He works mostly from a home office tucked amid the trees in Cranberry Portage, a community of 700 that borders Grass River Provincial Park in northern Manitoba. The 560,000-acre park provides critical forest and wetlands habitat for caribou, wolves, bears, waterfowl, and songbirds.

From his kitchen window overlooking First Cranberry Lake, Smith gets daily, visible reminders of the boreal ecosystem he has spent most of his professional life trying to conserve. “One of the things that I really appreciate about living in the boreal, having the wilderness around us, is the fact that it’s quiet,” Smith says. “You hear every footstep when you’re walking through the forest.”

Although he was not born in the region, Smith knows the landscape and waterways of the boreal forest intimately. Raised in the prairie city of Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, he and his wife, Connie, a stained-glass artist, moved north when Chris was in his 20s. Now, he describes the two of them as “northerners by choice.”

© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

"The intactness of the area" is what makes it special, Smith says. "It doesn't seem broken to me, you know?"

Since beginning his career in the boreal as a field biologist studying the vast wetland complexes of the Saskatchewan River Delta, one of the largest inland deltas in North America, Smith has flown hundreds of hours in float planes over the boreal region, conducting bird counts and mapping wetlands for Ducks Unlimited Canada. He has also tracked herds of woodland caribou from aircraft and packs of wolves by snowmobile.

The landscape—whether experienced on a walk through the bush, in a boat ride over open water, or in a bush plane flying 100 feet above the tree line—never fails to leave Smith in awe.

“The intactness of the area” is what makes it special, he says. “It doesn’t seem broken to me, you know?”

Yet Smith understands how easily intact landscapes can be lost to unchecked development.

In some southern regions of Canada, he notes, more than 70 percent of wetlands have disappeared. The loss of that habitat has resulted in increased flooding and pollution in one of Canada’s largest lakes, Lake Winnipeg.

Development “is not that rapid up here at this point, so what a tremendous opportunity [we have] to conserve nature. Rather than thinking about how we’re going to repair something after it’s been negatively impacted,” he says, “we can think ahead of time about how we can develop wisely.

“There are just not many places like this in the world,” he adds. “It’s one of the largest intact ecosystems on the globe. That doesn’t mean development can’t take place. It means think carefully about it.”

© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Connie Smith entertains a squirrel, some of the boreal's rich wildlife that includes woodpeckers, songbirds, and other critters that have become part of daily life for her and her husband.

In the boreal, where wetlands are as ecologically important as wooded areas, Smith says it’s not too late to find a balance that protects the environment, embraces sustainable development of resources, and maintains healthy communities. And the conservation benefits of protecting the boreal extend far beyond Canada’s borders, he says.

“Wetlands store more carbon than the terrestrial environments. When you look at the size of the boreal forest in North America, it’s regulating our global climate and helping offset the implications of climate change,” he says. “The wetlands in the boreal forest are providing human beings with a lot of services that they probably don’t even realize.”

Pew has partnered with Ducks Unlimited Canada on boreal forest and wetlands conservation for more than 15 years, pursuing a balanced approach that ensures both economic prosperity and environmental health in the boreal.

Through the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, the two organizations work with indigenous First Nations, northern communities, and governments to conserve 50 percent of the region in a network of large, interconnected protected areas and improve natural resource management standards across the board, to make it the world’s best conserved forest ecosystem.

These measures will assure that the forest remains healthy and productive and supports a prosperous economy far into the future.

Smith knows from experience that loggers and conservationists are not always natural allies and that decades-old suspicions between the two sides die hard. While he’s worked during most of his career with Ducks Unlimited Canada, he also spent a decade employed in the forest sector helping to develop forest management plans that accommodated the interests of the environment as well as the people who live in the boreal region.

And he believes there is a great opportunity for the two sides to cooperate on sound, comprehensive development and conservation planning in the boreal. The old caricatures—that conservationists oppose cutting down trees and that loggers want only to clear-cut entire forests—are outdated, Smith says.

“If people are willing to work together, and identify and be open about the challenges of development versus conservation, I think wonderful things can happen.”

“A lot of these folks that were doing work in forestry were conservationists themselves,” he says. “People really did care about [the environmental impacts] of what they were doing and wanted to do the best job they could.”

© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

Chris Smith observes Connie's latest stained-glass piece, which is inspired by the boreal's songbirds, waterfowl, and other wildlife..

Smith’s experience in the forest sector has positioned him as a liaison of sorts between conservationists and the resources industries. In 2014, he helped produce a Ducks Unlimited Canada operational field guide for forestry companies that were keen to minimize the impact of logging roads built in sensitive boreal wetlands.

“To me, it’s unrealistic to think that we can conserve everything, or preserve everything, or develop everything,” he says. “In the past, these were often opposing views: those that are pro-industry versus pro-conservation. The reality is that there’s room for both.”

The communities surrounding his home in Cranberry Portage, he points out, would not exist without industry. To the north of Cranberry Portage, the small city of Flin Flon relies on mining. To the south, the town of The Pas depends heavily on forestry.

“I get to go to a Canadian Tire and I get to go to a Wal-Mart 30 miles from my home,” he says. “Although this may not seem like a big deal to many people, those stores and those services wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a viable forestry and mining industry.” He adds: “People make a good living. They have a good lifestyle.”

And many of the forest products that North Americans take for granted, Smith notes, originate in the boreal. “We’re a natural resource-rich country, and many of those natural resources are in the boreal forest. And they contribute millions and millions of dollars to our national, provincial, and local economies,” he says.

And, increasingly, the people who live in the boreal are demanding a seat at the table when decisions are being made about the region’s future. He notes that industry has a responsibility to ensure that development is “sensitive to the ecosystem itself, as well as the communities that are there, and some of these communities have been here for a very long time—like the indigenous communities.”

“More and more,” he says, “northerners want to have a say in the way their backyard is being developed.”

© Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts

When the Smiths built their lakeside home, they left the shoreline of shrubs, birch, and spruce in place, keeping intact the habitat for blue herons and other boreal birds.

Smith’s conservation ethic has guided the way he lives his life away from work.

He and Connie moved from The Pas to Cranberry Portage six years ago, built a home at lake’s edge, and plan to retire here. The area marks the dividing line between two major geological regions: the generally flat boreal plains, which feature abundant wetlands, and the more rocky landscape of the boreal shield.

Rather than cut down a lot of trees to gain an unobstructed view of the lake, the couple left the shoreline of shrubs, birch, and spruce in place. The tree cover not only protects their home from winter winds blowing in off the lake, but it also maintains habitat for forest critters such as squirrels and pileated woodpeckers.

“We wanted to retain as much of the natural forest around our home as possible,” he says. “It drove our contractors nuts, but … there’s more thermal cover for retaining heat in the winter and keeping it cooler in the summer.”

The Smiths’ home includes a studio for Connie, whose stained-glass work focuses on creating nature scenes that reflect the boreal environment. The house is adorned with her depictions of local songbirds and waterfowl.

“What really attracts me, personally, to this area and why we both want to live here is the relative isolation. We are not city people. We don’t like the hustle and bustle. Having a peaceful place that’s relatively untouched is very important to us,” Chris Smith says. “I always say the best part about cities is leaving them. We’ve said many times driving from the south that when we start to get into the bush, that it starts to feel like we’re coming home.”