(Phys.org) —New research from the University of Guelph, published Tuesday in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, says that allowing industrial extraction in a northern Ontario old-growth red pine forest – the largest remaining in the world – would significantly threaten biodiversity in Canada.
The study says that Wolf Lake Forest Reserve is a "scientifically irreplaceable system."
"Wolf Lake Forest deserves intensive study, monitoring and full protection from future development," said Guelph environmental sciences professor Madhur Anand, the study's lead author.
Old-growth forests have dwindled in North America because of timber harvesting, land conversion and other human uses. Today they cover less than one per cent of their original range – down to about one million acres from 700 million acres.
Wolf Lake is the largest intact old-growth red pine forest left. The parcel of Crown land is located about 50 kilometres northeast of Sudbury and is bordered by Chiniguchi Waterway Provincial Park. To date, trees as old as 300 years have been found.
The old growth forest is protected from logging, but open to mining and mineral exploration. It has attracted considerable media and public attention, with many groups pointing to the forest's aesthetic, social, and sustainable economic value.
The conflict prompted Anand and her research team to study the scientific value of the old-growth forest. They reviewed data on everything from climate change to the forest floor, as well as legislation and policy complexities.
Their conclusions? Old-growth forests, and this stand in particular, have ecological value not available from younger forests or smaller stands, including:
- Biodiversity: Greater age and area means diversity in everything from habitat to woody debris to forest floors, which enables ecosystems to better respond to environmental changes;
- Natural Disturbance Regimes: The large size of the Wolf Lake Forest Reserve allows for the maintenance of a natural pattern of fire, essential for the reproduction and persistence of red pine forests; and
- Lessons about Climate Change: The location of this forest, in a climatically sensitive area between the boreal and deciduous forests, and the presence of very old trees, allows for climate change studies.
As well, Wolf Lake Forest is important for informing future restoration practices, the study says. "Ecological restoration relies on an excellent understanding of what 'natural' forests are and how they behave", Anand said.
"Even forestry is playing copycat in recent years, focusing on harvest techniques that emulate natural disturbances to minimize ecological disruption," she said. "As the largest natural old-growth red pine forest, Wolf Lake can serve as a standard of ecological integrity."
The knowledge gained will be useful not just for ecological studies but also for industry and government, said Anand, who holds a University Research Chair in Sustainability Science and was the Canada Research Chair in Biocomplexity of the Environment and Global Ecological Change for 10 years.
The research also involved former and current students in Anand's research lab: M. Waseem Ashiq, Jacob Cecile, Arundhati Das, Mark Leithead, Lucas Silva, Christopher Wagner, and Cara Bulger, as well as leading forest ecologists from Quebec.
David Sone, a U of G graduate and forest campaigner for Earthroots, an environmental organization protecting Ontario's wilderness, wildlife and watersheds, said the research makes "invaluable contribution" to public discussion of the issue.
"This paper provides the most rigorous scientific argument to date on the ecological importance of the Wolf Lake ancient red pine forest," he said.
"By establishing that the Wolf Lake old-growth forest meets the technical definition of an endangered ecosystem, these leading researchers have set a firm foundation for their call to protect this unique and threatened natural treasure."
Explore further: Suggestions for a middle ground between unlogged forest and intensively managed lands