The new protected area straddles Canada's tree line, where boreal forest transitions to heath-dominated tundra—an important area for wildlife migration as the climate warms. Pat Kane

Boreal Forests

In Canada’s Boreal Forest, a New National Park Faces the Wrongs of the Past—and Guards Our Climate Future

Thaidene Nëné, declared this summer, is a milestone for an Indigenous-led conservation movement that can help keep carbon in the ground and protect crucial habitat as the planet warms.

James Marlowe zips along the glassy lake surface of the water in his aluminum fishing boat, and the town of Łutsël K’é quickly falls from sight. We stay close to the shoreline, avoiding hidden reefs, and steer straight for his net. It’s closing in on midnight, but Great Slave Lake—the deepest lake in North America and the 10th largest in the world—is flashing with fish and the tree-covered hills are aglow in the setting summer sun. Marlowe cuts the motor and begins hauling in the 150-foot net hand-over-hand.

Splop! The first fish lands in a large plastic bin. Splop! Splop! Marlowe moves along the net, plucking whitefish from its mesh. With some effort, he untangles a 30-pound trout and heaves the rare find into the bin. “Oh, there are still more fish! It’s not going to stop, man,” he says with a laugh.

Since he was a teen, Marlowe has hunted, trapped, and fished these wilds for caribou, moose, ducks, whitefish, and lake trout. Like his neighbors and ancestors of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, he’s followed traplines that meander from the forest to  tundra and strung nets under the lake ice to harvest food. “We depend on the land and the water for survival,” says Marlowe. “It’s like our grocery store.”

James Marlowe pulls up a trout (top) near Lutsel K'e and takes an evening boat ride to check his fish nets (bottom). Photos: Pat Kane

In the early 1990s, however, diamond mining and mineral exploration in Canada’s Northwest Territories began to threaten this tradition of living off the land. The mines produced some jobs and revenue for the community, but they also caused problems. The industry’s high interest in the area concerned the elders, who then directed Marlowe’s generation to find a way to protect the land, water, and animals for their own children—and for the survival of the Dene culture, language, and way of life.

After more than 15 years of discussion, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation has now signed a landmark agreement with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories to form a massive new protected area called Thaidene Nëné, or “Land of the Ancestors.” Almost twice as large as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone national parks combined, Thaidene Nëné encompasses more than 6.4 million acres, stretching from the easternmost tip of Great Slave Lake northeast toward the Arctic territory of Nunavut. It spans the boreal forest and its transition to the heath-dominated tundra, making it one of the only protected areas in Canada to straddle the tree line—an important bridge for plants and animals that may migrate as the climate changes.

More than 600 Indigenous communities like Łutsël K’é live within Canada’s boreal region. In the past, Indigenous peoples in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere have been at best left out of—and often harmed by—conservation policy, through which states have claimed land, evicted Indigenous land users, and denied them rights. When Canada created Banff National Park in 1887, for example, superintendent George Stewart wrote about excluding the Nakoda people, even as permanent villages of settlers were established: “Their destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits to the Park a matter of great concern.”

Thaidene Nëné, which became official at a signing ceremony in August, is a success story for a different pathway for conservation—one led by Indigenous peoples—that Canada is currently at the forefront of advancing. The mosaic of lands that make up Thaidene Nëné is now protected under Dene law, with federal and territorial parks and a wildlife conservation area within it. Marlowe, who advised his government’s negotiating committee, and his 300-person community not only will continue to live off this land and co-manage the protected area, but also are positioned to benefit from increased tourism to one of the more relatively accessible parks north of the 60th parallel. The achievement assists Canada as well in its scramble to protect 17 percent of its land and inland waterways by the end of 2020, a United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity target agreed to by 196 nations (although not the United States).

Perhaps most noteworthy is that Thaidene Nëné shows how Indigenous and national governments can face past wrongs and reconcile persistent distrust to protect vulnerable ecosystems—an example that couldn’t be more urgent. 

Conservation groups sometimes refer to the boreal forest as the Amazon of the north. It’s one of the last great, mostly intact forests on Earth, a vast ribbon of green unfurling across northern latitudes, from Alaska to Labrador through Europe and Russia. Historically it has not been seen as a conservation priority; compared with tropical and sub-tropical regions, the boreal belt holds far less biodiversity. But the boreal’s size and swaths of undisturbed wilderness, combined with mounting threats to its carbon-rich soils and vegetation, have recently made its protection a top concern.

In North America, the boreal forest covers 1.5 billion acres, about 80 percent of which are contained within Canada’s borders. These lands come alive in spring with the arrival of billions of nesting birds—many are species in decline. Some, including migratory songbirds, travel thousands of miles from as far as the tip of South America. Thaidene Nëné, in particular, is a key nesting area for raptors; Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons create homes in the spindly spruce trees or on lakeside cliffs. More species—such as American Woodcocks and Eastern Whip-poor-wills, according to Audubon’s climate report—will seek shelter in the boreal as warming pushes their ranges northward.

Map: Mike Reagan

The boreal is just as important for its role in holding climate change at bay. In Canada alone, it stores about 208 billion metric tons of carbon in its soil, wetlands, peatlands, and vegetation—an amount equal to about 100 years’ worth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Counting above and below ground, there’s two or three times as much carbon in each acre of Canadian boreal as is in tropical forests. “For thousands of years, boreal systems have been drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, which has served to cool Earth’s climate,” says Merritt Turetsky, a University of Guelph ecologist and carbon-cycle scientist. “The question is: Can we keep it in the ground and stop it from being re-released into the atmosphere?”

Today, the boreal’s grip on its title as the world’s densest terrestrial carbon storehouse may be slipping. Recent increases in wildfires, insect outbreaks, and human activity risk flipping the ecosystem from carbon sink to source. Between 2001 and 2017 Canada lost boreal forest tree cover over an area slightly smaller than the state of Montana, according to satellite data analyzed by Global Forest Watch. More than 1 million miles of seismic lines—long clearings constructed for petroleum exploration—have sliced through the boreal in Alberta alone. And as the climate gets hotter and wildfires become more frequent, forests and soils will release more carbon. In 2014 wildfires around Great Slave Lake and within the boundaries of Thaidene Nëné released an estimated 580 megatons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to nearly 80 percent of Canada’s annual emissions.

As risks mount, scientists and some governments are recognizing that Indigenous peoples are key to protecting and managing these lands, their biodiversity, and, by extension, the carbon they hold. A United Nations–backed report in May found that species decline occurs more slowly on lands of Indigenous communities. In the tropics, protected areas and forests fare better when managed by Indigenous peoples compared with state-run territories. In Latin America, deforestation rates are two to three times lower in tropical forests where Indigenous and community land rights are recognized and protected. And a recent study co-authored by Carleton University conservation biologist Richard Schuster found that Indigenous-managed areas are just as good, or better, at conserving amphibian, bird, mammal, and reptile biodiversity than conventional protected areas in Canada, Australia, and Brazil. “From a scientific point of view, it shows clearly that keeping Indigenous people out of protected areas is not the best way to prevent species from extinction,” Schuster says.  

In Canada these realizations are merging with a wave of Indigenous-led conservation efforts that go far beyond Thaidene Nëné. For example, after 20 years of negotiations, last October the leaders of the Dehcho First Nations finalized the protection of Edéhzhíe, a peat-rich area that encompasses more than 5,000 square miles to the west of Great Slave Lake. This marked the first time an Indigenous government worked with Canada, through a new conservation fund valued at more than $750 million, to form a protected area. And in July 2018, Anishinaabeg leaders established Pimachiowin Aki, “The Land that Gives Life,” as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. The 11,000-square-mile tract of boreal land, an area roughly the size of Maryland, has a stored carbon value of up to $13 billion. In the past year, Indigenous governments have transformed more than 26,000 square miles of boreal forest in Canada—an area the size of Tennessee—into protected areas, and many more are proposed and planned.

So far, Indigenous governments have mostly identified places for protection because of their cultural and ecological value. And yet habitat for species ranging from woodland caribou to the Blackpoll Warbler also overlaps with some of the most carbon-rich areas in Canada, says Audubon’s vice president of boreal conservation Jeff Wells, who has been working with Indigenous communities to pinpoint both the climate and biodiversity benefits of protected-area proposals. “It can help them make a case for conservation,” he says. “Millions of birds can benefit when these ecosystems remain undisturbed from human changes that release carbon.”

That means there’s an exceptional opportunity in Canada to advance several goals at once, including reconciliation. Political scientist Eli Enns, “chief problem solver” at the Iisaak Olam Foundation, believes the federal government may have realized that it cannot fight climate change or meet its biodiversity and conservation targets without working with Indigenous communities. “The more optimistic perspective,” he says, “is that it has realized that Indigenous Peoples have a lot to offer to conservation.”

Łutsël K’é is nestled on a point that juts into the east arm of Great Slave Lake. No roads lead to town, but a motorboat, snow machine, or regularly scheduled propeller plane provides transport. Log buildings, tipi frames, vinyl-sided homes, a new school, and a solar array border the town’s gravel roads. Snow machines sit in herds amid fish smokers, boats line the shore, and, during my visit, laughter rises from a cookout where five generations gather for a celebration.

The business arm of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation is housed in a building overlooking a bay. Inside, a corridor leads to offices for departments overseeing lands, wildlife, hunting, and Thaidene Nëné. A hand-drawn poster tacked to a bulletin board reads in colorful block letters: “Our Ancestors Lived off the Land For hundreds of Years. We can’t Survive off the DIAMONDS.”

“Mining is right in our backyard,” says Prairie Desjarlais, program manager for Thaidene Nëné. A wall of her shared office has a patchwork of maps showing Thaidene Nëné, with stickers locating camps, places of cultural value, and nearby mines. She remembers another map, covered in dots representing companies interested in exploring the area for minerals. Now they’re barred in the protected area’s borders: “It’s been a long, long process,” she says.

Prairie Desjarlais, program manager for Thaidene Nëné, says that mining is right in the community's backyard. Pat Kane

Thaidene Nëné is the product of patience and persistence. The federal government first approached the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, then known as the Snowdrift Indian Band, about forming a park in the 1960s. Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien arrived with maps of proposed boundaries. At the time, Indigenous peoples weren’t allowed to live in national parks; hunt, fish, or trap; or exercise their traditional way of life. “The response was very cold; it was a flat out no,” says Steven Nitah, a former ch