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Artist Shows the ‘Beautiful Destruction’ of the Tar Sands
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Artist Shows the ‘Beautiful Destruction’ of the Tar Sands

Artist Louis Helbig flew over Alberta's tar sands last summer and this is what he saw:
This image, which out of context could be described as quite beautiful with its curves and mocha colours, in fact shows bitumen residue corralled by floating pipes over toxic water at Syncrude's Aurora North facility. It is here, at this tailings pond, where 1,600 ducks were killed in spring 2008 when they landed here to rest.
The image is part of a collection showing at At Koma Designs in Toronto, Ontario, right now until May 31. The exhibit is called Beautiful Destruction, and chronicles part of what professional photographer Helbig saw on a visit to Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Helbig's photos address the highly controversial issue of Canada's tar sands in ways that words cannot, and begin to reveal the sheer scope and scale of industrial development taking place in our North. From the artist's statement:
The Alberta Tar Sands are a place of superlatives, a place of awesome beauty and destruction where exaggeration of scale and proportion seems almost impossible. Leaving aside the politics that surround them or their technical specifics, the Tar Sands are simply awe inspiring. With every twist and turn of the airplane, another incredible scene presents itself, followed by another. It’s a linear kaleidoscope of contrasts, colours, and patterns garnished by the movement of machinery below, smoke and effluent; the scene resetting, again and again, as the paint of photography – light – makes its daily changes. Morning, mid-day, evening, the passing of clouds.
Here's another image from the exhibit -- from Suncor's Millennium mine, trucks remove the first layer of earth, sand and gravel, called 'overburden', to get to the bitumen.
If you're in the Toronto area check out Helbig's exhibit as part of the Contact Toronto Photography Festival (or meet the artist at a closing party May 28) or take a look online. The collection will also be coming to Ottawa June 6 and 7 for the New Art Festival.

60,000 Petitioners Call on Government to Protect Boreal Forest
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60,000 Petitioners Call on Government to Protect Boreal Forest

I just got back from a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where Nature Canada and Boreal Songbird Initiative drew attention to the 60,000 petitioners, from 117 countries, who joined the Save Our Boreal Birds Campaign. Dr. Jeff Wells, from BSI, kindly agreed to write a guest post about the petition, and the need to protect the Boreal Forest:
Last night as we slept one of the world’s most awesome wildlife spectacles happened over our heads. It will happen again tonight and the next and the next through early June and then it will start again in the fall. Every spring night a massive wave of birds--10-30 million, yes million of them—migrate back to Canada from wintering grounds in the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. This incredible abundance of birds battles its way back over tough and torn terrain to make it to the safety and opportunity of one of the world’s last great intact ecosystems—Canada’s Boreal Forest.The Boreal Forest contains 25% of the world’s last uncut and pristine forests and it is these vast forests, peatlands, wetlands, lakes, rivers, taiga and tundra that support the 1-3 billion birds that return to it each year to raise their young. Over 300 bird species regularly breed within Canada’s Boreal Forest habitats and nearly 100 of those species rely on these habitats to support more than half of their global populations.Many of these species are among our most loved and familiar—birds like the Common Loon, the American Black Duck, the Evening Grosbeak, and the White-throated Sparrow. Clearly their futures are dependent on the decisions we make today about the Boreal’s future. Sadly, even this great Canadian legacy is not immune to the loss and degradation we hear about daily from across the globe. By some estimates, at least 25% of Canada’s Boreal has already been impacted by industrial disturbances while only 12% is protected. Many Boreal dependent birds have experienced major declines—some as high as 70, 80, or 90% in the last 40 years. Species like the Olive-sided Flycatcher, Canada Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Evening Grosbeak are among those whose populations have dropped by 60-80%. Already the Olive-sided Flycatcher and Canada Warbler have been recommended for listing under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. But the good news is that Canada’s Boreal Forest does still remain largely intact. These bird-filled forests are also one of earth’s most significant insurance policies against global warming. The Boreal Forest globally stores more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem and its large intact forests, peatlands, and wetlands provide the places that animals and plants will require for survival as they are pushed north by increasing temperatures. That makes it one of the world’s last and greatest opportunities for planning ahead to ensure healthy ecosystems endure that sustain birds and wildlife and the communities that have lived with them beyond memory. As this petition demonstrates, the people of Canada and its neighbors care deeply about the future of Canada’s great northern treasure and to the birds that call it home. We are grateful for the recent leadership in Ontario and Quebec to move this public support into action by calling for 50% protection of Boreal ecosystems and hope that other leaders will follow suit.
(Thanks Jeff! Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI), a project of the Pew Environment Group. BSI is a non-profit organization dedicated to outreach and education about the importance of the Boreal Forest to North America's birds.)
(Photo: Canada Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler by Jeff Nadler)

Save Our Boreal Birds – Sign Petition
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Save Our Boreal Birds – Sign Petition

We're making one last push to recruit signers of our petition to Save the Boreal Birds, before we officially submit the signed petitions to leaders in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal on May 12.

Canada’s Boreal Forest, a 1.4 billion acre green garland stretching from Yukon to Newfoundland, is one of the world’s most unique and important ecosystems. The billions of birds raised in North America's Bird Nursery leave their nests in the fall and migrate to winter locations throughout North, Central and South America. Many of our favorite backyard birds began their lives in the Boreal.
In recent years, we have seen long-term declines in many Boreal bird species. Rusty Blackbirds have declined by 95%, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Boreal Chickadees, Bay-breasted and Canada Warblers, and Evening Grosbeaks by more than 70%, and scaup and scoters by over 50%.
The Save Our Boreal Birds Campaign is a joint effort supported by a variety of nature groups and environmental organizations (go here to see who's part of the campaign) who are fighting to have at least 50% of Canada's boreal forest protected from development, and sustainable development practices in the remaining areas.
Show your concern for the future of Canada’s Boreal Forest and the billions of birds that rely on it. Sign this letter urging government leaders to protect the Boreal today.

Taking a Walk in the Arctic Woods
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Taking a Walk in the Arctic Woods

Could trees replace tundra in Canada's Arctic? Perhaps, according to a new report to be released by 35 of the world's top forestry scientists. (see press release) While warmer temperatures from global warming will spell destruction for forests in places like the Western US, southern Europe and Australia, Canada's treeline may expand northward. From the Globe and Mail:

Warmer temperatures will be a boon to woodlands in northern countries, as will the presence of increased carbon dioxide in the air, which will act as a type of natural fertilizer for tree growth in the Arctic. Besides Baffin Island, forests will be able to spread to most of the Hudson Bay coastline; Southampton Island, perched at the top of Hudson Bay; much of the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec; and near the northern tip of Labrador, possibly as soon as 2070.
Now, I can already hear certain crowds cynically argue that development in the southern Boreal Forest is no big deal because the forest is expanding northward, but the scientists who authored this report caution:
It may take a long time for new northern forests to get established. One problem is that soils may not be rich enough to immediately support tree growth.
Barring human intervention to plant trees in warming areas, forests naturally spread slowly because it takes years for new trees colonizing an area to be mature enough to produce seeds that can then spread further northward, said Andreas Fischlin, an ecology professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and one of the report's co-authors. Sometimes seeds move long distances on rivers, ocean currents or animals, and jump to new areas, but this isn't a sure thing, he said.
The report, called "Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change – A Global Assessment"and to be presented at a United Nations forum, also adds to the debate over whether forests are our friends or foes in the fight against climate change.
People tend to think of forests as an important brake on global warming because they store massive amounts of carbon. But damage to the globe's forests caused by climate change -- from drought-induced fires to insect infestations -- may cause them to cease absorbing carbon, and instead release huge amounts of carbon, making global warming even worse.
Since trees are responsible for absorbing roughly a quarter of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, this transformation from so-called carbon sink to carbon emitter would have significant implications. More details here, and here.

Birds, Tar Sands and Tailings Ponds
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Birds, Tar Sands and Tailings Ponds

This week, almost a year after it was reported some 500 ducks died upon landing on one of Syncrude's tailings ponds during spring migration, the company has finally released information about its new mitigation plans and the actual death toll from last spring. The final bird death count was 1,606 individuals, three times more dead than originally reported, and there were likely more. While the company seems to sincerely regret the the death of these birds, their new mitigation plans are inadequate to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. If Syncrude is really sincere about ensuring this never happens again then the tailings ponds should be covered. The present economic situation aside, Syncrude's profits are more than adequate to justify this type of expense. Furthermore, the release of the final bird numbers so long after the original incident leads one to question the transparency of the provincial government investigation. Why has it taken so long to get these facts? In fact, media reports are saying that two provincial ministries knew last summer that the number of dead ducks from Syncrude's tailings pond was three times higher than the original estimate, but no effort was made to tell the public. Another thing the public needs to know: How many individual birds die in tailings ponds on a regular basis? Syncrude, and the provincial government, have missed an opportunity to really demonstrate leadership here. Too bad....especially for the birds.

U.S. State of the Birds Report has Warning Signs for Canadian Birds
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U.S. State of the Birds Report has Warning Signs for Canadian Birds

Image of the state of the birdsA fascinating look at the State of the Birds in the United States has just been released by several government, NGO and academic partners, including our BirdLife partner in the U.S., National Audubon Society. The report uses data from three continent-wide bird monitoring programs, as well as species specific survey data, to create bird population indicators for major U.S. habitats.

The results indicate significant conservation challenges. Every U.S. habitat is home to birds of conservation concern. Particularly worrisome is the status of birds in Hawaii and ocean birds. These populations need immediate and concerted conservation effort to safeguard them. However, declines are taking place in other habitats as well: populations in grasslands and aridland habitats show the most rapid decline over the past 40 years, and forest birds are also declining.
The good news? Wetland dependent species, waterfowl, and some wintering coastal birds are increasing, demonstrating the positive effects of decades of conservation action aimed at wetland preservation. And birds that have adapted to urban habitats are thriving, demonstrating the importance of creating and maintaining greenspaces in urban settings to benefit birds.
There are important messages in this report about the status of Canadian bird species as well. Many Arctic nesting species are of significant conservation concern. Some Arctic landbirds and seabirds, and many shorebirds, are declining in this region. Habitat loss in the Arctic from resource extraction and global warming is a major concern. The Ivory Gull, pictured below, which nests in northern Canada and is dependent on sea ice, has undergone a dramatic population decline just in the last decade.
Image of a seagull
Canada is also home to many of the grassland, forest and shoreline species that are highlighted as conservation concern in the report. The habitat pressures facing declining birds like Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Wood Thrushes, Whip-poor-wills, Rusty Blackbirds and Semipalmated Sandpipersare found in Canada too. Because these birds, and many others, cross our border (and often have the majority of their breeding range in Canada) we share conservation responsibility for them.
Visit the State of the Birds website here, or download the full report. While you're on the State of the Birds website, take a bit of time to watch the beautiful and powerful video that talks about the findings of the report.
photo: Ivory Gull by Simon Stirup, BirdLife

National Geographic exposes tar sands and government bias
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National Geographic exposes tar sands and government bias

If you have not seen the March edition of National Geographic, make an effort to do so. The latest issue of the magazine includes an excellent 24-page spread on the tar sands that includes the typical first class photography for which National Geographic is renowned. Also, check out the web site for a short video that includes interviews and images not seen in the magazine. Environment Minister Jim Prentice is quoted today as calling the exposé “just one article,” adding “it’s difficult to see the North American marketplace developing in an orderly way for energy without the oil sands being part of the equation.” In contrast to Prentice, the government of Alberta called the article "fair." Here is what is wrong with Minister Prentice’s statement. Last time I checked, the market place was not developing in an “orderly way.” I have heard economists use words like “collapse,” “convulse,” and of course “severe recession,” so I am not sure what shade the Minister Prentice’s reading glasses are, but they certainly are distorting his view of reality. In general, economies dependent upon commodities are anything but orderly. They follow a boom and bust cycle. Most people understand that, but to hang our hats on a commodity that is causing our world to heat up, that will eventually run out, and which could contribute to our own demise as a species is ludicrous. Should we not be turning the present economic crisis into an opportunity to transform our economy into one based on ecological sustainability, rather than propping up the old Trojan horses that contributed to the environmental and ecological mess we are in? I guess this is a rhetorical question because, in the view of our governments, we can not turn back from our addiction to oil, and our subjugation to the powers that control it. The blind faith of politicians in carbon capture and storage frightens me. The blind faith that technology will solve everything frightens me. Obama himself said that "technology" is the solution on his recent visit to Canada, in reference to carbon capture and storage. Yet, this technology is far from being proven as either viable or safe, though it is talked about by politicians as a "fait accompli" as the solution that will allow us to continue our addiction to oil. Coming back to the article in National Geographic, it does not take sides, but does not hide the truth either. On the web site, the author of the article ends his video by calling the tar sands "a desecration." That is perhaps the best word to describe what it really is from an ecological perspective. Anyone who has experienced the boreal forest first hand, touched its mosses, drank its waters or been swallowed up in its greenness, knows that the landscapes that result from tar sands operations, where once lay the boreal forest, truly are a desecration. Perhaps the tar sands were developed at a time when we knew less or cared less about ecology, when climate change was not understood, and when hundreds of square kilometres of boreal forest were consider “empty", "monotonous" or even "nothing” except to the First Nations families living on the land. Now we know better, don't we? We cannot blame the companies for operating there, but we must have pause to take stock of where we are, and what the end game is before it is too late. This is why a moratorium on tar sands expansion should occur now.

The canary in the coal mine is a Purple Finch
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The canary in the coal mine is a Purple Finch

An important new analysis on the effects of climate change on birds was released this week by our BirdLife partner in the United States, the National Audubon Society. The analysis of four decades of Christmas Bird Count observations reveals that North American birds are moving northward and inland towards cooler temperatures in response to a changing climate.

Specifically, 58% of the 305 widespread species that winter on the continent have shifted significantly north since 1968, some by hundreds of kilometres. The ongoing trend of movement of these species is closely correlated to long-term winter temperature increases. The evidence is striking for some species: Purple Finch, Pine Siskin and Boreal Chickadee have dramatically shifted their home ranges by hundreds of kilometres further north in the boreal forest over the past four decades. Even more alarmingly, some groups of species are running out of places to go in response to a changing climate. Only 38% of grassland bird species demonstrated significant shifts -- the grassland habitat for species like Eastern Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow and Burrowing Owl is already significantly depleted making the strategy of climate adaptation through range shifts for these species impossible. What are the Canadian implications of these startling findings? Here are three: 1) The effects of global warming are being felt now. Species are being impacted in tangible, measurable ways. We can't continue to assume that the effects of global warming are theoretical, or so far away as to be impractical to act on. We are already seeing the effects to birds. 2) Conservation decisions need to incorporate consideration of climate change adaptation. Protected areas networks are essential, but they must be big enough to allow species to adapt to a changing climate. Promises by the governments of Quebec and Ontario to protect half of their boreal forest habitat are a good step in this direction, and one that will help with climate change mitigation too. 3) We need concerted, global and national action on global warming. The Audubon report points out:
It took legions of bird-loving citizen scientists to document how North America’s birds are responding in the face of global warming. It will take action by America’s millions of bird enthusiasts—and their elected representatives—to address the problem of climate change while there’s still time.
The same can be said for Canada's bird enthusiasts who tirelessly contribute to Christmas Bird Counts every year. It can certainly be said too about our elected representatives. We need both citizen action and concrete policy action to reduce the dramatic impacts that global warming is having on our bird populations. As this report on the Audubon analysis states, "When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn't a canary at all. It's a purple finch." Now that we know about the Purple Finch, let's do something about it. Photo: Boreal Chickadee by Jeff Nadler

Wild Mustangs, Oil and Gas, and Woodland Caribou
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Wild Mustangs, Oil and Gas, and Woodland Caribou

As I perused my latest issue of National Geographic, a passage caught my eye from an article about the wild mustangs of the American West:

Horses will likely be around as long as there are humans to attach themselves to a saddle. What is less sure is whether there will always be enough wild to allow mustangs to run in secure, functional, genetically viable herds. Driving home from the Rock Springs gather, through Pinedale to Jackson, I'd seen acres of the High Plains turned over to oil and gas development, rigs towering out of the frozen sage, the outskirts of towns bristling with man camps and trailer parks for the roughnecks. Oil field traffic hurried out on a web of roads, seeming to skim along on a silver-rimmed mirage. Roadkill, mostly pronghorn and mule deer, lay bleaching on the verges in unprecedented numbers.
Until maybe 20 years ago there used to be a herd of wild horses out here too, kicking around the edges of town in the spring and getting rounded up periodically by local ranchers. No one I spoke to could remember the exact moment they disappeared. (full article) As in the western states, so too in Canada's boreal forest region competing interests exist in constant tension: tar sands developers and other energy providers seek to meet our (and our southern neighbour's) seemingly unending energy demands, common as well as endangered species seek open range to sustain their populations, and all of us need healthy ecosystems to provide irreplaceable services such as clean water, air, and soil. With so many competing interests, and so much at stake -- huge financial investments, species extinctions, healthy environments -- it's essential that large, precedent-setting developments, such as the Mackenzie Gas Project or drilling inside Suffield Wildlife Area, proceed only if each of these competing interests can be addressed. It's not enough to say that a project will provide jobs, or open new markets; if the cost is extinction for some species and a degraded environment for all, then the costs are too high. As I read about the oil and gas leases gobbling up the open range of the mustangs, I wondered, is this what is in store -- indeed already happening -- to species such as the woodland caribou? And will we remember the exact moment when the caribou's fate was sealed?

Bishop Questions Morality of Oil Sands Development
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Bishop Questions Morality of Oil Sands Development

Canada's tar sands are receiving criticism from many quarters these days, including the Catholic Church. From today's Toronto Star:

The Roman Catholic bishop for the region around Alberta's massive oilsands projects is questioning the "moral legitimacy" of their rapid development, saying their destructive effect on the environment is against God's plan for the earth.
The Catholic Church has spoken out in defense of environmental protection before, through dozens of pastoral letters around the world; in 2007 Pope Benedict wrote that "disregard for the environment always harms human co-existence." In his pastoral letter this week, Bishop Luc Bouchard wrote "even great financial gain does not justify serious harm to the environment":
"The moral problem does not lie in government and industry's lack of a sincere desire to find a solution; the moral problem lies in their racing ahead and aggressively expanding the oilsands industry despite the fact that serious environmental problems remain unsolved after more than 40 years of ongoing research," the letter says.
"The moral question has been left to market forces and self-regulation to resolve, when what is urgently required is moral vision and leadership." Nature Canada has called for a moratorium on tar sands expansion until serious environmental issues, including contamination of the Athabasca River, bird and fish deaths, and massive water consumption are addressed, and we absolutely agree with one other thing the good Bishop wrote:
"I believe public opinion on environmental issues is rapidly changing ... Government and industry will be forced to recognize that oilsands development should not proceed until the environment can be adequately protected."

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