Indigenous Community's Fight to Save Canada's Boreal Forest
A metal-hulled outboard motorboat took me the last two hours of my three-day journey to one of the last intact forests in North America, in Canada’s Boreal forest. In the end, I traveled more than 3,000 miles, including a substantial amount of time in a white van with a poor suspension system, experiencing every bump on some very long and bumpy logging roads.
Rolf Skar, Amy Moas and Shane Moffatt of Greenpeace with Don (Simon) Saganash of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi. The group hold a banner that reads "The Path of Destruction Stops Here." Photo credit: Greenpeace
After that long journey—which also included two flights, a 20-hour drive and a helicopter ride—I finally reached the traditional lands of the Waswanipi Cree First Nation. I stood where few humans have ever stood, in one of the last intact forests, in the Broadback Valley.
I made this journey alongside the Cree because even its incredible remoteness has not protected this forest from exploitation.
I endured these three days of intense travel with a mission: to reach one of the last intact forests in Canada, help the Waswanipi Cree First Nation shine a light on the threats to this special place and amplify their leadership in protecting it. Ninety percent of the Waswanipi Cree territory has been logged and fragmented. They are simply asking to leave the last 10 percent alone and intact.
Map showing intact forest and areas of tree cover loss in Waswanipi Cree territory, as well as a proposal for new protected lands. Photo credit: Greenpeace
By definition, intact forests have no roads, clearcuts or powerlines, but that does not mean they are devoid of human presence. Quite the contrary—the forest where I stood had been cared for and harvested by the Cree for generations.
The pristine, clear water, miles of dense forest, bald eagles overhead and moose and bear along the shores—all of this special place is at the heart of Cree culture. This is the land the Waswanipi Cree community have fished and hunted on for generations. Elders in the community—including Don Saganash, one of our hosts—each manage areas of this forest delineated by traplines.
This is a healthy place, shaped by local knowledge and stewardship over time. Clearcut logging threatens a connection to this land forged over thousands of years.
Clearcut affected forest in Cree territory, Northern Quebec. Photo credit: Greenpeace
Despite its remote location, logging companies in Canada are eager to log here, including Don’s trapline, where I stood just weeks ago.
Don's father hunted and practiced his traditional way of life here and Don hopes to pass this trapline to his son. Now he’s not sure that he’ll be able to. Don has repeatedly stood up to ambitious logging companies and has said no to their expansion plans. He was offered money and gifts in exchange for his sign-off and still said “my land is not for sale.”
Don (Simon) Saganash next to the Broadback River on his trapline. Photo credit: Greenpeace
He says he will “stay here forever” to fight for the protection of his forest until the end.
Greenpeace has had a relationship with Don and the Waswanipi Cree for years. We proudly stand in support of the entire Cree community calling for the protection of their land. The elders withholding consent has been enough so far to keep their forest standing.
But the Cree have petitioned the Quebec government to permanently protect their land, to stop the onslaught of logging companies from trying to infiltrate. The Quebec government recently protected other lands nearby, but not here. Until this land is safe—and safe for good—the fight against exploitation and for traditional culture will continue.
Lessons I Will Carry With Me
My week with the Cree was intense in many ways. As with my long journey there, I had three long days of travel heading back in which to reflect.
The first thing that I will carry with me is how important it is to keep intact forests safe. There are plenty of quantifiable reasons to keep a forest—for wildlife and for the carbon they store that would otherwise add to our climate crisis. But more than that, these are areas where the Cree are able to thrive and practice their traditional culture. Without the forest, they will lose so much more than the trees, they will lose their identity.
An intact stretch of Canada’s Boreal forest in Cree territory. Photo credit: Greenpeace
There is a special kind of pureness and beauty that only intact forests hold. These are places that hold the future for the Cree people. It was emotional to stand somewhere so purely beautiful and at the same time experience heartbreaking sadness as I fear this place will not exists for Don Saganash’s children and my children both to see.
The second thing I will carry with me is more personal. I proudly stand up next to the Cree. I was humbled by their welcome and am proud to share their story. These are people that have overcome tremendous hurdles to protect their identity. They deserve to live their lives and thrive. They deserve to have a say on what happens to their traditional land.
I will work hard to be a good ally, advancing their story and their future. The kind of person I want to be is one that will not sit idly by as the Cree fight. I want to be the person that stands next to them and does all that I can.
I will also carry with me immense gratitude for our hosts. I am grateful to Stanley, who made his hunting camp on Lake Quenonisca available to us; to Stanley, Don and the entire team from Waswanipi, who were patient and knowledgeable as they watched us Greenpeacers scurrying around and delicately pointed out the more effective way to cut a log, catch a fish or start a fire.
I’d say they have a few stories themselves to tell.
Most of all, I will carry with me gratefulness that places like the Broadback Valley in the Canadian Boreal forest still exist and that Indigenous People like the Waswanipi Cree are still there. Our world is safer, healthier and richer because of them.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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