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Human Activity and the Environment: Forests in Canada

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Released: 2018-03-14

Canada's 3.47 million km2 of forests, which account for about 9% of forest land worldwide, are diverse ecosystems that offer many benefits to Canadians.

The forest sector was a major economic driver for 105 communities across Canada in 2016, down from 463 in 2001, according to the latest release of the publication Human Activity and the Environment. These communities derived at least 20% of income from forest sector employment.

Overall, the share of forest sector employment income generated by forest sector-based communities fell from 30% in 2000 to 11% in 2015. Increasingly, communities that receive a significant proportion of their income from the forest sector are smaller.

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Chart 1  Chart 1: Forest sector-based communities by size, 2001 and 2016
Forest sector-based communities by size, 2001 and 2016

Forests provide us with timber and other forest products, as well as many ecosystem services such as water filtration, air purification, carbon sequestration, and recreational and spiritual services. More than three-quarters of Canada's forest is located in the boreal zone. Canada has some of the largest areas in the world of remote and inaccessible forest landscapes.

The value of Canada's accessible timber stocks—a component of natural resource wealth—was estimated at $215.4 billion in 2016.

Infographic 1  Thumbnail for Infographic 1: An overview of forest resources
An overview of forest resources

Changes in the forest sector

The overall contribution of the forest sector to Canada's economy has declined since the mid-2000s, when it was hit by a decrease in demand for lumber, paper and newsprint following the collapse of the US housing market, as well as the rise of online media. The sector's share of gross domestic product declined from 1.7% in 2007 to 1.2% in 2014.

In addition, the sector's share of exports and employment has fallen in recent decades. Forest product exports—valued at $29.5 billion in 2016—fell from 12% of total exports in 1997 to 6% in 2016, while the share of jobs declined from 2.5% to 1.1%. The number of jobs in the forest sector declined 42% from 351,675 in 1997 to 205,660 in 2016.

In 2015, the volume of timber harvested totalled 160.5 million m3, up 35% since an industry low in 2009. Meanwhile, lumber production totalled 68.4 million m3 in 2016, up 51% since the 2009 low. Neither volume, though, has recovered to levels seen before the downturn.

The forest sector—in particular, the paper manufacturing industry—was responsible for 4% of total Canadian water use in 2013. As well, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the sector totalled 39,931 kilotonnes in 2015, 5% of overall industrial and household emissions. Environmental protection expenditures by the sector totalled $659.2 million in 2014.

Infographic 2  Thumbnail for Infographic 2: An overview of the forest sector
An overview of the forest sector

Changes in forest ecosystems

Fires and insect outbreaks are normal events in forest ecosystems, shaping the succession and regeneration of forests. In 2015, insect outbreaks damaged an estimated 176,318 km2 of forest, while 7,140 wildfires burned a total of 38,616 km2 of forest land. Of these fires, 49% were started by lightning strikes, 48% had a human source of ignition, and the remainder had an unknown cause. Fires started by lightning were responsible for the majority of the burned area.

Timber harvesting areas covered 7,796 km2 of forest land in 2015, of which clearcutting was the most common harvesting method. Harvested areas are normally replanted or allowed to regenerate naturally.

Deforestation affects a small proportion of Canada's forest. In 2015, 360 km2 of forest area was converted to other uses. From 1990 to 2015, Canada's forest area decreased 0.3%, from 3.48 million km2 to 3.47 million km2. Over this period, most forest converted to other land uses was used for agriculture (42%), mining, oil and gas (24%), built-up area (16%), hydro-electric infrastructure and reservoirs (13%) and forestry roads (6%).

Linear features including roads, rail lines, electrical infrastructure and cutlines contribute to habitat fragmentation. While linear feature density is highest in more densely populated ecoregions, it is also elevated in other less densely populated areas, including parts of the Boreal Plains and Taiga Plains ecozones, largely due to the influence of seismic lines for resource-based activities.

Map 1  Thumbnail for map 1: Linear feature density by ecoregion, 2011
Linear feature density by ecoregion, 2011

Canada's forests are adapted to climate conditions associated with their specific geographic area, and as the climate changes, forests will change in response. From 1948 to 2016, the average annual temperature in Canada rose by 1.7 °C, with all 11 of Canada's climate regions experiencing temperature increases during this time period. The largest increase occurred in the Mackenzie District climate region, followed by the Yukon and North British Columbia Mountains.

Map 2  Thumbnail for map 2: Treed area and long-term temperature trends by climate region
Treed area and long-term temperature trends by climate region

  Note to readers

This edition of Human Activity and the Environment provides the latest statistics on forest area; forest products and ecosystem services; economic and social contributions of the forest sector; and forest management activities and environmental impacts. The report also includes highlights, maps, charts and tables. This report is based on data from the National Forestry Database, the National Forest Inventory and Statistics Canada, and also includes a variety of information from other sources.

Forest is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as "land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 metres and a canopy cover of more than 10% or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ. It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban land use."

The forest sector includes the following North American Industry Classification codes: 113 – forestry and logging; 1153 – support services for forestry; 321 – wood product manufacturing; and 322 – paper manufacturing industries.

The analysis of forest sector-based communities is based on a definition developed by Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Services, Economic Analysis Division. It defines these communities as census subdivisions (CSDs) where forest sector employment income represents 20% or more of market income (i.e., total income excluding government transfers). Some data were suppressed for data quality reasons or to meet the confidentiality requirements of the Statistics Act. Income data were available for 4,009 of 5,600 CSDs in 2001 and 3,675 of 5,162 CSDs in 2016. This analysis may therefore underreport the total number of communities for which the forest sector is a major economic driver. Note that a decline in the percentage of forest sector income may be due to a decrease in forest sector income or an increase in income from other sources. The reference period for income data in the Census of Population is the calendar year prior to the census.

Note also that changes occur to the number and the boundaries of CSDs between censuses. These data have not been adjusted for changes in the boundaries between census periods. Of the 463 forest sector-based CSDs in 2001, the total area remained essentially the same for 64%; grew from 1% to 10% for 20% of CSDs; and by over 20% for 8% of CSDs. A further 8% were amalgamated into other areas.


The study "Forests in Canada" is now available in Human Activity and the Environment, 2017 (Catalogue number16-201-X).

Spatial data files covering the population size and variation of 2016 forest sector-based communities can be downloaded from the article and are also accessible from the Geographic products page of our website, under "Environmental accounting files."

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300;

For analytical information or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact François Soulard (613-882-8603, or Jennie Wang (604-362-8125;, Environment, Energy and Transportation Statistics Division.

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