Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

Wolf Lake

Wolf Lake is the world's largest remaining old-growth red pine forest, with trees up to 300 years old growing on the shores of clear, aquamarine lakes.

Ontario Old-Growth Forests

A Guidebook complete with history, ecology and maps. Learn how to get to 59 old growth forests throughout Ontario.

Old Trees

Trees in Ontario can live to be over 1,300 years old. Learn about old trees in Ontario and elsewhere in North America.


CRW_4548AFER’s research addresses current issues of forest conservation in Ontario and surrounding jurisdictions. Ideally, our research results are applied directly and immediately to the development of strategies and policies that will maintain or restore forest biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. We collect primary field data as well as information from secondary sources at a variety of spatial scales from the fine scale such as the ecology of tree regeneration to the broad scale such as the continental biogeography of forest ecosystem types.

AFER has conducted mapping analyses and field work in ancient forest landscapes primarily in the Lake Temagami Site Region of central Ontario. This is a five million hectare area about 100 km wide stretching from Lake Timiskaming in the east to Lake Superior in the west – its southern boundary is located just to the north of North Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. The most significant ancient forest areas in this region are located in Temagami (near North Bay), the Lower Spanish Forest (near Sudbury) and the Algoma Highlands (near Sault Ste. Marie).

Wolf Lake

AFER is a member of the Wolf Lake Coalition. The wolf Lake old-growth forest is the world’s largest contiguous ancient red pine forest.  It is 50 km northeast of Sudbury and is part of the Chiniguchi River canoe route.

The Wolf Lake area was first identified in a report comissioned by the Ministry of Natural Resources as being the largest contiguous area of old-growth red pine in Site Region 4E (a huge area encompassing much of the area in which red pine predominates in Ontario). Several things make the Wolf Lake area unique, including very high density of pine in the canopy, uneven-aged red pine forest, and dense pine regeneration. The older trees in this forest are around 300 years old.

In 2012 AFER supported a biodiversity inventory of the Wolf Lake old-growth forest that identified 210 species, including two bird species “At Risk” (special concern): the Canada Warbler and Common Nighthawk.

Corridor and Representation Studies (1996-Present)

In 1996 AFER turned its attention to the need for Conservation or Wildlife Corridors in Ontario, and has since pioneered work on two such corridors: the Superior-Temagami corridor and the Temagami-Algonquin corridor, and has participated in the design of a third one, the Algonquin to Adirondack (A2A) corridor.

Why we Need Corridors

The increasing loss of biodiversity is a challenge that we must address now or risk waiting until it is too late. Increasing pressures on the natural environment, such as deforestation, global climate change and habitat fragmentation are causing the irreversible decline of the earth’s biological diversity, including species extinction and destruction of ecosystems. One way to preserve biodiversity is in parks and protected areas, however, no parks in North America are large enough to sustain themselves unless they stay connected to each other and to other wildlands (Noss et al., 1997).

That’s where corridors come into the picture. After defining core areas for protection and putting buffers around them, we need to establish connectivity between these reserves or else they may become ecologically dysfunctional islands in the landscape

Conservation corridors were initially conceived mostly to allow the movement of animals with large space requirements, such as larger predators. A pack of grey wolves, for instance, uses from 250 to over 2000 square kilometres of land; a black bear uses a home range of about 150 square kilometres. To maintain long-term populations of these species even the largest parks need to be linked to other wild areas (Noss et al., 1997). Even relatively small inputs of genetic material into a population can dramatically increase the persistence of a population, and allow species to survive in reserves that would otherwise be too small (Forbes, 1993).

Less obvious species, such as plants or insects also need connectivity to be able to adapt to changing local conditions, and for genetic exchange between populations. Corridors that facilitate the movement of plant and wildlife species will help ecosystems adjust to the changing global climate; the predicted increase in climate will cause forest regions in North America to shift northward. Climate models predict that the southern edge of the boreal forest could shift as much as 500 km north because of climate change over the next century, and some species may be extirpated or become extinct if they can’t migrate fast enough to match changing conditions.

How a Conservation Corridor Might Look

Connectivity can be much more diverse than people often imagine. Corridors generally follow the landscape and not straight lines, they may be a mix of modified management, parks, core areas, and buffers – with one thing in common, they connect. No park should exist in isolation; somehow it should connect with all the others. Successful corridors must be large enough to be used as habitat by the animals that move through them – particularly if the corridors cover long distances. And since corridor boundaries are designed around key natural features, and link up small and large natural heritage areas, they are often not of a consistent width. Generally, wider corridors allow more species to use them (Forbes, 1993); corridors should be as wide as possible, and in some cases this may be achieved by having central protected areas buffered by areas of modified management.

Corridors can fulfill many needs – their raison d’etre is usually to provide maximum flow of genes, species, energy and material between core reserves. But they also can serve for scientific research, to protect ecologically representative and cultural heritage areas, and for recreation. Good examples of the recreational value of corridors are the Bruce Trail that runs along an important natural corridor, the Niagara Escarpment, and the proposed Superior-Temagami corridor, which follows a long-distance canoe route, and was paddled by Joan and Gary McGuffin in 1997.

Designing and Implementing Corridors in Ontario

There are at least four corridors in the initial stages of development in Ontario, two of which were conceived by Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. These are the Superior-Temagami corridor, the Temagami-Algonquin corridor, the Niagara Escarpment, and the Algonquin to Adirondack, an international corridor. Many more are needed.

On a smaller scale, corridors are now being considered in forest management plans as a new management tool. In 1996 the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources proposed genetic linkages, corridors of mature or old growth conifer, to facilitate the movement of species that prefer old growth (e.g. lynx marten, fisher, wolf). How effectively this strategy will be implemented by the MNR remains to be seen, since so far no corridors have been put in place. In any case the strategy was proposed only within the Temagami Comprehensive Planning Area. Another example of very simple corridors are waterway parks. But because right now waterway parks are usually only 200 m wide strips along each bank of the river, sometimes less, they are not viable for the movement of most species over long distances. Corridors that are too narrow can sometimes even be detrimental to species that use them, because of high edge effect and corresponding predation.

Achievements to Date

  • Mapped ancient forest areas greater than 20,000 hectares in the Temagami Site Region and proposing an approximate route for the Superior-Temagami Corridor based on these core areas (see MAP).
  • Used GIS analysis to map habitat quality in south-eastern Ontario (see MAP), and determing the the ideal (least-cost) path for wildlife movement in the Canadian portion of the Algonquin to Adirondack corridor. (see MAP or REPORT).
  • Used GIS mapping to chart the path of the Temagami-Algonquin corridor

Spanish River Ancient Pine Forest (1993-1995)

Between 1993 and 1995 AFER studied the Ancient Pine Landscape in the Lower Spanish Forest. AFER began studying in the Lower Spanish Forest after a mapping analysis commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (Spectranalysis 1993) showed that the largest concentration of white and red pine (over 50 yrs.; and over 10% of a stand) in Ontario was found there. Further work (Quinby et al. (1995)) showed that roughly 40,000 hectares of this area is pristine pine landscape. A further study revealed that this is the largest pristine white and red pine landscape remaining in the world (Quinby and McGuiness 1996).

Some of AFER’s scientific findings from this period include:

  • Identification of the world’s largest pristine white and red pine landscape,
  • Confirmation of four pristine watersheds in the Lower Spanish Forest (Quinby and Suski, 1995)
  • Characterization of the relationship between topography and forest composition in the Lower Spanish Ancient Pine Forest (Quinby, McGuiness, Lee, and Suski, 1995), and
  • studies of the relationships between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Some of the more significant conservation gains from this period include:

The creation of the Spanish River Provincial Park was influenced by AFER’s work in the region.

Temagami Old Growth Studies (1989-1992)

From 1989 to 1992, AFER focused its research on the old growth pine forests in Temagami.Before the initiation of the AFER and it’s predecessor the Tall Pines Project (under Peter Quinby), not a single Ontario newspaper mentioned Ontario’s ancient or old-growth forests – since then more than 350 articles addressing Temagami’s ancient pine forests appeared in over 35 Ontario newspapers. One of the first things Peter Quinby and the Tall Pines Project did was to develop a definition for old growth red and white pine forests. Significant scientific findings for this period include:

  • location of the world’s largest known stand of old-growth white and red pine (the Obabika Lake Stand),
  • evidence that white pine in some stands regenerates successfully in the absence of catastrophic fire,
  • development of the first set of old-growth white and red pine forest definitions, and
  • evidence that old-growth white pine ecosystems are extirpated in 29% of the jurisdictions in which they are found and endangered in the remaining 71%.

Some of the more significant forest conservation gains following the inception of Its Tall Pines Project and the later creation of AFER include:

  • the Ontario government abandoned plans to allow logging of the worlds largest known old growth white pine forest (the Obabika Lake stand) which is now protected as pan of a provincial park,
  • in order to increase their knowledge on the subject, the Ontario government contracted numerous studies on old-growth forests,
  • the Ontario government regulated against clearcutting of white pine forest in Temagami,
  • the Ontario government temporarily protected seven old-growth pine sites in northeastern Ontario many of which are now fully protected,
  • the Ontario government established the Wendaban Stewardship Authority to develop community-based forest planning in Temagami,
  • the Ontario government established the Old-Growth Forest Conservation Strategy Initiative to develop old growth policy for Ontario,
  • the Ontario Government has committed to protecting at least 65% of Temagami’s old growth white and red pine forest,
  • the Ontario Government has produced a Conservation strategy for Old-Growth White and red Pine forests in Ontario, and
  • the Ontario Government has produced a draft Conservation Strategy for old Growth.

Earthwatch Volunteers

For many years our research was assisted by Earthwatch volunteers. We still feel grateful to everyone who participated on those expeditions, which we remember fondly. We’ve moved a few pages from our old website to Earthwatch archives.