When fire destroys forests, or when discarded wood products are burned at the dump, carbon dioxide (CO2) escapes into the air. Hence, in part, the uproar denouncing the slash-and-burn destruction of tropical jungles. But let’s not overlook another great woodland biome: the boreal forest.

That’s the plea voiced in a recent opinion paper by Corey J.A. Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide in Australia and two colleagues. They point out that far northern forests represent a third of all remaining woodlands and 30 percent of all terrestrially stored carbon on Earth. Those vast coniferous tracts covering much of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia are still relatively unscathed, but they face increasing threats.

In Russia, for example, forest fires occur at twice the annual rate seen in the 1960s. Most are ignited by human activity along an ever-expanding network of roads built to support mining, damming, and logging—projects that themselves eliminate trees. Elsewhere, tree-killing insects leave decaying, CO2-emitting logs in their wake, and development and logging fragment pristine forest swaths. Climate change only increases the risk of fires and insect outbreaks.

Bradshaw and colleagues call for new forest-management strategies and the establishment of large reserves to bank against destruction, as well as to provide a safe haven for the 20,000 or so species that call boreal forests home. The opportunity, they warn, won’t last long.

This research was detailed in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution

This article was provided to LiveScience by Natural History Magazine.