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Asia Times
October 12, 2001
Russia's northern forest disappears
By Danielle Knight (Inter Press Service)

WASHINGTON - Little is left of the once endless sea of pristine forest in northern European Russia, according to new maps created by Russian researchers.

Through the analysis of satellite images and field surveys over five years, scientists have found that few areas of the boreal or northern forests of European Russia remain undisturbed, Global Forest Watch (GFW) and Greenpeace Russia said in a report released on Wednesday.

Only 14 percent, or 32 million hectares, of forest remain in relatively undisturbed large blocks of at least 50,000 hectares each. Only sufficiently large blocks of forests like these are capable of conserving natural, undisturbed populations of large animals while at the same time letting natural processes such as storms and fires run their course, said the researchers.

What little is left of the forest is at risk, since the most attractive forest areas are unprotected against logging by federal or local laws. "These are the last big forest wilderness landscapes that exist in Europe," Lars Laestedius, who directs GFW's Russian affiliate, said. "Much less is left of these forests than we had anticipated."

The main threat to the forest is fragmentation by logging roads, geological survey lines, and forest fires, said report authors Alexey Yaroshenko, Peter Potapov, and Svetlana Turubanova. Because these forests are sparse and slow to re-grow, they are unsuitable for sustainable wood production, said the researchers. Timber revenues, they wrote, will not cover the cost of reforestation and the costs of building forest roads.

"Historical precedent in similar areas shows that subsequent investments in reforestation and silviculture often are insufficient," said the report.

The forests in the remaining intact areas are not as productive as other logging zones, it said. Less than 5 percent of the volume logged in the Karelia, Komi, Arkhangelsk, and Perm regions comes from the remaining intact boreal forest of European Russia. Because of this, the remaining intact boreal forests, argued the authors, are cheap to conserve when compared to highly productive timber areas.

"The same remoteness and low productivity which has protected them until now will continue to do so," said the report. "Our last remaining examples of wild nature can be protected even under the very restrictive Russian budget for nature conservation."

Alexander Isaev, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a forest minister of the former Soviet Union, said that the significance of the new maps goes beyond Russian forestry because the vast woodlands are an important part of Europe's overall natural heritage. "We need to keep them wild and protected by law," Isaev said in a statement.

IKEA, the Swedish-based international furniture chain, said the new maps would help the company ensure that its wood products do not come from intact natural or old-growth forests. "The maps of the intact forests of European Russia will be valuable to many parties involved in promoting responsible forestry," said Susanne Bergstrand, the company's environmental manager. IKEA contributed US$2.5 million to the GFW initiative.

The five-year mapping effort began with researchers examining regular maps and excluding all obviously disturbed areas near roads and towns. Then, they analyzed satellite images to look for additional signs of disturbance, such as logging clear-cuts, mines, and agricultural fields, said Laestedius. To verify the maps, the research team inspected 67 different areas in the field to make sure that the satellite images had been correctly interpreted.

"The resulting maps are the first of their kind, something which the Russian government has yet to create," said Laestedius.

Later this year, the researchers hope to release similar maps of all the country's forests, including those in Siberia and the Russian Far East, which environmentalists warn are being heavily logged to satisfy demand for timber and paper in Asia.

The mapping effort is part of a larger project that combines satellite imagery, geographic information systems, mapping software, the Internet and on-the-ground observation by conservation groups and local communities worldwide. The project involves some 75 local affiliates, and receives funding from a variety of US and European foundations, government agencies, and corporations.

The project was launched by the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) to help governments, conservation groups, and companies to map - and hopefully prevent - the world's rapidly disappearing pristine forests. According to WRI, only half of the Earth's original forests are left.

During the next five years, the international network aims to span 21 countries and cover 80 percent of the world's remaining forests. In the next six months, Laestedius said, GFW would release reports on the forests of Chile, Venezuela, and Indonesia. Researchers are working on similar mapping work in Canada, Brazil and the United States.

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