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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
Russia's threadbare forests revealed
Logpile BBC
Logging has left little of Russia's original forests intact
Alex Kirby

Only a small part of the northern forests of European Russia remain in relatively intact large sections.

Russian experts who have spent five years mapping the forests say much of what is left is in jeopardy.

They say the best parts of the forests enjoy no protection in law, and are ripe for exploitation. Yet conserving the remainder would be comparatively cheap and simple.

The Russians used a combination of satellite imagery and more traditional methods to compile their maps, entitled The Last Intact Forest Landscapes of Northern European Russia.

They are being published in Moscow by Greenpeace Russia, and in Washington DC by Global Forest Watch, part of the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Unprotected blocks

The researchers found that only 32 million hectares (80 million acres), about 14%, of the region's forests remain in relatively undisturbed large blocks of at least 50,000 ha (123,000 acres) each.

Only blocks this big, at least the size of a square with sides 22 km (14 miles) long, are judged large enough to be able to remain intact, conserving populations of large animals and also coping with natural processes like storms and fires.

Woodland BBC
Fragmentation is the main threat
But the researchers say what little is left of the forests is at risk, as the parts likeliest to attract exploitation have no protection under federal or local law.

They say the main threat comes from logging roads, geological survey lines, and the fires that usually follow them.

Dr Alexander Isaev, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a former Soviet minister, was one of a team of scientists from Russia, Sweden and the US to review the researchers' report.

He said: "The significance of this work goes far beyond Russian forestry.

Irresponsible loggers

"These are the last big forest wilderness areas of Europe, and an important part of our common European heritage. We need to keep them wild and protected by law."

Dr Lars Laestadius of WRI told BBC News Online: "The best forests have already been logged, and many of the surrounding areas are depleted.

Fir tree BBC
The best forests have already been logged
"The main threat is fragmentation, together with the fact that some logging companies do not pay the real cost of responsible forestry.

"Forest degradation is often thought of as being only a tropical issue. This report shows that there is serious forest degradation in the north as well."

The report's authors said protecting the forests would not cost much: "No forest guards are needed. The same remoteness and low productivity which has protected them until now will continue to do so.

"Our last remaining examples of wild nature can be protected even under the very restrictive Russian budget for nature conservation."

Field check

The researchers worked by first looking at existing maps and excluding all obviously disturbed areas near roads and towns.

They then examined detailed satellite images for further signs of disturbance like logging and mines, which they also eliminated. That let them identify the remaining large blocks of forest.

To check their work they then inspected 67 areas on foot, to ensure they had correctly interpreted the satellite images.

Later this year Global Forest Watch and its partners will produce a similar map covering all Russia's forests. Maps of forests in Chile, Venezuela, Indonesia, Brazil, Canada and the US are in preparation.

See also:

20 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
UN call to save key forests
09 May 01 | Media reports
Forest fires rage in Siberia
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