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Environmental problems of Northern Eurasia

Deforestation and Degradation of Forests

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Forest Protection and Management

In the Ukraine and Belarus protected forests occupy 30 per cent and 10 per cent of the national territories, respectively. Protected forests constitute a small share of the Russian territory (not exceeding 10 per cent in any administrative region) although sixty-seven of Russia's nature reserves are located in forested areas. It has long been recognized that forests have an important protective function and can be used to improve water regime and quality, to ameliorate local climate, and prevent erosion. Across Russia, the total area occupied by forests, which have a protective function, exceeds 13 million hectares.

The need for protection of riparian forests was recognized centuries ago. Already in the 17th century Peter the Great attempted to impose a strict control over the state of riverine forests by ordering protection of forests across a 80 km distance from large rivers and a 30 km distance from smaller rivers. In the following centuries, protection of riparian forests proceeded with varying success. Controls over the implementation of protecting regulations were relaxed in the 19th century and environmental conditions in river valleys deteriorated. In 1894, the newly established Forestry Department organized an expedition to survey forests in headstreams of rivers in European Russia. The expedition found that in the upper Oka forested areas declined from 15.8 per cent in the late 1770s to 3.6 per cent and in the upper Don from 9.2 per cent to 1.8 per cent (French, 1983). At present, large areas of riverine forests are protected and incorporated in water-conservation schemes. For example, forests are protected along the Pinega river. The protected zone encompasses the area extending 1.5-2 km from the Pinega and 0.5 km from its tributaries.

Recently, much attention has been given to the northernmost forests which are extremely vulnerable to disruption. In addition to the heavily impacted forests of the Kola peninsula and sparse forests of southern Taymyr, extensive forest and forest-tundra lands have been damaged by oil production in the north of Western Siberia. Concerns over irreversible feedback, in which the northern forests do not recover and southward shift of the tree line occurs, have led to a change in attitudes to these forests. As one of the first steps towards their preservation, in the north of the Arkhagelsk oblast (64°N) about 4 million ha of forest have been placed under strict protection. This, however, is only a fraction of what has to be done. Because of Russia's dependence on revenues derived from oil, natural gas, and non-ferrous metals supplied by the north, ecological concerns may yet again be overlooked.

While most wood producing areas rely mainly on natural regeneration of forests, afforestation is accomplished in forest-deflcient regions albeit on a modest scale. Afforestation projects have been carried out most successfully in the Ukraine which in the past suffered from overcutting. Between 1970 and 1986, trees were planted and seeded on 40000-50000 ha annually (Pryde, 1991). In the Carpathians, investments into afforestation and forest management programmes in the mid-1980s were the highest across the FSU, which in combination with technical expertise allowed the development of forest enterprises that were both profitable and used forests sustainably (Pryde, 1991). In Russia in 1997, forests were restored on 1.002 million ha and planted on 237 thousand ha; 2 billion seedlings, mainly of oak and stone pine, were produced.

Agroforestry is a popular option in the southern regions. Trees are planted around arable fields and along the roads to protect them from dust storms, dry winds, and erosion, to reduce evapotranspiration and improve water retention in soils. These narrow strips of forest, termed shelter-belts, proved an effective measure, which ironically was introduced by the Great Stalin's Plan of Transformation of Nature. Their efficiency in defending crops against dry winds is higher than that of larger forest massifs (Armand, 1966). Trees are also planted around ravines and gullies to prevent their growth.

The transition to a market economy and decentralization of power have radically changed the economic and political context in which forest management has been addressed. Traditionally, forests were the property of the state or collective farms and were controlled by the State Forestry Committee or the Ministry for Agriculture. The State Forestry Committee gained broad controls over forest management in 1988. However, in the new decentralized reality of post-Soviet Russia, a broad range of issues associated with ownership is unclear: most importantly, the rights to utilize forest resources, receive income, and sell property. With regard to forests, the most pressing concern in the Russian Federation is the legal status of forested areas, intimately linked to which is the mechanism of forestry financing and the development of national forest regulations (Korovin, 1995). Although in 1997, 94 per cent of forested land and 91 per cent of timber resources were owned by the state with the rest belonging to the state or collective farms, the Ministry for Nature Protection, and the Ministry of Defence, the vaguely defined laws allow regional authorities either to pursue policies aimed at forest protection or to take advantage over uncertainty in order to gain controls over forest resources. Among the positive developments is the legal and political acceptance of the principles of sustainable development of forests. New harvest rules, which introduced environmentally acceptable methods to forest industry, were adopted in 1993-94 (Korovin, 1995). However, successful forest management requires effective implementation of the new rules which is impossible without new economic mechanisms, modern technology, extensive monitoring of the state and dynamics of forests, and willingness of the forest industry to make use of scientific and technical expertise. Forest research, education, and use of innovative approaches are factors creating prerequisites for the change from the industrial way of managing forests to sustainability. All these activities, however, require adequate financing while matching financial demands remains a remote possibility under the present economic crisis.

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