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Threats to HCVF

HCVF are the results of natural or semi-natural development of forest ecosystems, which could be driven by various disturbance mechanisms. However, some disturbances attributed to human agency (clearcutting, forest conversion) or even natural processes (stand-replacing fires) can lead to irreversible destruction of HCVF or particular high conservation value. The likelihood that some HCVF can be threatened or lost increases as humans stronger intervene in the course of natural processes in a particular region (e.g., by changing the frequency of occurrence of wildfires) or globally (e.g., by changing global climate).

Thus, continuous forest fragmentation and transformation lower the general ability and chances of HCVF to further withstand particularly strong natural disturbances (large-scale wildfires, pest infestations). This means that the lowest chances to survive strong disturbances have smaller HCVF, especially those which are stronger transformed or especially rare (e.g. the last old-growth forest in southern taiga and temperate zones in European Russia).

In addition, some high conservation values could result from a specific set of historical circumstances, which will not repeat any more. An example of the last are temperate forests in the southern Russian Far East or the Caucasus, which consist of mixed floras, including abundant relic plant species, which survived since preglacial warmer (subtropical) climate.

Therefore, when we speak about threats to HCVF, we do not mean only destructive human-caused impacts but also some natural disturbances that cause significant reduction in the area of HCVF or destroy their HCVs.

Clearcuts and large-scale forest fires are among the main threats for HCVF in Russia. Unfortunately, lack of detailed information regarding some types of HCVF significantly increases the risk of their accidental elimination.

Primarily, this is true for HCV 1 forests with relatively high concentration of poorly studied rare species (such as small vascular plants, mosses, fungi, lichens) and HCV 3 forests that are not clearly defined and not well-known by forest managers in Russia. Forest fires are the main threat to intact forest landscapes, especially in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

With enormously large roadless areas, where an access to the forest is straitened and forest services/air forest fire protection service (“Avialesookhrana”) are not good enough equipped to reach it on time, the fire-fighting is hard. Almost 10 millions hectares of forest are destroyed by forest fires in Russia each year. Some large-scale and long-lasting fires can destroy areas of thousands of square kilometers. All other types of HCVF are also threatened by fires.

This can be illustrated by the outcomes of a research dealing with mapping of recent “hotspot areas” in the vicinity of intact forest landscapes in Russia (HCVF 2). Hotspot areas were defined as areas with significant change in forest cover as a result of intensive human-caused impact. The following types of “hotspots” marked by changes in forest cover were determined:

  • burned areas (less than 15 years old)
  • extensive forest harvesting (clearcuts)
  • mineral extraction (oil and gas extraction, open cast mining, gold mining)
  • agricultural development
  • other evidences of severe impact due to human agency.

This research was based on interpretation of satellite imagery. Numbers and types of the hotspot areas in the vicinities of intact forest landscapes varied in different regions. For example:

  • Russian Far East:
    burned areas (catastrophic fire events of the 1970-1990s), harvesting in mixed conifers and deciduous forests and conifer forests
  • East Siberia:
    burned areas in larch forests (multiply burned areas of unknown age structure), clearcutting in coniferous forests (Angara river area, Lake Baikal watershed, Chitinskaya Oblast)
  • Northern European Russia (Karelia, Arkhangelskaya Oblast):
    clearcutting in coniferous forest
  • West Siberia (Tyumen region):
    mining, oil and gas extraction.

See the map

One can see that in the course of the last decades the major (in terms of total area) threat to HCVF 2 in Russia were catastrophic forest fires (tens of percents of overall HCVF 2 losses). Losses of other HCVF categories due to wildfires hardly could be accurately estimated.

Another critical threat to HCVF is industrial harvesting. In Russia, forestry is mainly based on an extensive clearcut-dominated system, which does not favor silviculture in non-mature forests. Under this system undisturbed forests are considered as the main resource for industrial harvesting and development, while productive young, medium-aged and undermature stands experience lack of silvicultural treatment.

As a result the frontier of harvesting continuously moves to more remote intact areas with less productive forests, thus increasing transportation costs and lowering timber yield per hectare.

All this makes traditional clearcut-based forestry in Russia unsustainable. Most of “economically accessible” forests (and specifically HCVF 2) are threatened by clearcut-dominated forestry. For example, the average annual area logged in intact forest landscapes in Northern European Russia during the period from 2000 through 2004 was 19700 hectares (map). The area of IFL shrank from 1.2 to 1.9% per year.

Many valuable old-growth forests have been given to long-term lease for timber harvesting, especially in relatively productive old-growth or intact forests in the southern areas. The Russian government currently does not favor establishment of new protected areas, neither provides compensation to companies that exclude HCVF from their leases. At the same time, private timber companies are not legally allowed to voluntarily set aside significant HCVF located within their leases for nature conservation.

One more threat to HCVF related to forestry is widely spread illegal logging. The share of illegally harvested timber inthe country is estimated in 20-30%. The threat of illegal logging to HCVF is especially severe in biodiversity-rich forests (HCVF 1) (the Caucasus, southern Russian Far East) with many valuable timber species and in protective forests close to the villages and roads (roadside and riparian forests in European Russia and Siberia).

Among other threats mineral extraction, oil and gas development and damming rivers for hydroelectric power production should be mentioned. These industries could be the cause of significant transformation or even destruction of forests in the vicinit.

Development of mineral export infrastructure (e.g. vast plans for oil and gas export from Russia, first of all to China and other Asian countries) is currently seen as a serious threat to natural ecosystems. Thus, some pipeline routes are planned to cross many valuable natural areas, including World Heritage sites, protected areas and intact forest landscapes. Construction of new transport corridors, besides fragmentation of HCVF, could also trigger other land development projects in the neigborhood.

There are currently two megaprojects – the East Siberia–Pacific Ocean Oil Pipeline and the Gas Pipeline to Chine that threaten many HCVFs. Russia’s state-owned oil pipeline monopoly Transneft is now constructing a pipeline that would carry oil from the oil-rich regions of western and eastern Siberia to the Pacific coast, for export to countries of the Pacific Rim. The first variant of the route threatened to The Lake Baikal World Heritage Site, the final variant has been diversed from the Baikal, but still threatens to some protected areas and many intact forest landscapes.

In March 2006 an agreement was signed between Russia and China on the construction of the gas pipeline through the western Russian-Chinese border. As the only section of the border between Russia and western Chinese provinces lies on the Ukok Plateau the pipeline will inevitably affect part of the “Golden Mountains of Altai” World Heritage Site and the Ukok Quiet Zone nature park.

Many threats are caused by the fact that HCVF in Russia are still poorly protected by the forest and environment legislation. The new Russian Forest Code does not include the term “HCVF” and includes rather few possibilities for its protection and management. New forest regulations do not include any positions concerning HCVF either. Especially it affects HCVF types which cover biodiversity values (HCVF 1-3).

Among threats to HCVF 5 and 6 one can mention the lack of information, the few possibilities for local communities and indigenous people to defend their rights, and the low level of life in the country which obliges local people to sell their rights for forests in exchange for immediate commercial profit instead of to keep their social values for a long time.

T. Yanitskaya

 

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