"Karelia", ¹ 38 of May 23, 2013
Forests play a crucial role in Karelian economy. No wonder the questions of how wisely the forest is used, who and how manages it, and what awaits the forest in the future are a matter of concern for so many. Even for our neighbours. The Forest Research Institute, Karelian Research Centre, Russian Academy of Sciences has recently received a letter from Finland. The Forest Industries Federation of the neighbour country is asking for advice on whether any timber from protected areas (PA) of Russian Karelia, either existing or planned ones, is exported to Finland.
We’ve addressed the questions concerning forest use in the republic to the Head of the Landscape Ecology and Forest Ecosystem Protection Laboratory of the Forest Research Institute Andrey Gromtsev.
– Andrey Nikolaevich, could you arbitrate the long-lasting dispute between conservation NGOs and the forest sector administration on forest use and forest management issues? Let me put the questions more or less the way the “Greens” do. Don’t you think logging is now not bound by any constraints, not to mention the interests of local people?
– Let me first add two more stakeholders to this conflict of interests – scientific organizations, and the forest industry or forest leasers. A working group has recently been established under the Ministry of Nature Use and Environment, Republic of Karelia, involving all the above stakeholders. Its task is to negotiate the processes of forest use and PA designation. It is probably the best candidate for the arbitration function.
Speaking of forest use, it’s subject to federal standards and regulations. These regulations, I should say, are not so bad. For instance, the proportion of protective forests of various categories in Karelia is nearly thirty percent. This is mostly forests along rivers and lakes, and around settlements, i.e. the most intensively visited ones. These forests are managed with frugality. But how these standards and regulations are fulfilled is another question. Take, for example, waterside protection buffers where clear-cutting is prohibited – one can clear-cut under the disguise of sanitation felling. One can fabricate a rationale for that, such as a fictitious statement of the tree stand critical decline.
– Another matter of common concern. Re-profiling of the Karelian forest sector from the export of raw timber to the export to saw logs has been on the agenda for ages. But “the load is there unto this very day…”
– True, it’s uneconomical for the republic to trade round wood. It is however a fast and efficient practice for the logger – fell, sell, get the money… New facilities are needed to process all the felled timber. Building them requires investment...
– Does it really cost so much to put up a sawmill? I think even medium-size business can afford it.
– Though it’s not exactly my area, I can say that the “sawmills” operating in Nordic countries are high-tech processes. The sawn and dried timber they produce meets top quality standards. You can’t get this kind of quality with an ordinary sawmill.
– A question closer to your area then. According to the “Greens”, reforestation in Karelia is mainly just on paper. Is that so?
– All-round forest planting in the European North is a high-cost and low-effect practice, although Finnish technologies for growing stocking material in nurseries have lately been used. The point is that artificial reforestation is normally done where the forest regenerates quite well naturally (though the process in southern Karelia may involve a change of the stand-forming species). My opinion is that one should generally aim for natural reforestation, and take measures to aid it. They have long been commonly known – retaining seed trees or tree clumps in felling sites, partial mineral fertilization of the soil, and keeping the understorey.
– The next issue is PAs, which occupy 4.7% of the Republic of Karelia total area. The “Greens” claim that forestry is allowed in a half the territory occupied by PAs. Does this mean the forest business breaks into wilderness areas?
– Nearly a half of all PAs have a federal status. They’re subject to functional zoning, with some economic zones distinguished within the PA. In the Vodlozersky National Park, for example, cautious timber harvesting for own purposes, such as construction, are carried out in such a zone. Naturally, any logging in strict nature reserves is prohibited.
The situation with forestry in PAs of regional rank is more complicated. In some of them no logging is allowed. In others only clear-cutting is prohibited, whereas fellings other than clear-cutting – so-called selective and shelterwood systems – are not forbidden. In fact, up to 1/3rd of the timber stock can be removed at one harvest. In some PAs selective and shelterwood fellings are prohibited, but there is no indication in the regulations that one cannot do tending, including thinning, where a third of the stand can be thinned out... Take, for instance, the Iso-Iijärvi landscape reserve. They actually practice commercial-scope forestry there. The situation with the Shaidomsky landscape reserve is even more paradoxical. Only the ban on forest drainage is specified in the reserve regulations. As the result, nearly all forest of commercial value in this protected, let me stress this, protected area has been cut down already.
– To your knowledge, how often do officials from controlling agencies come to forestry-affected areas?
– Federal rank PAs have an administration with adequate staff numbers. One can say there is a relevant level of control there. Until recently, PAs of regional rank had been hardly controlled at all. Half a year ago the Regional PA Directorate was founded. Control and supervision is one of its functions. It is however rather small yet, only some ten persons staff…
– Do negligent forest users get punished?
– The Ministry of Nature Use and Environment carried out controls and inspections. According to the annual State Report on the Environment in the Republic of Karelia, 32 thousands first-time checks were performed in year 2012. There are also data on millions roubles worth fines for various forest use violations. Thirty four persons were held criminally liable. And so forth.
– Do you believe there will be a time when we shall preserve our forests, buying “roundwood” in Finland and exporting lumber?
– It’s unlikely we’ll get to buy timber from Finland. Simply because we still have enough of our own. No deficit is expected in the future either, as the forest “overharvested” in the remote past, will regenerate. The problem now is to harvest the difficult to access and low productivity forests included in the annual allowable cut. All the rest, for what harvesting is commercially profitable, is already in use…
– The “Greens” would argue that the question of economic benefit for the republic from the nearly free-of-charge forest use and raw timber export is disputable...
– Well, for forest leasers, for example, it’s very profitable to log forest along the border and sell it right away to the neighbours at high export prices and with minimal transport costs. Besides, until recently up to 70 % of Karelia’s revenues from export came from forest product sales.
One must remember however that it is along the border that Russia’s last largest westernmost pristine forest areas, which have developed naturally and were little disturbed by human activities, have survived. Where exactly and how much of them should one preserve to meet both environmental and economic interests? Part of them already fall within large PAs (Kalevalsky and Paanajarvi national parks, Kostomukshsky strict nature reserve). They are the backbone of what is called the “Green Belt of Fennoscandia”, which is not in reality some kind of a solid strip of land with natural systems unaffected by logging. Nearly all primary forests along the border south of the Medvezhjegorsk latitude have been cut down, although quite successful natural regeneration is in progress.
– Who deals with new PA nominations in Karelia?
– It has become a tradition that nearly all designations of nature conservation areas and sites in Karelia have been substantiated by the Karelian Research Centre. The “Scientific Substantiation of the PA Network Development in Karelia” has been prepared and published. We’re now working on the feasibility study for the Zaonezhsky landscape reserve. The conservational and recreational value of this territory has been known for twenty years already. By the way, it was a lot easier to establish protected areas during the Soviet time. The problem is that the land in many PAs we are planning has been leased out for forest use. The situation was discussed at a recent meeting of the above-mentioned working group at the Ministry, and it was found to be a virtual deadlock. How should one approach PA nominations in long-term forest lease areas? If the lease agreements are terminated, the loggers are to get a compensation. Yet, all areas of any potential value for the forest industry have already been distributed. Who will indemnify the leasers’ losses, and how?
Local people also behave controversially. For instance, we’ve nominated the Gridino landscape reserve on the White Sea coast. People in the Kemsky District supported the nomination, whereas Louhi District residents were absolutely against it. Some people fish there, others hunt or serve tourists… It would seem the PA is established for the benefit of local people, too. A landscape reserve is indeed not a strict nature reserve, and such activities are envisaged there alongside with nature protection, but some controls are imposed. Local people are afraid however their interests may be infringed upon...
– If one finds examples with a positive answer to the question posed by Finnish partners of whether timber from Karelian PAs reaches Finland, what do you think may be the implications for loggers?
– The point is that politics, economy, and environment may all be linked together… I believe, Finns may under certain circumstances refuse to buy timber from some logging companies, causing them to simply collapse.
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Drawing a kind of conclusion from this conversation with the scientist, specialist in forest ecosystem protection, one can agree with the “Greens” that neither the land coverage of protected areas in Karelia nor their regimens adequately secure the protection of the natural forest environment. A lot remains to be done to achieve truly sustainable, socially and environmentally responsible forest use and forest management.
Interview taken by Sergey Khokhlov