Blagoveshchensk — Pristine frontier forests in the northern part of Siberia and in the Russian Far East may soon end up as marshy bogs if nature preserves are not created and logging is not halted in these regions, warn environmentalists here. Although logging here in the Amur region of eastern Siberia is not as widespread and intense as it was during the Soviet era, the recent increase in demand for timber from Asia is currently fuelling a new wave of clear-cutting in Russia, according to environmental and ecologists here. Clear-cutting in the northern icy permafrost areas of Siberia may turn these pristine forests into barren swamps, says Svetlana Titova, a scientist based here in this small city along the Amur river which borders China. Once these regions are clear-cut, the sunlight reaches the ground, melting the permafrost, says Titova, who directs the Amur branch of the Socio- Ecological Union, a national environmental group.
“The melting of the permafrost drastically changes the vegetation and prohibits native seedlings from taking root,” she says.
What remains is a bog-like swamp, a habitat that cannot support the moose, bear and deer that once lived in the forest. “If you take a helicopter over the northern areas that have already been clear-cut, it looks like badlands with no animals, no creeks, just swamps and moss,” says Yuri Darman, an environmentalist who works for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The forests of Amur cover 22.9 million hectares, an area larger than the entire forest cover of a smaller densely forested country such as Finland. Yet Darman and other scientists believe that in as soon as 15 years, there may be nothing left to log if present practices continue.
Like the rest of the Taiga forest region, which spans from the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the forests of the Amur region of Siberia, north of China, contain many rare and endangered species. The entire Taiga forest region contains 54 percent of the world’s coniferous forests and about 26 percent of the world’s remaining frontier or untouched forests. More than 30 species of flowering plants recognized by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as endangered and rare have been identified in the Amur region.
A total of 212 species of rare and endangered plants in Amur have been listed as requiring special protection, according to Darman. The pine forests especially along the Trans-Siberian and Baikal- Amur Mainline railways, have been almost completely logged and replaced by Biologically less productive and commercially less valuable species, he says. Most of the current timber exports are going to China, Japan and North Korea. In 1998, the Chinese government drastically changed its forest management laws to prohibit logging because the nation was suffering from soil erosion and massive flooding. Since then it has been taking most of the wood from Amur, according to Darman. “This will increase if the planned bridge over the Amur River connecting Blagoveshchensk with the Chinese city of Heihe is completed, but for now the proposal is on hold, at least for a few years,” he says. There are currently no bridges over the Amur river in the region. One of the more infamous clear-cutting operations in northern Amur is the North Korean Tyndales logging venture, in the town of Tynda, where there have been reports of abuse of workers. Since the 1970s, in an agreement between North Korea and regional officials, Korean workers have been contracted to log a region in northern Amur. The workers are managed by Korean contractors themselves managed by Russian companies that hold the leases to the land. On average, the venture has hauled out 1 million cubic meters of timber annually. Amur authorities especially favor the arrangement because the workers do not live in houses but camps, so the region was not required to provide any infrastructure, such as housing and clinics for the workers. “In the cold Siberian winter, the workers live in tents,” says Titova. At its height of production, more than 6,000 workers from North Korea were employed at the plant. Now, only about 700 to 1,200 workers remain. Titova says that because the workers are paid hardly anything they have resorted to hunting all of the animals in the area and setting illegal traps.
“There is a 10 kilometer area around the camps were there is no wildlife,” adds Darman. The key to halting the destruction of these forests is the creation of nature preserves where logging, mining and hunting would be prohibited, argue environmentalists.
Many of the nature reserves created under the Soviet era were intended not just as parks, but for multi-use, some including mining and logging. But the federal government passed a law in 1995 that elevated the status of these reserves beyond logging and mining interests that held leases to the land and ignoring the reserves’ protected status. “This needs to be resolved at the federal levels but we may be seeing the beginning of a trend toward opening up of protected areas to timber harvests as a response to demand from China,” says Darman. In one such reserve in northern Amur known as Urkanskiy Zakaznik, 50 percent of the 141,000-hectare preserve could be logged if the regional Forest Service allow operations to proceed. Officials are currently conducting an environmental impact assessment of the proposal and local environmental groups are urging the authorities to preserve the area. “This is a precedent setting situation,” says Titova. “If we lose this reserve, we lose them all.” Darman, through WWF, is working on creating a new system of reserved areas in Amur that prohibit logging, mining and hunting. While this effort has been recently halted because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s liquidation of the two key environmental agencies, so far two small reserves of this type have been created, one of 7,000 hectares and another of 60,000 hectares.
“We are moving step by step,” he says. “But, the time to create these areas is now, while the forests are still state owned.” In addition to logging, forest fires also pose a threat to the region’s trees. While over the past 30 years about 150 million square meters of forest have been logged in the region, during the same time period about 200 million square meters of trees have been destroyed from forest fires, says Victor Timofeyevitch Yaboreb, a former forest service official who now works with the Socio-Ecological Union here. Laws regarding forest fires have actually fuelled logging, according to Anatoly Andreiev, head of the Forest Service of Amur. According to the Russian forest code, it is required that the forest be cut after there is a fire in order to prevent the are from being overrun by insects.
While he has never caught anyone intentionally setting fires, Andreiev says that the percentage of fires in pine forests, a commercially valuable tree that is cannot be logged in Amur because of its rarity, is unusually high. “You can surmise from this that people are intentionally setting fires in order to be able to log this pine and sell it abroad,” says Andreiev. So instead, this year the authorities have added a fee to exporting pine that makes it unprofitable to sell abroad. This seems to be working, says Andreiev.