LEADER OF THE PACK: Surrounded by future foresters, Lars-George Hedlund attends to replanting the forests.
RIGA - With the natural look and feel of Latvia’s greenery fading away as more and more forests fall under the management of government and private owners, and statistics that show logging today is as intensive as it was in 1995 – when private owners who got back their land headed out to the woods in droves with their chainsaws – environmentalists have every right to be concerned as they warn that state forest management oversight is unsustainable and is itself spoiling the country’s ecosystem.
With much of the country’s forests under management, it is understandable when the greens worry that they are not truly functioning as naturally developing ecosystems.
The UN’s General Assembly, in a resolution, declared 2011 the International Year of Forests and invited governments, the United Nations organization, relevant non-governmental organizations, the private sector and other players to make concerted efforts to raise awareness at all levels to strengthen sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests, says the United Nations on its Web site.
Forests are an important part of the ecosystem and economy: they reduce air pollution, are an important source of raw materials for industry, provide fuel for heating and cooking, deliver timber and non-timber products for construction materials and furniture, and its pulp can be turned into paper.
Natural forest produce such as berries, herbs, tree sap and resins, and oils are a source of natural medicines. Forests are home to vast numbers of different animal species, as well as support a diversity of flowers, plants and other undergrowth. Therefore, if man is to interfere with nature, it must be done in a proper, non-harmful way.
“If we look at history in 1920, the land reform created thousands of new land owners, people started to run agriculture actively and a big part of forest land was converted to agriculture land. But in the 1940s and ’50s Soviets ran agriculture only in big fields and the forests started to grow again in small fields. Right now Latvia has double the amount of forests it had sixty or seventy years ago,” says Lars-George Hedlund, an experienced Swedish forester who has been working in Latvia since 1992.
Latvia’s State Register of Forests (SRF) shows that the total forest area today covers 2,961,222 hectares. This forest cover makes up 50.2 percent of the total land area. Considering that for Europe as a whole, the average figure for forest cover is 33 percent, Latvia is among the countries richest, per capita, in forest resources. In terms of who owns this green gold, 50.4 percent are state-owned, with the balance owned by companies and private individuals.
“Twenty-five percent of the forests managed by LVM [Latvia’s State Forests] are protected: 20 percent is managed with the main goal of increasing biodiversity, with the other 5 percent for social goals or recreation, and 75 percent of the territory, or about 1.2 million hectares, is used for economic purposes. The biggest owners are the city of Riga, which has 56,000 hectares of forests, and a few big private forest owners from Scandinavia,” said Tomass Kotovics, Latvian State Forests’ head of communication.
Two years ago the government made a decision to allow an additional 2 million cubic meters of cutting in the state forests, a seemingly large volume.
Latvian state forests are divided into 350 forest management planning units, with each unit covering 3,000 hectares. “In logging we use a seven year cycle; that means combining different work, such as planning, building or reconstructing drainage systems and other facilities, building roads, felling, cleaning, reforesting, harvesting and so on. One unit is 3,000 hectares and we cut maybe in 10 or 15 places, so the distance between logging areas is one or two kilometers. Before the management changes, every year we would cut trees in much larger territories. Right now we are going to one unit and cutting all that we normally would cut in seven years in different places, year by year. For the next seven years we won’t come back to that unit, but will go to another. That’s the way to save fossil fuel and not use all the trucks and other machinery, and it is not so big a disturbance for nature,” explained Kotovics.
Are forests in Latvia managed well, according to the UN’s mandate? Not according to some.
The greens are worried about the new state forest management procedure. They say that LVM concentrates cutting areas too close to each other. They call this “optimization of the work, but this seems to be passing the principles of sustainable management,” says Dagnis Dubrovskis, dean at Latvia’s University of Agriculture.
“LVM are not saying everything that they are really doing. The information which Latvian State Forests is giving is misleading; they are cutting forests in a not sustainable way. For example, in recently designated forest management units, in which the final felling is declared to be once every seven years, there are a lot of activities before and after, bringing serious disturbances to the forest ecosystem. They are building roads to reach the cutting areas, preparing, cutting, planting, doing the first thinning of new plantations, which means a huge disturbance every year. Of course, there are areas without disturbances for some period of time, but even protected sites suffer from the disturbances,” said Janis Priednieks, associate professor of the University of Latvia and a representative of the Latvian Fund for Nature in the Forest Advisory Council.
After felling, in two to three years forests begin the reforest action process naturally. Reforestation can be done through the planting of seedlings as well.
“The annual growth in the state forests is 12 million cubic meters per year; in all Latvian forests it is 25 million cubic meters. In state forests the cut is between 4, to about 8 or 9, million cubic meters per year, so this is well under the growth rate. Last year the cut was 7.8 million cubic meters; this year it will be about 6.9 million cubic meters. We worked our way out of the crisis by cutting a little bit more in the forests and kept all the companies employed,” said Kotovics.
Every year Latvian State Forests takes out one percent of its forests, in all forest area. Technically, that means 100 percent of the trees every one hundred years. Nonetheless, “After final felling it is compulsory to plant new trees,” said Hedlund.
Conifers dominate slightly in the Latvian forests. However, a considerable share is also taken by broadleaf species. Conifer-dominated stands account for 55 percent of the total, with the share of birch at 30 percent, grey alder at 7 percent, and aspen at 4 percent. “To full size, the pine takes one hundred years; spruce grows in eighty years; birch in sixty; alder and aspen take forty years. We are mostly logging according to age. We have a big reserve of old forests; they are older than the cutting age,” notes Kotovics.
Loggers want to take out these old stands, considering the size and volume of board-feet available with each skyscraping tree. Pine, for example, can reach the age of three or four hundred years - the oldest pine in Latvia is 470 years old - but pines are ready to be logged when they reach the age of 100 years.
Old stands have more value than for just commercial needs. “Keeping the old stands and dead wood is also very important for some insects, fungi and bird species, like woodpeckers, because they can not survive in forest stands without this. The black stork nests are found only in very old trees, but the trees in commercial forests are cut long before they are naturally old,” said Priednieks.
Cutting down the forests is only part of the UN mandate’s concern. Where and when felling activity is done also affects the sustainability of the forest ecosystem.
The most harmful felling is in spring and summer, especially during the months of April, May and June, when birds are breeding. “For example, the capercaillie and black stork, which are endangered species in Latvia, and also the 3,000 breeding pairs of the Lesser Spotted Eagles, which are protected in the EU, during the period of disturbance are much more vulnerable. Disturbances come in a wide range: noise reaches long distances and is one of most serious threats to natural wildlife during the breeding season,” he cautions.
Despite the image of the loggers cutting down large swathes of Latvia’s forests, leaving a desert landscape in their wake, European Union studies show that forests in Latvia are quite well protected. Furthermore, Latvia has one of the strictest forestry laws in Europe. It also complies with Green FSC, PEFC and ISO certifications. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures a credible link between sustainable use, responsible production and consumption of forest products, and enables consumers and businesses to make decisions that benefit people and the environment. The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is a certification system for small forest owners including family- and community-owned forests. PEFC promotes Sustainable Forest Management through independent third-party certification.
International Organization for Standardization sets standards in environmental management as well. These standards cover a wide range of topics, from basic management, labeling of items, performance evaluation and auditing.
“Foresters should get the certificates; there are many restrictions and it is hard to keep a permit, which allows for logging. Also, before cutting a tree it is needed to take an inventory of the forests,” maintained Hedlund.
The Forestry Law provides penalties for improper conduct in forests. For cutting trees without a permit, people could receive criminal penalties. “There have been such cases in Latvia; a person got five years in prison for illegally cutting 500 cubic meters of forest. If somebody cuts a tree illegally in a state forest, he would have to pay three times the price of the timber,” warned Kotovics.
The loggers should use selective logging much more often and keep old stands off limits; in addition, the greens are trying to compromise by calling for leaving at least 10 cubic meters of deadwood on the ground per one hectar in logging areas after final logging. “It would be much better to leave 20 or 30, or even 50 cubic meters, per one hectar, which is common for natural forests,“ said Janis Priednieks.
The World Wide Fund for Nature says that average forests in Europe have less than 5 percent of the deadwood expected in natural conditions. The removal of decaying timber from the forest floor is one of the main threats to the survival of nearly a third of forest dwelling species and is directly connected to the long red list of endangered species. Increasing the amount of deadwood in managed forests and allowing natural dynamics in forest protected areas would be a major contribution in sustaining Europe’s biodiversity.
In international and European political processes, deadwood is increasingly being accepted as a key indicator of naturalness in forest ecosystems. Governments which have recognized the need to preserve the range of forest values and are committed to these processes can help reverse the current decline in forest biodiversity.
Summing up the battle being waged by nature lovers on the one hand, and industry on the other, Priednieks states that “The fight for a better Forestry Law is a very high priority, because forests are our future.”
Hedlund believes that the Forestry Law now, after being expanded, is very effective.
With discussions in parliament to change the Forestry Law - the Ministry of Agriculture wants to decrease the age of cutting for aspens, for example, from 40 to 30 years - some still aren’t yet satisfied.
The International Year of Forests 2011 is a good start in pointing to where the problems in forest management are, and in getting all interested parties in coming together to work to protect the resouce for all to benefit from it. Latvia seems to be doing its part in implementing sustainable forestry management; it has one of the strictest Forest Laws on the books and is discussing new Forest Acts in order to be even more responsible. After all, everyone stands to benefit with better forests around us, because without these ‘green lungs’ of the earth, we’ll all find breathing a bit more difficult.