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Least of Old Growth Forests is in Europe

Logo_MRL_2011United Nations Organization (UN) has declared the 2011 year to be the International Year of Forests. Traditionally, in Slovakia, April is a month of forests. These all seem to be good reasons to resume the state of world’s forests and the state of the Slovak forests.

Some of the worlds statistics

According to the official statistics published by the FAO forests currently cover 31% of the earth. Although, the speed of deforestation has slow down in the past decade, it still remains alarmingly high. Approximately 13 million hectares of the world forest is annually logged and converted for other use or destroyed as a consequence of disasters. This area can be compared to the size of the former Czechoslovakia. The largest forest areas vanish in the South America, Africa, and the Southeast Asia and in the Oceania.

This decrease has been partly compensated by the increase of the forests in other worlds regions. Positive news represent numbers from Europe, where the annual rise of forests is 694 ha. Also in China, where there is an extensive re-forestation program carried out over 2,5 million hectares of the land is re-forested, which is more than the area of all forests of Slovakia.  Taking into account these numbers only, the annual average decrease of the world’s forests would be 5, 2 million hectares. However, the real issue of this statistics is whether the millions of hectares of the planted trees and establishing of the one-species culture forests can be really equalled to the diminishing primary forests - to the old growth forests.

In accordance to the FAO definition primary forests are forests of native tree species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed. The Slovak term "prales" for the old growth forest is quite fitting for this definition.

The area of the old growth forests is decreasing dramatically. Since the year 2000 over 40 million hectares of the old growth forests were destroyed. It is vital to realize that in general the old growth forests are the richest terrestrial ecosystems that cannot be so easily replaced. In accordance to the FAO data natural forest represent around 36% of the world’s forests. The most of them are preserved in the Latin and the South Americas, the least in Europe (excluding Russia), where less than 3% of the forests carry signs of the old growth forests. From this point of view, the European old growth forests can be considered the most precious and the most threatened.

Some of the Slovak statistics

According to the statistics, in Slovakia the total area of the forests has been slightly increasing during past decades. Forests covered area of 1 938 000 hectares in 2009. This would mean increase by approximately 175 000 hectares (10%) when comparing with the year 1950. However, the state of the old growth forests is a lot worse. Professor Š. Korpeľ (founder of the research of the old growth forests in Slovakia) estimated area of the old growth forests in Slovakia to be around 18 000 – 20 000 ha in 1988. The National Forestry Programme contains data from the year 2007 stating that in Slovakia there is 24 000 hectares of the old growth forests.  Based on the field mapping executed during years 2009 and 2010 it was identified 122 of the old growth forests sites with area of only 10 104 hectares, which would represent only 0,47% of all forests of Slovakia. This is significantly less than originally anticipated.

Even though, in case of the old growth forests in Slovakia these are a relatively small and isolated sites (average area is around 83 hectares) within Europe these are a very precious.  Their value stands up especially in comparison with the countries lying west of Slovakia. Their exceptionality was acknowledged by the fact that four of them (Stuzica, Rozok, Havesova, Vihorlat) form part of the series of the sites called “Carpathian Beech Forests”, which were in 2007 based on the joint Slovak - Ukraine project included into the UNESCO worlds heritage sites.

Threats and conservation of the old growth forests

Unfortunately, implementation of the project has proved that the old growth forests of Slovakia even nowadays remain threatened. This is due to some forestry activities that are currently planned even in the parts of the non managed protective forests which were not accessible in the past. A great danger is represented especially by the activities focused on so called “salvage of the spruce stands”. Within these activities is planned access into so far inaccessible parts of the Slovak mountains where subsequently forest management activities are undertaken. These activities include logging, use of chemicals against bark-beetle outbreaks, fire measurements etc., that cause damage to the old growth forests preserved in these previously inaccessible areas.

In connection with the above, it is necessary to note that the most of the old growth forests are situated within existing protected areas with various level of protection (68 is in the National Parks, 2 in the buffer zones, 24 in the Protected Landscape Areas, and 118 is included within the NATURA2000 network). However, the level of protection within Slovak National Parks and NATURA2000 network is not adequate as it still enables logging and other forestry management activities, execution of whose the sites are loosing their natural character. It is necessary, for conservation of the old growth forests to ensure non management status that is currently possible only in the areas with the 5th level of protection. Out of the total forests area of Slovakia strictly protected is only 6 925 ha, 68, 5%. Unfortunately, even in these cases there is no guarantee that these forests would be left to the natural processes. Increasingly, we are being confronted with the applications, from the state and non-state forest owners, for the exception for logging, for example for the reasons of the bark beetle outbreaks. Especially staggering is the fact that even the old growth forests included into the UNESCO heritage sites do not have guaranteed proper protection as they are being logged and their area is being diminished. This was proved during mapping of Vihorlat.

Conclusion

World’s old growth forests and old growth forests in Slovakia represent the most precious and at the same time the most endangered forest ecosystems and therefore they deserve appropriate protection. The year 2011 is the International Year of Forests. It would be more than symbolic if we could finally take steps forward that would forefend negative statistics of the old growth forests.

- jv -