This article is part of our special report Preserving biodiversity in Europe: Is sustainability the answer?.
Romania has the largest area of virgin forests in the whole of the EU. They are home to a large number of animal and plant species, including carnivores that disappeared from Western Europe long time ago, but many of the primaeval forests are now endangered by illegal logging.
The situation is dramatic enough to prompt Romania’s ultramarathon runner Andrei Roșu to highlight the problem on Facebook.
“Of course you feel helpless when you see such situations,” Roșu says in a short video filmed in the Șureanu Mountains, on the site of a former forest, now a meadow with tall grass strewn with tree stumps.
Roșu, known for participating in ultramarathons and Ironman competitions, ran the “Marathon of the unForests”, a solitary race organized by World Wildlife Fund Romania to draw attention to illegal logging. The WWF is trying to persuade the authorities to change logging legislation and reduce timber theft.
“What we can do is sign the petition initiated by WWF and further force the authorities, with the loud voice given by the strength of signatures, to change the law – the system of measuring and selling wood, to enforce more severe punishments and to actually enforce the legislation for those who illegally cut the trees,” said Roșu.
A 2018 Greenpeace report said whole swathes of Europe’s largest primaeval forest were being cut down in Romania.
But even if the legislation halts the deforestation of entire slopes, as has been done in the past, Romania still lacks an adequate system of guarding and evaluating forests, while the penalties for those who are caught stealing are modest. WWF Romania is calling for radical changes in forest protection and timber measurement to reduce illegal logging.
It is not surprising that the European Commission has opened an infringement procedure because the Romanian authorities have failed to stop the illegal wood harvesting, thus permitting the introduction of illegally cut logs on the European market.
”The national authorities have been unable to effectively check the operators and apply appropriate sanctions. Inconsistencies in the national legislation do not allow Romanian authorities to check large amounts of illegally harvested timber,” the Commission said in February 2020.
According to the National Forest Inventory (IFN), 38 million cubic meters of wood disappear from Romania’s forests each year. However, the National Institute of Statistics says the volume exploited by forest operators is less than 18 million cubic meters.
Lack of data
The discrepancy of 20 million cubic metres is interpreted by some organisations as the volume of illegal logging, but the calculation is not entirely correct, says Radu Melu, the national forest department manager with WWF Romania.
“The inventory is not targeting illegal logging, but aims to indicate a trend, an evolution of forests,” he says. “But even if the 38 million cubic meters were cut, compared to the current annual growth of the forest, given also by IFN, of 56 million cubic meters, we would still be in an area of forest sustainability, ” he pointed out.
Another problem, according to the WWF representative, is that “the logged forests are no longer ‘shaved’, but a large part of the timber cuts still remains in a shady area and untaxed”.
However, the recently appointed director of Romsilva, Teodor Țigan, insists that the forest area has actually increased in recent decades and has accused the NGOs of fighting for foreign interests, which drew fierce criticism from Mihai Goțiu, a parliamentarian from the liberal USR party.
“You were put in charge of Romsilva to fight with thieves, not with activists!” Goțiu wrote in a message on Facebook, in which he demanded Țigan’s resignation from the state-run company that manages almost half of Romania’s forests.
“We lose hundreds of millions of euros every year because of forest theft. Not to mention the related damage, almost impossible to quantify economically”, wrote Goțiu, a former journalist and longstanding activist for forest protection.
Yet, despite illegal logging, data from IFN shows an increase in the forested area compared to January 1990, to about seven million hectares.
“Forests are regenerating, and sometimes we also see them appear naturally in areas that were once pastures,” said WWF’s Mela.
Foresters, he explained, regenerate the forest according to a management plan based on tree age classes: “Biodiversity also means age biodiversity. The secret of biodiversity is given by a mosaic of ages in the forest, which allows the development of a wide range of species.”
Wild species under threat
The still-intact forest habitats in the Carpathian mountains in northern Romania are one of the last bastions of large carnivores in Europe. Romania is one of the very few European countries in which the bear, the wolf and the lynx have never disappeared.
But even if nature is working to help the forests, biodiversity is threatened by illegal logging. A recent ARTE documentary shows that loggers don’t shy away from national parks, like in the Valea Ursului [Bear Valley] in the Apuseni mountains.
“At first, the trees disappear, then the animals. Here, in Valea Ursului, after the logging, I have no longer seen any bear prints,” Horea Petrehuș, a representative of the Valori Superioare (Superior Values) NGO, said in the documentary.
Conversely, in Băile Tușnad, a spa resort on the other side of Transylvania, bears are a daily presence on the streets.
“From 6 pm we don’t leave the house anymore, you can only get out of here by car,” a resident told ProTV in June.
Problems with Natura 2000
The European Commission has opened another infringement procedure because Romania has not taken sufficient measures to manage its Natura 2000 network – a network of sites for the protection of species and habitats of European importance.
According to the Commission, Romania has so far not designated special conservation areas and has not generally and systematically set detailed site-specific conservation objectives and measures.
Moreover, some protected forest habitats have been lost within protected Natura 2000 sites, in breach of the Habitats and Birds Directives, the EU executive noted.
For the EU, the issue of biodiversity and environment protection is all the more important as they are the pillars of the Green Deal proposed by Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission. In May, the Commission adopted a new biodiversity strategy, proposing ambitious EU actions and commitments to combat the loss of biodiversity in Europe and worldwide.
“In addition to strictly protecting all remaining EU primary and old-growth forests, the EU must increase the quantity, quality and resilience of its forests, notably against fires, droughts, pests, diseases and other threats likely to increase with climate change,” the strategy states.
“To retain their function for both biodiversity and climate, all forests need to be preserved in good health. More resilient forests can support a more resilient economy. They also play an important role in providing materials, products and services, which are key for the circular bio-economy”, it reads.
The Commission will propose a new EU Forest Strategy in 2021 and develop guidelines for biodiversity-friendly practices in afforestation and reforestation, as well as support for closer-to-nature forestry.
In addition, it will further develop the Forest Information System for Europe (FISE), which will help to produce up-to-date assessments of the state of European forests and link all online forest data platforms in Europe. EU.
With that in mind, there is hope that more precise data on forests in Romania will soon become available, as well as accurate information on felling, legal or otherwise.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]