Romanian national parks and forest at risk

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Pristine old growth beech forest in Radoteasa valley in the heart of Romania’s Domogled - Valea Cernei national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site (buffer zone). This forest is not protected at all currently. [Matthias Schickhofer]

Romania hosts the largest remains of natural and old growth forests in the whole of the EU. However, they are not on the safe side yet, writes Luc Bas.

Luc Bas is the European director for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The new Global Assessment report by the “World Biodiversity Council” (IPBES) makes clear that we are not just facing a dangerous climate breakdown but also a critical ecosystem crisis.

Both crises are unfortunately mutually reinforcing the pathway to possible collapse but action to tackle these urgencies can also work hand in hand to strengthen nature and reduce CO2 emissions. The IPBES report tells us we need to become much more serious about nature and ecosystem protection, everywhere on this planet.

This is also a key for Europe, where on the one hand nature protection legislation is leading edge, but pristine nature is still under pressure. Europe is a continent with strong impacts by human-induced land use changes in the past.

Therefore there are not many intact natural landscapes left. These relatively tiny natural leftovers – such as our last few free-flowing rivers or natural forests – deserve even more conservation efforts.

It is clear the EU will not meet most of the 2020 targets in its Biodiversity Strategy. This is greatly unsatisfying. Europe has been leading with positive action before but it seems the sense of urgency is not reflected at the moment and there is a need for much more straightforward action.

Europe needs to do its homework and comprehensively protect the last remains of pristine nature much better. The most outstanding nature refuge areas such as vast remains of old growth and primary forests in the Carpathians, especially in Romania, and the Balkan rivers may not be traded for short term profit. We clearly reached a crossroad and we are the last generation who can make a real change.

I had the privilege to visit some of Romania’s primary forests last autumn, together with conservation experts. Romania hosts the largest remains of natural and old growth forests in the whole of the EU. What I saw there was truly of a unique character.

However, I witnessed that these highly valuable forests are not on the safe side yet. In the heart of Domogled – Valea Cernei national park (which is also part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site) I found myself on a muddy logging road with huge piles of large, recently logged beech veteran trees.

The road there was only built in 2017. With permission by authorities, as I learned. And I realised that this intensive logging in the park’s large “buffer zone” (up to 70%) is considered as being “normal“ and legal by the park administration.

IUCN-guidelines state clearly, that national parks are “large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes.” The “primary objective” is “to protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, and to promote education and recreation.”

Economic activities should be limited to tourism and “subsistence resource use” by local communities, “in so far as these will not adversely affect the primary management objective”.

What I have seen in this Romanian national park does not even come close to these guidelines. This is unsettling and raising severe concerns. Conservationists keep on criticizing, that intensive forest exploitation is progressively threatening old growth and primary forest stands in numerous protected areas in Romania, such as national parks and Natura 2000 sites.

This has to ring an alarm in wider Europe. These forests are undisputedly a key component of Europe’s prime natural patrimony. Which also means that the EU needs to properly compensate the local population for any loss from restricted use.

Romania is concluding its EU presidency and hosted a large number of events in the country. Europe is looking at Romania. This must be seen as a historical opportunity to initiate solutions for the conservation of these incredible forests.

The alarming findings of the IPBES report need to be taken seriously. Within Europe, this means: Comprehensive protection of Europe’s last large intact ecosystems needs to move up in the political ranking of issues of importance.

Romania’s outstanding forest heritage has to become a priority for nature conservation in Europe and the Romanian Government. The EU and local actors need to work together to achieve maximum protection taking into account social aspects of sustainable use of this pristine nature.

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