‘Efforts against global warming will be pointless if we cut down Romanian primeval forests’

Europe’s last primeval forests are turning into timber factories

© Xander Stockmans

Primeval forest in the Făgăraș Mountains. Soils and trees of primeval forests are the best carbon sinks. If we cut them down, the carbon is released.

‘He’s about 300 years old and 25 meters long.’ Vasile points to the giant beech tree he dragged down the muddy forest road with his tractor. ‘When such a tree falls, the earth trembles. He was healthy, but old trees need to be replaced. My boss sells the wood to wood-processing companies.’

His boss is an influential mayor. ‘Yesterday he organised a party for policemen, foresters and civil servants,’ says Vasile. The man uses his contacts within the state forestry agency, Romsilva, to get the best plots at the auctions that Romsilva organises. He recruited the best workers from Maramureș, the province on the Ukrainian border six hundred kilometres from here.

Vasile is also from Maramureș, a region with a long logging tradition. He has worked in the forest since he was a child. The twenty hectares he is working in now are in Domogled National Park. This paradise in the southern Carpathians houses the last remnants of the primeval forests that covered Europe after the last ice age.

On 16 October, forester Liviu Pop was murdered while trying to prevent illegal logging in a private forest.

One hectare of such a forest retains the same amount of carbon that three hundred Europeans emit every year. If we don’t cut down these forests, six thousand Europeans will not have contributed to global warming. The carbon remains there for centuries. If we cut down these forests, all this carbon will end up in the atmosphere. Vasile doesn’t know that. He’s cutting down the trees that Romsilva marked and that his boss is paying him for. 

His government knows the European Green Deal is coming. To combat global warming, the new European Commission would put a stronger emphasis on protecting primeval forests as the best carbon sinks, better than plantations.

© Xander Stockmans

Vasile is working in Domogled National Park, near Unesco World Heritage. This paradise in the southern Carpathians houses the last remnants of the primeval forests that covered Europe after the last ice age. Trees as old as 300 years old are logged here.

Today, only four per cent of all forests in the European Union are in a wild, natural state. In 2005, the Royal Dutch Natural History Association, with the support of the Romanian government, charted that 218,000 hectares of completely untouched primeval forest remained in Romania.

Half of this was lost through logging, after Romania became a member of the EU in 2007. Demand for Romanian timber from Western European timber-processing companies increased exponentially. Intact primeval forest may retain carbon, but felled primeval forest yields euros.

Two months ago, a scientific study by the German foundation EuroNatur brought hope: there are still 525,632 hectares of natural forest in Romania. Not all of them untouched, but with unique ecosystems according to the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This half a million hectares of natural forest would store the carbon that more than 100 million Europeans emit in a year.

The Romanian government’s app shows that many of these primeval forests are still not included in strict non-intervention zones of national parks. But when the brand new Minister of Environment, Waters and Forests Costel Alexe took office at the beginning of November, he promised to place them all under strict protection.

In 2005, there were 218,000 hectares of pristine primeval forest left. Half was lost to logging after Romania became a member of the EU in 2007.

This would instantly make Romania a forerunner. The minister does say that the EU must compensate the lost income for the state treasury with subsidies. ‘If the European Commission commits to the subsidies, this will be the biggest step forward for nature conservation in Romania since 1989,’ says Gabriel Paun, director of the Romanian nature conservation organisation Agent Green. ‘Such compensation mechanisms will also have to be included in the Green Deal. This is the first test to hold the European Commission accountable.’

The video below is in Dutch.

World Heritage in Domogled

‘Sure, you can drive up there,’ Vasile says. We plod over mud roads dug out by tractors, which don’t suggest we’re on our way to paradise: Iauna Craiovei, Unesco World Heritage of ‘Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests’.

A truck from Romsilva drives down with a load of 15 cubic meters of beeches from a forest where the trees are on average 190 years old. This means that trees as old as 300 years are logged here. Alexandru Teleagă, an activist at Agent Green, immediately checks the permits. 

When we leave the path and walk into the wilderness, it becomes clear why this is a world heritage site. A river meanders through the bed, surrounded by thick beech trees of all shapes and sizes.

Further up the valley we end up on an eroded logging path. In the middle, there is a gorge up to one metre deep. ‘Excavated by rain and melting water that flows down because there are no trees left to absorb it,’ says Alexandru. 

© Xander Stockmans

Alexandru Teleagă, an activist with the Romanian conservation organisation Agent Green, in the Unesco Reserve in Domogled National Park: ‘They are obsessed with logging everywhere.’

The logging road ends up in a large void. Alexandru explains: ‘We are in the only unprotected area, in the middle of the reserve. Instead of preserving it, it was felled. See how obsessed they are with logging everywhere?’

We asked Romsilva what forest operations they’re applying here. ‘It’s the buffer zone of the Unesco Reserve. We are allowed to continue our usual forest operations there. The treatment is: conservation,’ says Romsilva director George Mihaelescu. This means they cut down the unhealthy trees. It might sound strange, but ‘conservation’ can lead to something that looks like a clear-cut. ‘We always do reforestation,’ explains Mihaela Nastase, head of the Protected Areas Department.

Last year, Unesco asked Romania to stop logging in buffer zones of Unesco reserves if this has an impact on natural processes. And at the end of November Unesco representatives visited the site to identify problems.

‘When all discussions are over, Unesco will only protect bushes and cut logs.’

‘Is clear-cut a “usual forest operation” that Unesco would allow?’ Alexandru asks. ‘The natural process is completely gone. The buffer zone is exactly the same primeval forest, with exactly the same ecological value as the Unesco part of the forest.’

Alexandru calls this demarcation ‘absurd’. However, it is based on an official agreement with WWF. ‘Then let Unesco experts tell us what “negative impact on natural processes” means,’ says Mihaela Nastase of Romsilva. 

The ancient beech forests of Europe are located in twelve countries. Because these countries will not reach a mutual agreement until 2024, Romsilva will continue logging operations here.

During our descent through the forest we see beech trees marked for logging everywhere. Wood production sites with young trees of the same age are replacing large areas of primeval forest with valuable ecosystems to combat global warming. ‘When all the discussions are over,’ Unesco will only protect bushes and cut logs,’ says Alexandru, slightly irritated.

© Xander Stockmans

On the left: forest protected as Unesco world heritage. On the right, there was exactly the same type of forest, which was only designated as a buffer zone.

In the same valley we visit a site where the primeval forest has already been replaced by production forest. A jumble of old and new logging roads runs criss-cross through the forest. The decayed billboard of the logging permit stands in a desolate void, next to a lonely, giant beech tree towering high above the saplings. ‘Reforestation is good, but not to replace primeval forests,’ says Alexandru. 

The internationally recognized IUCN says that at least 75 per cent of a national park must be under strict protection. The current park management plan for Domogled National Park only marks 48 per cent.

Moreover, most of that area is grassland on top of the mountain. ‘There isn’t a single tree there,’ says Alexandru. ‘They included the grassland in the strict protection in order to increase the percentage deceptively. But it means that only a small part of actual primeval forests in Domogled is protected.’

‘An ecological disaster is taking place in this national park.’

Alexandru shows all logging permits in Domogled National Park for 2020. Logging will go on everywhere. ‘They’re spreading like cancer. An ecological disaster is taking place in this national park.’

Agent Green sent a study to the local Forest Guard. The law requires the Forest Guard to check the study in the field, but he refused. Romsilva opened the plots for logging. That’s illegal,’ says Alexandru. ‘On November 6th, the judge cancelled the logging permits in fifteen intact beech plots. Not much, but it gives hope.’

Production unit 32’ in Semenic

In the Semenic National Park, just like Domogled close to the Serbian border, the sound of chainsaws echoes through the valley. Shortly afterwards: an awesome crack. ‘This is a logging area, you can’t come here,’ says one of the workers.

‘Why are you logging along a tourist trail in a nature reserve?’ we ask.
‘I don’t know if this is a nature reserve. I was just at the auction and we bought this plot. Everything is legal, checked by Bucharest. We cut down the sick trees. Why are you asking questions? And what are you doing with that camera?’

© Xander Stockmans

According to biologists from the state forestry agency Romsilva, this part of Semenic National Park is part of a protected area where all logging should be prohibited. The leadership of Romsilva thinks otherwise.

Semenic contains the most extensive primeval forest complex in the EU. When the workers take their lunch break, we can enter the logging area unnoticed. We see forbidden practices: logging with expired permits (which we could verify), stumps of felled trees showing healthy wood, unmarked trees logged – which could indicate illegal logging. Higher up, in an intact forest, all trees are marked for logging.

The tourist trail has been turned into an impassable mud pool excavated by tractor tracks, the forest into “production unit X Comarnic parcel 32”. The forest management plan says that parcel 32 can be logged this year. 

When we get back to the workers, three pairs of eyes stare suspiciously at us. Yet their presence in the Cheile Carasului nature reserve is more suspicious than ours. Romsilva was given European funds to draw up a park management plan, but did not accept any of the plans of their own biologists. ‘On the basis of scientific research, we arrived at a strict 48 per cent non-intervention zone, with Plot 32 included in the nature reserve,’ says Teodora Alina Sinculeț, one of those biologists. ‘The Scientific Council of the National Park approved our plan as early as 2013.’

Mihaela Nastase of Romsilva reacts: ‘We always refused those plans because the non-intervention zone was too large. Whole villages live off the logging.’ Deliberate blocking, says Sinculeț.

‘How can I stand by while my own employer vandalizes the park with barbaric logging?’

Romsilva eventually had to repay 80,000 euros to the EU budget and took Sinculeț to court to recover the money. ‘Romsilva lost all court cases,’ she says. ‘Last year I resigned. I did this dream job for fifteen years. But how can I stand by while my own employer vandalizes the park with barbaric logging? Biodiversity and the ecosystem are irreparably disturbed.’

National Park Semenic has not had a park management plan for fifteen years, even though an agreement with the Ministry obliged Romsilva to adopt one. The new government in Bucharest spoke of a breach of contract and wants to deprive Romsilva of the management of the national park.

‘We’ve convened a group of experts. The deadline is October 2020’, says Nastase. The logging in this nature reserve with primeval forests can continue for another year. 

Fairy-tale forest in Făgăraș 

The iconic peaks of the Făgăraș Mountains in central Romania rise impressively above us. ‘There, by that hole in the middle of the mountain, that’s where we’re going to climb,’ says Florin, an environmental scientist whose identity has to remain hidden for safety reasons.

As we drive along the forest road to the Ucea Mare valley, we see logged tree trunks everywhere. Oil flows into the mountain streams. We climb up through a fairy-tale forest with giant beeches and firs. And then suddenly: the last giant and behind it, emptiness. We are standing in the hole on the mountainside that we saw down below in the valley. ‘This is where Romsilva cut down a hundred hectares during ten years, almost 200 football fields,’ says Florin.

© Xander Stockmans

We climb up through a fairy-tale forest with giant beeches and spruces. And then suddenly: the last giant and behind it, emptiness. ‘Here Romsilva cut down a hundred hectares during ten years, almost 200 football fields.’

‘Large areas of old-growth forest disappear here,’ says forestry scientist Martin Mikoláš of the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague. Mikoláš heads the leading research project Remote Primary Forest. Their database of thousands of trees is among the best in the world.

‘Of all our plots in Central Europe, the forests in the Făgăraș Mountains are the wildest and most isolated. It is difficult to find another such area in the EU. But at the same time they are the worst protected in Europe,’ says Mikoláš. The Făgăraș Mountains are not a national park. 

Mikoláš’ surprise was great when one day in 2012 he returned to the forest plots in Ucea Mare only to see that Romsilva had started logging them. That was the beginning of the clear-cut mountainside where we are standing now. ‘In this primeval forest we found trees as old as 400 years old’, says Mikoláš. 

He explains the ecological consequences: ‘The trees in Ucea Mare have a biomass of 540 tonnes per hectare. All the carbon stored in it is released into the atmosphere when the trees are logged.’

‘The soils of primeval forests are also carbon sinks. For hundreds of years, dead trees decayed into the humus layer. The carbon stays there for another 200 years. One tree in a primeval forest can store carbon for up to eight hundred years. If you upturn such a soil to dig logging roads, all the carbon is released. That too is a disaster for global warming. It takes centuries for such a soil to recover.’

‘If you upturn the soil of a primeval forest to build logging roads, large amounts of carbon are released. That, too, is a catastrophe for global warming’.

As we climb down the steep logging road, we clamber over a mass of small stones and branches. ‘The ground absorbs much less rainwater as a result of the clearing,’ explains Mikoláš. ‘With heavy rain it turns into a stream that drags all kinds of material with it’.

Thousands of trucks loaded with logs came out of this forest. The carbon sink has been turned into timber and paper, and into money that goes to paying the wages of Romsilva-staff and the national budget of Romania.’ 

Mihaela Nastase commented during our interview at Romsilva’s headquarters in Bucharest: ‘This looks like a clear-cut. Send us the coordinates and we’ll check it out.’ We sent our drone images of 29 October 2019 with GPS coordinates to Romsilva. Director Mihaelescu replied: ‘The trees were dehydrated by an insect plague, so we extracted all the wood material’.

Mikoláš is stunned: ‘Even if a hundred hectares would be completely degraded by insects, which would surprise me, that doesn’t mean you have to cut everything down. On the tree rings we saw that, in the years 1742, 1868 and 1910, drastic natural changes took place here: storms, but also insect plagues. These natural disturbances give primeval forests their unique character. It recovers quickly. But that history has now been wiped out by humans.’

‘The only way to protect this primeval forest is to include it in the National Catalogue of Virgin Forests,’ says Mikoláš. The Romanian government established this list in 2016. It currently contains only 29,063 hectares of forest under strict protection. This is only one twentieth of what the EuroNatur study identified two months ago as worth protecting according to IUCN criteria.

In the Arpasul Valley, not far from Ucea Mare, we witness the wondrous fantasy of nature and the absurdity of human bureaucracy. A maple grows attached to a fir tree, young fir trees grow on dead stumps of a beech, roots grab in rocks, carpets of green moss crawl over trees and rocks. Mikoláš found a 412-year-old tree here.

© Xander Stockmans

In the Arpasul Valley we witness the wondrous fantasy of nature and the absurdity of human bureaucracy. Scientists found a 412-years-old tree here. But the forest was refused for the National Catalogue of Virgin Forests. It is not protected from logging.

But, in order to make a tourist trail safe, forest rangers cut more than five trees per hectare. “Too much human intervention”, no longer untouched, not protected from logging. ‘Sometimes local forest districts cut down some trees quickly so that the forest is no longer virgin’, writes EuroNatur. 

Mihalea Nastase of Romsilva points out that WWF agreed with these criteria. Mikoláš: ‘On paper, the National Catalogue looks like pioneering work, but the conditions are so strict that the primeval forest of Ucea Mare no longer stands a chance. As a result of the clear-cut, 10 per cent of the forest is gone. Even though 90 per cent is still intact, it can now be cut down completely’.

‘They sometimes refuse our forest plots in the Catalogue because, based on their management plans, they say that the trees are only 120 years old on average, while our samples prove conclusively that the average age is 250 years. In Romania, science has clearly less value than management plans and bureaucratic criteria’.

‘It will be a catalogue of the tiny primeval forest islands of Europe.’

Florin is one of the only Romanian scientists who have not yet given up the eternal fight against bureaucracy. In the field he investigates primeval forests to propose them for inclusion in the Catalogue. Of the 4500 hectares he mapped out, only 15 per cent were accepted.

In the car back home he cannot hide his cynicism: ‘The law is being manipulated. The National Catalogue was intended as an instrument of protection, but it became an instrument of destruction. It will be a catalogue of the tiny primeval forest islands of Europe.’

Făgăraş National Park?

In 2016, the Romanian government drew up a memorandum to turn Făgăraş into a national park. One year later everything was blocked. ‘Nostra Silva, the Romanian federation of forest and grassland owners, went to the villages and talked to the mayors. They then incited their population,’ says Florin. ‘They chose Conservation Carpathia as a target to get locals on the side of logging companies’. 

This Romanian foundation founded by a German couple is buying forests to protect them against logging. The goal is to return these forests to the public domain and turn the Carpathians into the ‘largest national park in Europe’. They want to include the Făgăraş Mountains in it. ‘Turning the Făgăraş Mountains into a national park does not automatically bring protection,’ says Florin. ‘Look at Domogled. And what’s more, it can put the locals up against nature conservation.’

In May 2019, the director of Conservation Carpathia met with local residents, farmers, forest owners and mayors. He was roasted: ‘No one ever came to give us anything! Everybody came and took! We will be obliged to sell our animals and leave our villages. Merkel wants to take away our forests!’

What bothers these people is that many international donations go to conservation, while they continue to live in underdeveloped areas. ‘So they become vulnerable to bribery and manipulation by the logging companies and mayors who take advantage of the corruption,’ says Florin. Rich nature with poor people: it doesn’t help conservation efforts. That is why Conservation Carpathia invests heavily in the economic development of local populations.

Maramureș: politically explosive images

Maramureș. The wood mafia dominates this region in north-western Romania. On October 16, forester Liviu Pop was murdered here while trying to prevent illegal logging in a private forest. Florin doesn’t want to stay here too long, because the presence of journalists is quickly noticed.

‘In Maramureș you are on your own. That was the police’s answer when I asked for protection during one of my investigations in a private forest’. Most of the forests in Maramureș, including those in the EU’s Natura 2000 protected areas, are privately owned.

A truck full of tree trunks turns onto the main road from a logging area behind which we can see logging in the distance. Behind a closed barrier two workers load logs on another truck. Florin doesn’t think it’s a good idea to talk to them. We can’t go into the forest either. That’s private property. But with a drone we can still see what’s happening behind the barrier.

© Xander Stockmans

Satellite images show that this clear-cut hill in Maramureș, on paper a protected EU Natura 2000 area, was still forest a few years ago.

The first images are shocking: one valley after another cut down, and no reforestation. ‘Romanian legislation allows a maximum of three hectares of clear-cut. Here, there are hundreds,’ says Florin. ‘The whole mountainside looks like the back of a tortured animal. Satellite images show that this forest was still there a year ago.’

We drive up to a logging road in the forest. The road crosses a river over which cut tree trunks were dragged. This is illegal. In the distance we hear the chainsaws. The drone reveals a network of logging roads through the forest.

This is politically explosive material: in 2011, the EU set itself the target of halting biodiversity loss in protected Natura 2000 areas by 2020. These images show total destruction, a few months before the deadline. With his drone, Florin collects evidence for a complaint to the European Commission. ‘On paper, the EU Habitats Directive protects these areas. Probably paper made of wood that came from here’, Florin laughs cynically.

‘While everyone is chattering about the definition of a primeval forest and the delimitation of non-intervention zones, companies just go on logging.’

The new European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, and Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans want to look at the failure of Natura 2000 protection.

‘Strict protection of primeval forests as a weapon in the fight against climate change and the biodiversity crisis is more effective’, says Slovak MEP Michal Wiezik. ‘This will have to feature prominently in the new European Commission’s Green Deal and Biodiversity Strategy 2030.’

Agent Green and EuroNatur demand an immediate moratorium on logging in all potential primary forests. Alexandru Teleagă: ‘While everyone is chattering about the definition of a primary forest and the delimitation of non-intervention zones, the machine keeps turning: Romsilva and private owners keep selling plots of primary forest, companies keep logging the trees.’

In the first six months of 2019, during the Romanian EU Presidency under the government of the Social Democrats, more than 15 million trees were logged, both outside and inside national parks. Eight soccer fields per hour. However, with its half a million hectares of unique natural forest, Romania can make a huge contribution to the EU’s goals of mitigating global warming and biodiversity loss. Which Romania we see appearing in the next five years is crucial for our future.

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