By Stephen McGrath
Home to the largest proportion of old-growth forests in Europe, Romania has over the past few months become mired in a violent battle between forest defenders and those who want to steal wood from the country’s forests. Encompassing around 7 million hectares of forest cover, around half a million of which are old-growth, Romania’s forests support Europe’s biggest brown bear population, as well as other large mammals such as wolves and lynx.
The death of two forest rangers in the twilight of 2019, both killed while protecting state-owned forests, led to street protests and brought the country’s logging debate into sharp focus.
Gabriel Paun, of environmental NGO Agent Green, is perhaps one of Romania’s most prolific campaigners on the topic. He has spent decades fighting to save his country’s forests. He now believes that he has concocted a much-needed, long-term solution to managing production forests in Romania.
“This is a result of my travels all around the world, to all continents,” says Paun. “It’s the vision for all production forests in Romania that are not in protected areas.”
Paun’s project, called “Forever Forest,” is essentially a half-dozen page guide about how to manage a production forest – cultivated for its timber – that puts nature and natural methods at its heart.
Among other things, the Forever Forest scheme “Must enrich the natural biodiversity, mitigate climate change, increase welfare of local communities, contribute to the national economy, and ensure the recreation function of the forest for everyone.”
While the management criteria (or guidelines) can sound idealistic (in an industrialised world, at least), pragmatism is essentially at its core. Paun, who has studied forest ecology, says that he “consulted many forestry workers around the world” to strengthen the scheme.
On the technical side, rules to maintain a Forever Forest include: clear-cutting will never be permitted. “In all forests, selective single tree harvesting is the only logging practice allowed,” the guidelines suggest.
Additionally, “At least 10% of the standing volume of trees in the managed forests must remain forever as snags, nest trees, biotope trees, or other functional habitats of specific species.”
There are multiple guidelines on the technicalities of forest management in the six-page document, which also states some of the advantages to implementing the Forever Forest management concept.
“Wood mass production, and the commercial value of the harvested timber should increase. Mature trees gain more wood mass and more valuable timber than younger trees,” is among a list of advantages.
But the debate is not just about profits. As Paun notes, an important component which is missing from Romania’s logging debate is that, essentially, of the future.
“In the context of combating climate change, there is no better way to preserve biodiversity,” he says, going on to say that forests act as a natural carbon storage system.
Humankind is indeed living through a time of unprecedented change and degradation of the natural environment, which scientists admit is being brought about by climate change. Idealistic and pragmatic measures may be the only way to avert catastrophic changes in the not-so-distant future.
Paun is standing at the perimeter of a certified Forever Forest in Transylvania, which is owned by the adjacent Zabola Estate.
“In this forest natural processes prevail,” Paun says standing next to the Forever Forest sign, which briefly explains the concept.
A part of the sign reads: “Wild animal and humans have a harmonic coexistence.”
Sightings of numerous large brown bears in this forest twenty minutes earlier, confirm such statements.
It is at this example of a Forever Forest that the recently-appointed environment minister, Costel Alexe, came to meet Paun and the rangers who manage it. Alexe was appointed around the time that people were being murdered for defending the country’s trees. He has expressed support to combat illegal logging and improve forest management.
Paun says that the minister liked what he saw at Zabola. “After, he [Alexe] said ‘we could start implementing this [Forever Forest management] in some of Romania’s forests.’”
According to Paun, they are now in the stage of selecting around 1% of state-owned forests in Romania to be potentially managed in line with the Forever Forest concept.
The new environment minister has so far said all the right things to quell the concerns of environmental campaigners.
“The new Minister is showing signs of understanding the problem of illegal logging,” says Ciprian Gal of Greenpeace Romania. “He has publicly declared numerous times that in his mandate the SUMAL (wood traceability system) will be implemented.”
However, as Gal points out, the current government does not have a parliamentary majority and elections are set for later this year. Newfound hope could be short-lived.
“We are very cautious about our expectations. So far, we are witnessing a lot of talk (positive statements from the Minister) but not so much results and implementation,” he adds.