Russian forests at the beginning of the third millennium: Status and trends

Anatoly Shvidenko 1


Huge scale and inherent resource and ecological properties define the global importance of Russian forests. In spite of the serious shortcomings in forest management in the Russian Federation2 during recent decades, which have resulted in the deterioration of forests in a number of major populated regions of the country and in insufficient use and protection of forests, this unique natural resource demonstrates amazing vitality and natural restoration ability. Russian forests continue to serve as a powerful stabilizer of the global environment and a potential source of diverse forest products, particularly coniferous wood. However, the country's current socio-economic situation, increased anthropogenic pressure and expected dramatic climatic change in Northern Eurasia generate urgent needs for the transition to sustainable forest management, which would take into account the multiple inexhaustible uses of forests and the need to evolve forward-looking forest management strategies in order to mitigate the consequences of global climate change.


Several distinguishing features define the specific role of Russian forests in the contemporary world.

In this analysis we use Russian definitions of the major land cover forest categories. All territories managed by forest authorities constitute forest fund (FF), which was 1178.6 × 106 ha in 1998. The FF is divided into forest lands (FL), i.e. territories designated for forests, and non-forest lands (NFL). FL have two major components: closed forests, or forested areas (FA), and unforested areas (UFA), i.e. lands temporarily not covered by forests (burnt and dead stands, sparse forests, unregenerated harvested areas, etc.). NFL basically include unproductive areas (bogs, rocks, etc.). The Russian definition of FL is very close to the FAO definition of forests used in FRA 2000 (FAO, 2000). More details about the technical definitions used in this paper can be found in Shvidenko and Goldammer (2001).

The current state of Russian forests and recent developments

The first aggregated data on all Russian forests, based on a complete inventory over the entire country (the State Forest Account [SFA]), were reported in 1961. During 1961-1998, the SFA data were updated about every five years. The methods and specifics of Russian forest inventory, accuracy of data, etc., are considered in Shvidenko and Nilsson (2002).

Russian forests (FL cover 51.6% and FA cover 45.3% of the total land area of the country [FFS, 1999]) are mostly (95%) situated in the taiga zone, which defines their inherent properties and major aggregated characteristics. The boreal zone is dominated by coniferous species (70.7% of FA) and softwood deciduous species (16.7%). Relatively small areas (2.4%) are covered by hardwood deciduous species. These three groups of forests constitute the main forest-forming species (89.7% of FA). Shrubs (basically Pinus pumila) dominate the remaining FA in territories where "high forests" cannot grow because of severe climatic conditions. There is low biodiversity at the species level (six dominant species cover about 85% of FA), but a high ecological plasticity and adaptability of species (e.g. pine- and birch-dominated forests occur in all bioclimatic zones, from the tundra to semi-desert and desert).

The spatial distribution, species composition and productivity of forests are very irregular over the country. A quarter of the forests are situated in European Russia (where about three-quarters of the population resides), and the remaining three-quarters are in Asian Russia. The percentage of forest cover varies from more than 80% to 2-6% in the steppe regions of the European part. About 45% of the country's forests are mountain forests. The average age of forest stands is high (approximately 100 years for all forests, 115 for coniferous, 95 and 48 for hardwood and softwood deciduous, respectively). Nearly half of the FA (47%) are mature and overmature stands. A significant share of uneven-aged coniferous forests (from 40-80% for different species) is a typical feature of the taiga forests. By 1998, forests had accumulated about 82 billion m3 of stem wood. The large areas of northern forests of low productivity, and the wide occurrence of natural and human-induced disturbances, led to a relatively low average standing volume (105.7 m3/ha). However, significant areas of forests in central and southern parts of the forest zone consist of stands of high productivity with industrially important species.

Russian forests play an important economic, social and ecological role at local, regional, continental and global scales. The lives of about 20 million people are directly connected to forests: 8% of the active population is employed in the forest sector; the country's northern forests are a natural environment for 26 small indigenous nations. Many non-wood forest products and services (fruits and berries; medicinal plants; hunting; etc.) are an important source of life for the local populations. However, few reliable statistics were collected in the 1990s.

The forest is a major source of newly assimilated organic matter. FL comprise a significant amount of phytomass (35.6 Pg C in 1998, or 82% of all the phytomass of the country), dead vegetation organic matter (6.2 Pg C in above- and below-ground dead wood), and soil (12.6 Pg C in on-ground organic layer and 134.5 Pg C in the top layer of 1 m). The net primary production is estimated to be 2.02 Pg C/yr and during the last 40 years Russian FL on average served as a net sink of 0.43 ± 0.07 Pg C/yr, although inter-annual variability is very high - from about 0 to 0.7 Pg C/yr (Shvidenko and Nilsson, 2003).

Natural growth processes, impacts of forest management and disturbances characterized the dynamics of Russian forests in 1961-1998. The following major tendencies can be identified. The most important trend is the increase of FA by 78.7 × 106 ha (or 11.3%). This increase is a result of the decrease of UFA of 44.9 × 106 ha and a more precise identification of FA on newly inventoried areas, which resulted in the increase of FL by 33.8 × 106 ha. The areas of UFA, which are the consequences of disturbances (burnt areas, etc.), decreased twofold. However, there are evident tendencies of deterioration of forests in many large regions, in particular with intensive harvesting. On average, the areas of coniferous forests increased by 6.2%, but significant territories of indigenous coniferous forests were replaced by soft deciduous stands, whose areas increased by 16.8%. For instance, areas dominated by Pinus koraiensis in the Russian Far East decreased by about 20%, replaced by unused deciduous forests. Areas of young and middle-aged forests increased by about 20% owing to the same decrease of mature and over-mature stands, which was mainly due to harvest and disturbances. The total standing volume increased by 4.3 × 109 m3. The difference in the dynamics of standing volume in European and Asian Russia is dramatic: the European part (where more than two-thirds of the logging has been concentrated) increased by 5.8 × 109 m3, and the Asian part decreased by 1.5 × 109 m3. While most of the Russian forest inventory data are rather reliable, the standing volume of mature and over-mature stands is biased. An attempt to restore "the real dynamics" resulted in a change of standing volume by 12.5 × 109 m3. The reliability of this estimate has been corroborated by balancing the produced and consumed wood in Russian forests in 1961-1998; this analysis shows that 350-400 × 106 m3 of stem wood was lost annually due to stand-replacing disturbances, mostly fire in Asian Russia (Shvidenko and Nilsson, 2002).

Soviet forest management

The 75-year period of "soviet" forest management (1917-1992) left a contradictory heritage. Progress in some components of the forest sector was evident: an adequate system of forest inventory was developed; forest management was based on a clear understanding of the multifunctional role of forests (forests with a protective function now comprise 23% of Russian FF); forest science, education and legislation did not lag behind those of most developed countries; and serious attention was paid to the restoration and protection of forests in densely populated areas. Significant areas of forests were planted before the 1990s (with a peak at 0.7 × 106 ha/yr), but after this, areas of planted forests declined by 2.5 fold (0.24-0.21 × 106 ha in 1997-2002). The quality of plantations was low: of the 23.2 × 106 ha of forests planted during 1956-1997, only 17.3 × 106 ha were accounted as surviving in 1998 (FFS, 1999). At the same time, the insufficient basis of the national economy led to many shortcomings in forest use. Clear-felling was carried out with anti-ecological machinery, generally on large areas and in a destructive way. The most productive stands, situated near roads, were harvested the most and deciduous and low-quality wood was not usually used. Although actual logging has never exceeded the long-term norm of sustainable harvest (annual allowable cut, determined at the level of about 500 × 106 m3/yr for the last four decades), local "overharvest" was typical for many industrially developed regions of European Russia. For 1956-1997, 13.7 × 109 m3/yr of commercial wood was industrially harvested in Russian forests, which corresponds to 17 × 109 m3/yr of standing volume (including unaccounted consumption by the rural population). Harvested and burnt areas of coniferous species were usually replaced by softwood deciduous species. This resulted in the devaluation and deconcentration of exploitable forests on large areas. Paper and pulp enterprises and wood-processing technologies became more and more obsolete, and waste of wood (up to 50% of the harvested amount) was a typical feature of the soviet forest industry.

The impact of disturbances

About half of the Russian forests were and are unmanaged and industrially unused, and disturbances remain a major driving force of the dynamics in these territories. The major types of disturbances are wild fires, insect and disease outbreaks, industrial transformation of lands and industrial pollution. On average, between 10 and 20 × 106 ha of FF areas are affected annually by disturbances. Wild fire is the most significant disturbance of the boreal zone. In the northern forests on permafrost, intensive and frequent fires change sustainable functioning of natural landscapes and often lead to "green desertification", i.e. irreversible transformation of forests into bogs, shrubs or grasslands. In the southern and central parts of the zone, forest fires are the most dangerous environmental phenomena, causing dramatic economic losses with a strong negative ecological effect on forest ecosystems and biodiversity. About 60% of the total FF area of Russia is under fire protection. The extent and severity of fire has increased during recent decades. Losses caused by insects and diseases are estimated to be of the same magnitude as those caused by fire (see Isaev and Korovin, 1998). Official statistics report that the areas affected by biotic factors during the last 40 years extend from 1.5 to 3 × 106 ha to 5 to 10 × 106 ha annually. These data significantly underestimate the real picture.

Problems of the transition period (1992-2002) and prospects

The collapse of the soviet forest industry

The heavy economic and social crisis of the last decade has affected all components of the Russian forest sector. Forests remain a federal property, but the state budget did not cover even 50% of what was required to provide adequate support to inventory, research, restore and protect forests. Annually inventoried areas have decreased threefold during the last decade, and the obsolescence of forest inventory data has become critical.

The major economic problems of the forest sector have not been solved. Forest science and professional education are in deep decline. Forest fire protection is insufficient; for instance, the use of aviation was only 22-24% of the required level in 1999-2001. The soviet forest industry sector was destroyed. The production of major wood products dramatically decreased (in 1998, in comparison to 1988, wood removal was 22.0%, production of timber 21.9%, cellulose 38.4%, and paper 46.0%, Burdin et al., 2000). Currently, the Russian share of global wood removal is 3.2%, paper and paperboard production is 1.4%, wood-based panel production is 2.4%, etc. The average stumpage price across the country is probably the lowest in the world (US$0.83 per 1 m3 for rent forests and US$2.7 per 1 m3 of wood sold at auctions in 2002). The actual volume logged is about one-fifth of the annual allowable cut (22% in 2001), but the available resources of regions with developed infrastructure are nearly exhausted.

Virtually no new roads are being built, and from 1993 to 1998 alone 54 000 km of timber-carrying roads in European Russia became unfit for use. The depredation of forests has become even more evident than before. According to official sources, illegal harvest (in diverse forms) is negligible (within the limits of 1 million m3/yr in 2001 and 2002). But according to non-governmental organization data and other independent estimates, the amount of illegally harvested wood reached 10-30% in regions of basic logging, and in some export-oriented regions more than 50% of most valuable species and assortments (Sheingauz, 2001).

All these problems generate a paradoxical situation whereby the forest income of the world's biggest forest country does not meet the needs of adequate forest management, and the forest industry provides just 2.5% of GDP. The country has no clearly defined national forest policy. The latest reorganization of state forest management in Russia in 2000 (approximately the fifteenth of the last 85 years) terminated the Federal Forest Service as an independent governmental body, which has brought additional organizational and institutional problems.

Signs of improvement

The legislative and institutional reforms of the Russian forest sector during the last decade have been slow and often inconsequent and ineffective. However, the last two to three years have seen evidence of increasing political and social interest in forest problems and the forest sector. The government approved the Concept of Development of Forest Management in the Russian Federation for 2003-2010, and a new Forest Code is under consideration. Appropriate legislative decisions on forest concessions are currently being debated. These documents consider crucial legislative and institutional aspects of the Russian forest sector needed for the transition to a market-oriented economy and are destined to generate a solid economic basis for the Russian forest sector, to improve its governance and to increase its attractiveness for investments. A number of important decisions on the forest sector have been taken at the federal level (Program of forest inventory and planning for 2003-2010, Program of reforestation for 2002-2010, Strategy of development of the forest, pulp and paper and wood-working industries for the period to 2010, etc.). The budget for 2003 supposes a substantial financial increase for forest inventory and forest fire protection. Basic economic indicators of the forest industry sector have increased slightly in 1999-2002.

The above actions are more than timely, especially since the trend in forest fires and insect attacks appears to have worsened and the country currently lives in a changing climate, with rising temperatures and increasing instability of the regional climatic system. Large-scale disturbances during 1998-2002 decreased the annual forest carbon sink by about 30%. Some models predict that a major part of Russian forests will be completely destroyed in the twenty-first century by catastrophic natural disturbances with a probability close to 1.0 if major scenarios of climatic change for the Russian boreal zone are true, and the level of forest protection is not improved.


In general, recent environmental, social and economic developments have had a negative effect on Russian forests, although because of their resilience, these changes should not be irreversible. But because of the vast area of Russia's forests, their extent and condition are of considerable importance to the rest of the world and Russia's experience in forestry and forest management may be of interest to many other countries.

Russia's long-term experience in multisource and multiresource forest inventory could be useful in current international efforts of transition to forest inventories of a new type, which should account for all resource, ecological and social services of forests. Systematic, timely and reliable information derived from forest inventory is essential to policy development, identification and management of conservation areas, operative and strategic planning - including the preparation of national forest programmes - and to the practice of sustainable forest management. A number of important international commonalities (the need for systems to combine tasks, technologies and information flows from all types of inventories and forest monitoring; the need for ways for optimal fusion of on-the-ground measurements, remotely sensed data and regional ecological models; the relevance of an appropriate "internationalization" of national inventories in order to satisfy requirements of ongoing international processes and conventions, such as the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, FAO Forest Resources Assessment [FRA], the Convention on Biological Diversity, etc.) generate a solid basis for future productive cooperation between different countries. The need to agree on definitions and the feasibility and cost of collecting the necessary information remain important issues, although there has been evident progress owing to recent activities by FAO and other international institutions (FRA-2000, the process on harmonizing forest-related definitions, the Global Observation of Forest Cover programme, etc.).

Multi-sensor remote sensing systems and geographical information systems (GIS) are essential components of current and future forest inventories. Satellite-based sensors are able to contribute substantially to the reliable monitoring of the extent and conditions of forests and to improving systems of forest protection. Multi-layer GIS is a unique tool for practical implementation of sustainable forest management at landscape and regional levels. The potential synergism of combining international efforts in these fields is evident.

The landscape-ecosystem approach is an overall basis of sustainable forest management. Russia has advanced technology for optimizing landscape structure and extended experience in classification and spatial distribution of forests by functional destination. This could contribute to future international improvements and harmonizing of indicators of sustainable forest management (e.g. as part of the Montreal Process) and their links to forest inventory's scope in regional and eco-regional contexts, as well as to further theoretical and practical developments of the sustainable forest management paradigm.

Finally, Russia's experience emphasizes the need for increasing the political and social profile of national forests as a whole, and of setting political commitment to forest inventory as the basis for monitoring, assessment and reporting of the state of forest resources at national and wider scales.


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1 International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria.

2 The Russian Federation is hereafter referred to as Russia.