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Editorial: Boreal forests

The boreal forests, encircling the northern tip of the globe, cover an area of some 920 million ha, or 29 percent of the world's total forest area. Thus. they are one of the largest ecosystems; by way of comparison, the closed forests of the tropics cover some 1170 ha.

The word "boreal" comes from Boreas, the personification of the north wind in Greek mythology. Significantly. however. the Greeks also associated Boreas with fertility and growth. The boreal forests are. and always have been, a resource that is uniquely suited to the very harsh environments in which they play a major economic, social and ecological role. They are a principal source of timber for national and international markets. They are a habitat for both animals and humans, an important pool of genetic resources and, almost certainly, a significant factor in the determination of global climatic stability.

The boreal forests of the world fall entirely within the borders of Russia (more than 70 percent of the total), Canada, the United States (exclusively in Alaska) and the Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden). Conservation. management and use of the boreal forests varies widely from country to country. Much of the boreal forest area in the Nordic countries has been under active management since the early part of the twentieth century. In Canada and Russia, until very recently the boreal forest resource was considered limitless and was therefore mined rather than managed. In Canada, much attention has now been directed toward sustainable forest management. In Russia. however. the changing political situation, the continuing uncertainty over who will own and control the country's forest resources, and the outdated and inefficient infrastructure represent large, unanswered questions. In this respect, the parallels between the challenges that tropical countries face in developing their forest resources on a sustainable basis and those in store for Russia are striking and thought - provoking. Another important area for consideration is the actual and potential impact of airborne pollutants on the boreal forests.

This issue of Unasylva examines the special challenges and opportunities represented by the boreal forests. Dr K. Kuusela, professor emeritus of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, presents an overview of the boreal forests - considering resources and ecological balance, conservation. management and utilization - and sets out some of the issues relate d to their management in the future including the challenges of anthropogenic impacts.

In a second article, Dr Kuusela discusses the changing role of fire in the dynamics of Finland's boreal forests. In this article a paradox becomes apparent: the elimination of fire (a natural part of the ecology of the boreal zone) in an attempt to conserve the forests can lead instead to their decay.

The interrelationship between the boreal forests and global climate is poorly understood, and often even virtually ignored. Discussions about global warming tend to focus on the need to conserve tropical rain forests, yet the boreal forests undoubtedly have a large role to play. In an attempt to broaden understanding in this area and to permit forecasts to be made on a broad and long-term basis, there has been an upsurge in work on development of predictive computer models. The article by H.H. Shugart and T.M. Smith, of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, discusses work by an international team of experts to develop a global computer model designed to predict boreal forest dynamics in response to environmental change.

Our ability to manage the boreal forests of today and to forecast their possible future depends to a large extent on an understanding of the past. The current vegetation of the boreal forests has been developing since the end of the last ice age, approximately 10000 years ago. G.M. Mac Donald of Mc Master University in Hamilton, Canada, explains how fossil pollen records from lakes and bogs provide a means of monitoring long-term historic changes in boreal forests, and discusses the implications of the data in terms of the dynamics of species distribution and genetic diversity.

Considerations of the role of the boreal forests at the global level must not overshadow their importance for the people who live in and depend directly on the forests. L. Lauzon discusses integrated forest management by indigenous peoples, tribal leaders and forestry officials in Quebec, Canada.

In an independent article, I.L. Eastin, A. Addae-Mensah and J. de-Graft Yartey examine the impact of European consumer boycotts of tropical timber on the Ghanaian timber industry, as perceived by the managing directors of 52 sawmills in Ghana.

This issue of Unasylva also contains a pair of articles dealing with forest management in India. It is unusual, given our mandate for geographical balance, for Unasylva to publish two articles on the same country in a single issue. However, these articles, dealing with farm forestry and people's participation in reforestation of degraded state lands, form a complementary and stimulating whole.

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