The Economist, 1998
All the reasons for preserving the world’s tropical rainforests also apply to Russia’s endless conifers. So do most of the reasons for destroying them. Many of those conifers, however, might yet be saved. Dense forests of pine, spruce and birch alternative with bogs, rivers and lakes .Bears and wolves lurk in the thickets and white-tailed eagles circle above the forest canopy.
Throughout much of the world, particularly in the tropics, such virginal forests are in retreat. Yet, though many other aspects of Russia’s environmental record are abysmal, and its economy looks more third world than first, the country has managed to hold on to more trees than anywhere else on earth (see table). They stretch from the Finnish border all the way to Sakhalin by land near Japan, and the area they cover has remained roughly constant over the past decade.
Whether the next decade will see such a happy constancy remains unknown.
But it is just possible that Russia will not follow the profligate path taken by countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Thailand, and will treat its forests as something to be conserved and harvested, rather than mined. If it does so, the world may have much to thank it for.
Total forest areas, km² m
United States Nordic countries
The tropics of the north
Russia’s forests are environmentally important for a number of familiar reasons. Though the taiga, the endless vista of conifers as is known, is not as rich in species as the average tropical forest, it is still an important reserve of biodiversity. Studies in north-west Russia, for example, show that forests there harbour many more species of animal and plant than the heavily managed woodlands of nearby Scandinavia.
Besides, not all Russian forests are coniferous. The Amur-Sakhalin region of Russia’s Far East contains temperate, deciduous woodlands which escaped glaciation during the last ice age. As a result they formed a refuge for pre-ice-age wildlife, and they still contain a dazzling array of the sort of animals, such as Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, that make naturalists reach for their field glasses.
For those unconcerned with natural history, the taiga and its neighbouring board-leafed forests also have a more practical role. They help to regulate the word’s climate by acting as “sinks” for carbon dioxide. As Russia’s trees grow, they store an estimated 500 m tones of carbon a year - 75% of all the carbon locked up by the world’s coniferous forests. (The destruction of tropical forests, by contrast, releases 1.600 m tones of carbon into the atmosphere each year.) If as is widely suspected carbon dioxide is the chief culprit in global warming, cutting down the taiga would significantly accelerate the process.
The taiga also displays another parallel with the tropical forests - people actually live there and had lived there for thousands of years before the chaps with the chain-saws arrived. Some 190.000 “aboriginal” forest dwellers still hunt, fish, gather fruits and herd reindeer among Russia’s trees, and these people do not necessarily want their homeland demolished around them (particularly, as frequently happens elsewhere, with no compensation and a fair degree of violence).
That their homeland has survived so well over the past decade has been due more to luck than good judgment. Partly it is because Russian forests, unlike those in many tropical countries, are not being invaded by armies of landless farmers. Even if Russian forest land were suitable for farming (and much of it is not), one of the characteristics that Russia does not share with developing tropical countries is a rapidly growing population looking for somewhere to live.
What has really postponed the taiga’s destruction, though is the legacy of Soviet central planning. The powers-that-were built most of the country’s pulp and paper mills to the west of the Ural mountains that divide European Russia from Siberia even though 80% of the trees are to the east of them. To overcome the discrepancy, the government then subsided the energy and transport needed to haul logs from the latter to the former. When the subsides collapsed along with the Soviet Union, so did the industry. Only 88.5m cubic meters of timber were sold last year - a quarter of the figure in 1988. The question to the now existing country’s fledgeling environmental movement is whether the past decade’s postponement of deforestation can be turned into a sensible management regime that will allow logging to be carried out in a more eco-friendly way than has happened in the tropics.
A useful legacy from Soviet times is a better-than-average system of forestry regulation. This system, which is mostly respected, limits the area of land that forestry firms are allowed to clear-cut. Many Siberian forests, for example, are completely protected by this system because they lie on soils, known as permafrost that are frozen all year round. Felling trees opens the permafrost to sunlight, melting it and creating swamps where trees cannot regrow.
The Soviet Union with its love of science, also built up an internationally respected community of forest scientists. Some 30 forest-research institutes are spread across the country and though finance has dropped sharply (by as much as 75% in many cases ), and a number of prominent researchers have left, hundreds of scientists still study everything from tree genetics to resin tapping, providing an invaluable base for both the conservation and the exploitation of the taiga.
I Explain the following. Quote the sentence in which the word/ word combination occurs. Ask a question with the word/words. Translate the word/words into Russian.
spruce heavily managed woodlands
to be in retreat broad-leafed forest
abysmal the power-that-were
profligate path pulp and paper mills
to harvest discrepancy
to mine fledgling environmental movement
II Answer the following questions.
1. What are the 2 reasons of a greater luck of Russian forests as compared with tropical rainforests?
2. What are instances of a useful legacy from Soviet times in forestry?
3. How much carbon is stored in Russian forests a year?
4. How much is released through the destruction of tropical forests?
5. Why does felling trees on permafrost endanger the eco-system?
III Give the summary of the text.