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Romania: New inventory reveals huge and threatened natural forest treasure

EuroNatur and Agent Green: Europe needs to do its homework and halt forest destruction in Romania

While Europe is shocked about the forest destruction in the Amazon, central Europe’s largest natural forests in Romania are vanishing due to logging. EuroNatur Foundation submitted a comprehensive inventory of the valuable forest stocks of Romania: PRIMOFARO (PRIMary and Old growth Forest Areas of Romania). 

The results are promising – and concerning: Romania still host more than 525.000 hectares of potential old growth and virgin forests, more than any other EU member state (outside Scandinavia). But the analysis also reveals that forest destruction moves ahead quickly.

At least on paper, two thirds – more than 330.000 hectares – of Romania’s natural and virgin forests are protected, because they are already part of the EU Natura 2000 network (which includes all national parks). But most of these forests lack any effective protection. Only 6 per cent of these forests have been listed with the Romanian „National Catalogue of Virgin Forests“so far. This programme grants protection only to those forests that comply with the strictest virgin forest criteria. Other natural forests are left without any protection. As a consequence, logging in Natura 2000 sites and national parks is omnipresent.

PRIMOFARO also shows that almost 50 percent of Romania’s virgin forests, which were identified in 2005 as part of a comprehensive inventory of virgin forests, are degraded or destroyed already.

„We intentionally looked beyond the narrow scope of ‚virgin forests’ and tried to identify high biological and climate value forests in Romania. Around 8 percent of Romania’s forests are still potentially in a very natural status. They are somehow the European equivalent of the Amazon forest. Thus they all deserve special protection,“ PRIMOFARO co-author Matthias Schickhofer underlines.

„Europe needs to act together to preserve the outstanding natural heritage of Romania. We expect that Romania respects international law and fully comply with Natura 2000 legislation: Natura 2000 protected natural forests on state property have to be protected by the governmental action immediately. Financial compensation, which must also be supported by the EU, is indispensable for private natural and virgin forest areas,“ Gabriel Schwaderer, Executive Director of EuroNatur Foundation says.

While the Romanian government kept conservationists busy with a bureaucratic burdens in conjunction with the ‚Virgin Forests Catalogue‘, 10.000s of hectares of natural forests in Natura 2000 sites and national parks were destroyed. EU legislation obliges us to protect all forests in good conservation status, not just a few virgin forest museums,“ Gabriel Paun, president of Agent Green explains.

EuroNatur Foundation and Agent Green call on the European Union and on Romania to take urgent action to save this „European equivalent of the Amazon natural forest“ and to ensure that Natura 2000 legislation is enforced in Romania. It was only on 10 September 2019 that EuroNatur, Agent Green and Client Earth submitted an EU complaint about systematic violations of EU forestry legislation by the Romanian state.

Background information

Link to the study: PRIMOFARO REPORT

The main results of the PRIMOFARO inventory:
– The analysis constitutes the biggest cluster of potential close-to-nature (old-growth and primary) forest in an EU country outside Scandinavia: 525,632 hectares of untouched or semi-natural forests, home to many strictly protected species.
– 332,844 hectares (63%) are located within Natura 2000 sites, 81,716 hectares of which are additionally protected as national parks. Even in these protected areas, natural forests are not safe from deforestation.
– However, only 116,589 hectares (or 55 percent) of the 2005 so called Pin Matra inventory still appear to be in an intact status.

Methodology of PRIMOFARO:
The PRIMOFARO digital map is based upon detailed visual analyses of satellite images, applying science based criteria to distinguish between natural forest stands and production forest. The analyses was calibrated by use of images of example areas and during several field visits (over the course of more than 2 years) and by data provision from partnering primary forest research projects (REMOTE project led by University of Prague and a forest mapping project led by Forsthochschule Rottenburg, financed by Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt).

The findings were validated during several field trips and by an evaluation of PRIMOFARO digital maps against historical CORONA satellite images. CORONA are espionage images created by the US Army in the 1960ties. Only 2% of the initial data sets showed signs of logging in the 1960ties (roads logging areas). These polygons were excluded from the PRIMOFARO digital map.

So far, the Romanian forest protection program („Virgin Forest Catalogue“) almost exclusively is focused at protection of „virgin forests“, which are defined by rather strict identification criteria, laid down in Ministerial Orders. These criteria have been applied in a very restrictive way and the registration process is scandalously slow.,

This leds to exclusion of numerous natural and virgin and even many virgin forests of international importance are still unprotected and acutely threatened by logging.. As a result, a large number of primary forests with international significance are not protected and are under threat of logging.

In addition, the EU Nature Directives do not restrict conservation obligations to „virgin“ forests only. The Habitats and the Birds Directives bind EU member states of ensure avoidance of deterioration and degradation of habitats in good conservation status. Romania widely fails or implements this EU legislation.
Primary forests and old growth forests

The PRIMOFARO inventory identifies potential “primary forests” (according to the Romanian definition), but also „old growth forests“ which were probably influenced by humans in a very extensive way or long time ago. Both, old growth and primary forests harbor rich biodiversity (like: hermit beetles, alpine longhorn beetles, bats, woodpeckers, owls, capercaillies, bears, lynxes, etc.) and capture large amounts of carbon.

Use of historical declassified satellite images (US Army, CORONA, 1060-ties) to validate the PRIMOFARO digital map.
Fagaras Mountains region – the biggest cluster of (potential) old growth and primary forests in Romania.
Many important primary forests in Romania still lack any protection. Like the wild valley of Boia Mica – one of Europe’s most outstanding wild wonders.

Primary forest research in Romania’s Fagaras Mountains compromised by logging

Primary forest research project REMOTE calls for urgent protection of high nature and science value forests in Romania

In late December 2018, the REMOTE project  (REsearch on MOuntain TEmperate Primary Forests) published a worrying report highlighting immediate threats to their outstanding primary forest research program in the Fagaras Mountains in the Romanian Carpathians.

The Fagaras mountains, the highest in Romania, host the “largest areas of primary forests in the entire EU“, the report explains. Scientists from the Czech Republic and Slovakia estimate a total surface of primary forest of about 10,000 hectares in the region. In addition, further extensive areas are covered by other valuable natural forests, which “connect primary forest localities into larger complexes of high naturalness“. Therefore, the Fagaras Mountains deserve “special attention and conservation“.

REMOTE project: biggest primary forest research
The REMOTE research project is one of the biggest dendrochronological primary forest research programs in the world. It is a long-term international research collaboration, led by the Department of Forest Ecology (Faculty of Forestry and Wood Sciences at Czech University of Life Sciences) in Prague. This comprehensive scientific research program started in 2010. The project is based on a network of permanent sample plots (defined research areas) over a large range of primary forests in nine countries in central, eastern, and southeastern Europe.

The main research goals are to conduct “spatial and temporal analyses focusing on various aspects of disturbance regimes in primary forests” and to perform “dendrochronological studies”. In other words: the scientists measure impacts of disturbances (such as wind breaks, insect outbreaks etc.) on untouched forests over a long period of time and they collect data about past tree growth based on tree rings from individual trees.
Such studies have never been undertaken on this scale and over such a large geographic range and their database is one of the largest on this topic in the world.

Primary forest research to inform sustainable forest management
The REMOTE project aims to understand natural dynamics and then help to develop sustainable forest management practices – which will produce wood, but also sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Several hundreds of permanent study plots have been established and are evaluated over a long period of time. Data is collected and compared periodically during exhausting field trips into the wild and remote forests. The project delivers a better scientific understanding of change dynamics of primary forests over a long period of time. The data includes measurements of changes in forests structure, habitats of rare species and measurements of individual tree growth. The project has established a database containing thousands of individual trees.

In the Fagaras mountains, approximatley 200 research plots have been established in eleven remote valleys. The scientists have identified several primary forest areas over 1000 hectares. Such primary forest valleys no longer exist anywhere else in the temperate climate zone of the EU. They are critical habitat for many protected species – including bears, lynx, wolves, capercaillie, owls, woodpeckers and saproxylic beetles.

Gallery: REMOTE project research works in Fagaras mountains


Europe’s wildest mountain valley: Boia Mică in southern Fagaras
One of the most outstanding primary forest valleys is Boia Mică which covers 1,145 ha with an altitudinal difference of 1,670m over a distance of 7.5 km. The valley is completely pristine: there isn’t even a path. “This is probably one of the oldest forests of Romania: We measured 37 trees older than 300 years, 10 trees older than 400 years, and 1 tree older than 500 years on only 14 randomly selected study plots in Boia Mică,“ REMOTE coordinator Martin Mikoláš reports.

REMOTE project researchers found an extraordinary concentration of very old trees in Boia Mica valley – with numerous beech trees older than 400 years.
Boia Mica: No path leads into the wilderness.

High science and nature value forests under immediate logging threat

The project findings highlight the value of this unique and huge complex of primary forests. Primary forests are not only of high value for scientists and biodiversity – they also help protect the climate by storing large amounts of carbon, they are important for water cycle regulation and stabilize mountain’s slopes. Once they are destroyed, it will take hundreds of years to regenerate, in particular in high mountains.

“Primary forests and natural forests are so rare, that we need to prevent any further loss. Not only in tropics, but also in Europe,” Martin Mikoláš explains.

In the past, these wild forests were protected by default through their inaccessibility. But this is changing rapidly: forest roads and logging are moving into the valleys, even into the heart of Natura 2000 sites. Some of their first plots have been destroyed together with the surrounding forest. Forest “management“ in Fagaras mountains so far has been including very large clear cuts destroying the entire landscape along with the complete loss of high conservation value habitats. The scientists therefore urge for stricter protection.


Logging in unmapped primary spruce forest in Ucea Mare valley.

Incomplete primary forest mapping, bureaucratic obstacles and inconsistent preservation 

WWF Romania had previously pursued some mapping of primary forests in Fagaras. They identified thousands of hectares of primary forests, in particular in some northern valleys. However, the REMOTE scientists detected more primary forests which have clearly not been included in the WWF mapping. One main problem is that the criteria for identification of primary forest are extremely strict and can easily exclude important forest.

Overview Arpaselu, Arpasul, Ucea Mare and Ucisoara valleys: not all primary forest stands have not been mapped yet. White polygons: mapped by WWF, red polygons: unmapped primary forest, green dots: permanent study plots.
Primary spruce stands in Sambata valley with permanent study plots: not mapped, not protected.

WWF Romania has been developing numerous studies about primary forests in order to include them in the “National Catalogue of Virgin Forests“ for strict protection. But there are several problems connected to this official Romanian “virgin forest“ protection program: forest management plans often underestimate the average age of forest parcels. As a consequence, authorities sometimes do not accept those forests than as a “virgin forest“. The management plans also often allow cutting in parts of forest parcels. Once these cuts are done, the forest parcel is compromised and authorities do reject the inclusion of the forest as a “virgin forest“, including remaining intact stands.

Even within already mapped polygons logging occurs, because owners did not accept protection. In Belia valley for instance, a large clearcut (20 hectares) and several kilometers of new forest roads cut now through primary forests.

Furthermore, it takes a long time until the submitted forest areas are included in the “Catalogue“ due in part to year-long bureaucratic approval procedures with authorities.

At this stage – according to WWF Romania, Greenpeace Romania and Foundation Conservation Carpathia – between 3 and 5 thousand hectares in Fagaras mountains have been inscribed in the „Catalogue“ (Link). But there are additionally between 6 and 7 thousand hectares of primary and virgin forest more and they are under serious threat as long as they are not included.

Gallery: Many primary forests in Fagaras mountains have been excluded from mapping (and protection) so far. Thus, REMOTE permanent study plots are under threat…


Offense against researchers during a regular hike
In the summer of 2018, the scientists spent several weeks in the wilderness of Fagaras mountains. As they returned from a hike to primary forests they found their car (parked outside a barrier) damaged with deliberately punctured tyres.
This is worrisome to the scientists – what will come next?
Their research work is based upon official permits.

According to media and NGO reports Illegal logging seems to be present in many areas in Romania. Attracting more international tourists are a key economic perspective of many remote areas in the Carpathians. Attacks against foreigner visitors will certainly hamper this option severely.

Comprehensive protection of larger forest areas is key
The REMOTE scientists conclude that action must be taken now to halt the loss of these internationally important primary forests. They  point out that it is crucial to avoid creating a fragmented system of protected forests – surrounded by heavy logging. In order to preserve the ecological integrity of these forest habitats (and their inhabiting species) the comprehensive protection of larger, connected forest ecosystems is needed. Therefore protection should also include natural forests which do not meet the strict legal definition of “virgin forests“ in Romania to create a better connected network of non intervention areas.

Only the protection of larger forest landscapes will prevent the Fagaras mountains from ending up like other degraded forests everywhere else in Europe: isolated, fragments of natural forests disconnected by large areas with industrial forestry – including clear cuts and even aged monocultures and non natural tree crops.

This kind of degraded landscape does not preserve our natural heritage but also damages the ecosystems so far that ecosystem services will no longer be provided.

To read the full Fagaras Rreport (by Martin Mikoláš and Ondrej Kameniar), please click here.

More reading?  Report “Where are Europe’s last primary forests?”

You can help to help to protect the largest complex of primary forests within the temperate zone of the EU- the Fagaras Mountains – and other natural forests in Romania: please sign our petition and forward this story to friends!

Destroyed permanent study plot in Ucisoara valley: help to save these unique forests and the important REMOTE research work!
Ancient world of Arpasul valley: wilderness of this quality has been almost extinct in Europe. Please help to preserve it!


45 NGOs criticizing FAO’s promotion of intensified forest use

Open NGO letter on FAO’s International Day of Forests 2017: political push to  increase the use of forests as fuel for energy production is based on flawed science…

The FAO and the Collaborative Partnership on Forests have chosen to use the International Day of Forests 2017 to promote the use of wood for energy, calling forests “nature’s power house”. As the key messages of the day point out, forests are a traditional source of energy but are also considered to be the world’s biggest source of renewable energy.

Unfortunately, this message ignores the serious negative impacts of growing bioenergy use on the environment, local communities, people’s health, the climate and, of course, our forests. The ongoing political push to significantly increase the use of forests as fuel for energy production – as an attempt to mitigate climate change – is based on flawed science and can create more problems than solutions.

In particular, the dramatic increase in the use of wood in industrial-scale energy installations is already contributing to greater climate pollution and forest destruction – and Europe is leading the way. The EU’s existing renewable energy targets are expected to create demand for roughly 100 million cubic meters more of wood to be used for energy,1 which in turn will significantly reduce the capacity of forests to sequester and store carbon2.

Large-scale demand for wood fuel energy can never be met by “wood wastes” alone – an industry claim that has been repeatedly debunked. …

Read more: Open Letter_Day of Forests

Large scale clearcutting of old growth forest. Semenic area, Romania.