Oct 9, 2014

Russia, which holds a fifth of the planet's forests, could run out of wood.

It seems unfeasible that Russia, which holds a fifth of the planet's forests, could run out of wood.

And yet it is happening, at least with commercially usable forests, environmental analysts say.

The Russian logging industry will face lack of harvestable timber in 10 to 20 years, a short time by the standards of an industry naturally tied to slow tree growth cycles, according to their consensus.

"We are already past the point of no return," Konstantin Kobyakov, who oversees the protection of high conservation value forest at WWF Russia, told The Moscow Times.

To keep the logging industry on the rails, Russia needs to go from extensive to intensive forest management — i.e. from clearing forests once and moving to new territories to replanting them, industry players and officials agree.

But the process requires massive reform and multibillion-dollar investment that would take decades to recoup — neither of which is likely to materialize anytime soon, given Russia's flagging economy and dismally unstable investment climate.

"No one needs a crisis, but it looks like that is the only way we'll learn," Kobyakov said in a telephone interview earlier this month.

Too Far for Business

Russia had about 8.8 million square kilometers of forests as of 2010, according to a 2012 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.

This is 20 percent of the world's total and more than any other country. Brazil is second with some 5.1 million square kilometers.

But Russia only accounted for some 4 percent of the global logging output, the FAO study said.

Easily accessible forests in Russia are shrinking rapidly, said Artyom Savko, a spokesman for Ilim Group, Russia's biggest papermaker with an annual output of 2.6 million tons.

The Russian logging industry was thriving from the 1940s through the 1970s, mainly on forest reserves in the central European part of the country.

But those reserves are long depleted. In the northwestern Republic of Karelia, a former hotbed of the industry that housed more than a hundred logging settlements, only two such villages survive.

Russia's main sources of timber now are in Siberia, the Far East and the country's European North.

But the cost of shipping timber across hundreds and thousands of kilometers of roadless terrain can be too high to render logging profitable in large parts of those regions, said Savko, whose company's business is centered in the Arkhangelsk and Leningrad regions of northern European Russia and the Irkutsk region of eastern Siberia.

Russia lost about 10 percent of its remaining virgin forest in 2000-13, according to a study by Moscow-based NGO Transparent World.

Some forests cleared between 1940 and 1970 have actually regrown enough to be cleared again, said WWF's Kobyakov. But those offer mostly aspen or birch — which, despite being considered the archetypal national tree in Russia, is subpar timber compared with many conifers, which are in increasingly short supply, experts said.

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