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Last Intact Forest Landscapes of Northern European Russia

with Alexey Yu. Yaroshenko, Peter V. Potapov, and Svetlana A. Turubanova (Greenpeace Russia). A joint publication of Greenpeace Russia and Global Forest Watch.

This first attempt at identifying boreal forest areas of minimal human disturbance (intact) using high-resolution satellite imagery reveals that only 14 percent or 32 million hectares of the boreal or northern forests of European Russia remain.

Executive Summary

Many people think of the Russian tiaga as an unlimited expanse of undisturbed nature. The main purpose of this study was to find out to which extent this notion is true -- to answer such questions as:

  • How should undisturbed nature be defined?
  • How can undisturbed natural landscapes be identified?
  • Where are the remaining intact natural landscapes?
  • What is the economic importance of these areas?
  • What is the level of threat?

European Russia, including the Ural mountains, was systematically studied in order to map remaining large intact natural forest landscapes. Large was defined as no smaller than 50,000 hectares in size and at least 10 kilometers in width. One might think of this minimum area as the size of a square with a side of 22 kilometers (although no natural areas are shaped in this way).

There were three reasons for the focus on large areas.

  • First, only sufficiently large areas are capable of conserving populations of large animals in their natural, undisturbed state, and of letting natural ecological processes -- such as fire, wind throw, etc. -- take their course.
  • Second, large undisturbed areas are important as a reference that helps in the understanding of already disturbed areas (the vast majority of forest landscapes).
  • Third, large intact areas are often comparatively cheap to conserve, as they tend to rely on remoteness and low productivity as their main sources of protection.

Forest landscapes were mapped. The reason for mapping landscapes instead of individual ecosystems is that the boreal forest is a natural mosaic of integrated ecosystems, such as forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and tree-less areas. Separating these ecosystems would not only be difficult but also artificial.

The goal was to find forest landscapes with a minimum of human disturbance. Two things must be realized:

  • that the boundary of human influence often is diffuse, and
  • that areas which are strictly free from human disturbance no longer remain.

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