Lars Laestadius, Volha Roshchanka, Susan Minnemeyer and Isabel Munilla
Mapping less disturbed forest tracts, floodplain and bottomland ecosystems of intact river basins, naturally rare and unique forest communities, and rare and endangered plant species habitats -- to aid regional conservation strategies.
Primorsky Kray, also known as Primorye, hosts one of the most diverse forest ecosystems in Russia that protects a significant portion of the region's biodiversity. Its mixed broadleaf coniferous forests are the last remaining habitat for the Far East leopard and the Amur tiger. Historic and current development rates in the region raise questions, however, about the future conservation value of these forest ecosystems. Thus, a project was initiated to map high conservation value forests (HCVF) to aid regional conservation strategies and to update protected area systems.
The highest conservation priority should be given to those ecosystems that are most endangered: the least disturbed forests whose total area is decreasing with each passing year. In formulating a research plan, we discussed the following forest ecosystem categories:
Less disturbed forest tracts;
Floodplain and bottomland ecosystems of intact river basins;
Naturally rare and unique forest communities; and
Rare and endangered plant species habitats.
In mapping HCVF in Primorsky Kray, we focused on identifying forests important for the preservation of natural vegetation and its biodiversity. To a large extent, animal biodiversity would also be represented within these forest communities. Although this assumption might not hold true in each case, especially for large, mobile animal species, the survival of many animals depends on preserving natural vegetation and vegetation habitats. We did not consider the importance of forests in watershed protection and erosion control as well as cultural and social values in this analysis, since the identification of these elements requires a different approach and extensive fieldwork. Moreover, forest areas with different high conservation values often overlap.
An important aspect of this project was mapping less-fragmented forest territories. It was carried out in several steps. Step 1 used topographic information to exclude infrastructures from the territory of interest. The next step used remote sensing to identify infrastructure not present on available topographic maps, such as logging roads, clear-cuts, high-graded areas, areas converted to agricultural lands, mining areas, and other anthropogenic disturbances. As a separate agent, burned areas were also delineated and excluded from less-fragmented areas. Image interpretation was carried out using Landsat-7 ETM+ data and Landsat-5 TM data.
Independent mapping of core areas of the least transformed forests was carried out by simultaneously using topographic maps, forest inventory data, and satellite images. Least transformed forests were identified in all main forest formations of the region.
To locate less disturbed forest tracts, we combined the areas found to be least transformed with areas that were found to be least fragmented, identified clusters of candidate core areas and eliminated fragmented areas. In addition, floodplain and bottomland ecosystems of intact river basins, some rare forest communities, and known occurrences of rare plant species were mapped. All these kinds of HCVF, if protected together, could support the flora and vegetation diversity of Primorsky Kray.
The total area of HCVF identified (without intact forest landscapes) comprised 2.94 million hectares, or 17.8% of the region's area. The total area of rare forest communities’ was found to be almost 195 thousand hectares. Altogether, more than 1600 habitats of rare and endangered vascular plant species were identified.
The most endangered vegetation types, especially in comparison to the relatively small area they occupy, are Manchurian fir and mixed formations in the very south of the region. The next priority for protection is the largest identified less disturbed forest tracts.