(CN) — Some of Europe’s last tracts of old-growth forest, left untouched for centuries due to their remoteness in the steep Carpathian Mountains of Romania, are being cut down, often by lucrative illegal logging operations, scientists and advocacy groups warn.
Researchers, journalists and advocates also report being the victims of intimidation, harassment and violence while seeking to document the logging.
Meanwhile, Romanian authorities are accused of corruption and logging operations of hiring criminal squads to protect their businesses. Romania, like other Eastern European countries, is wracked by widespread corruption.
The European Union is under pressure to do more to stop the clear-cutting and enforce EU rules that prohibit the degradation of old-growth forests. Romanian forestry authorities are accused of blocking conservation efforts and ignoring EU conservation laws.
“When it comes to forest, we are currently witnessing the most serious tragedy in Romania,” said Gabriel Schwaderer, head of the EuroNatur Foundation, a German environmental group, in a telephone interview.
In November, Romanians protested outside the European Commission offices in Brussels and demanded action.
“This is a wake-up call about the tragic environmental crisis that is destroying Romania’s virgin forests,” said Gabriel Paun, who runs Agent Green, a Romanian environmental group, in a statement at the time. Paun was beaten up in 2015 while investigating logging operations. “Their loss from logging is one of the biggest nature emergencies in the EU today,” he said.
Agent Green estimates that 38 million cubic meters of wood is logged every year: 20 million more than is officially permitted.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, is not standing by entirely. In 2015, the EU threatened Romania with legal action unless it cracks down on illegal logging and takes steps to better track where timber is harvested.
In an email, an EU official said the commission is monitoring Romania’s efforts to come into line with EU demands.
Environmentalists say much more needs to be done.
In a recent report, researchers with the Czech University of Life Sciences documented a sudden increase in heavy logging in the remote Fagaras Mountains, where centuries-old beech trees abound. These mountains are part of the Carpathian chain.
“New roads appeared, and large clear-cuts arose. More than one-meter-diameter trees, which were growing here for centuries, were logged for timber and firewood,” the report states.
The report includes photographs showing large tracts of forest reduced to stumps and logging roads plowed through the old forests.
“We thought nobody will ever cut these forests,” said Martin Mikoláš, one of the researchers. He has spent weeks in the remote Fagaras forests on research trips. “We are really losing the last primary forests in Europe in a very rapid way. These are the last wild places in Europe.”
He worries loggers will not be stopped in such remote mountains, though Romania has laws that could be applied to halt the timber harvests.
He also charged that Romanian forestry officials are underestimating the age of trees and wrongly classifying forests as not virgin woods, which means they are not covered by strict conservation rules.
Fern, a European environmental group, alleged in a recent report that clear-cutting was permitted by the government through the use of forged documents and corruption.
In the Fagaras, the old beech trees cut down contain lots of rotten wood, which makes them unsuitable to be used as building materials. This makes Mikoláš believe they end up as firewood and pulp for making paper.
“It’s really frustrating and depressing to see that the European Union can’t protect the last fragments of their own primary forests,” he said.
In fact, Romania’s entry into the EU in 2007 likely helped accelerate the cutting of these old forests. In a cruel twist, he said EU-sponsored billboards are found on some logging roads announcing that EU funds paid for the road construction.
Romania’s entry into the EU also opened up new markets for timber and major European timber companies moved into Romania after it joined the EU.
Clear-cut areas are supposed to be replanted with trees, but Mikoláš said, “You can never bring back these virgin forests; you will lose a lot of endangered species that will never find their home in any other place.”
Romania’s old-growth forests are considered extremely valuable natural places. They are home to brown bears, wolves and lynx, species which receive special protection in Europe.
In an email, the Romanian Ministry of Waters and Forests said it was closely monitoring illegal logging. But the agency said 2018 data show only 1 percent of Romania’s logging in national forests was done illegally. However, the agency did not provide data on illegal logging outside national parks.
Other official data from Romania show that up to one-half of the timber harvested in the country was cut illegally between 2008 and 2014.
In its email, the ministry said it was combating illegal logging with stiff penalties and by tracking timber sales through a national computer system in compliance with EU rules for tracing the origins of wood.
The ministry also said it has begun guarding tracts of forest without owners and offers incentives to private forest owners to entice them to not cut down trees illegally.
The agency denies that illegal logging takes place in the oldest and most precious forests.
“We can say that no illegal cuts were found in strict protection areas,” the agency said. “Therefore, if such information exists, it certainly does not have a real basis, this coming only from an environmental activist who does not know or does not want to respect the legal provisions in force.”
The ministry added that a new survey of virgin and quasi-virgin forests was to begin this year.
In the early 1900s, Romania had about 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres) of virgin forests, much of it beech, spruce and fir. By the 1950s, the communist state had nationalized the forests and opened up most of the country to logging. Since the fall of communism, the Romanian government has encouraged large-scale logging.
A 2004 inventory found about 218,000 hectares (538,000 acres) of virgin forest still remained in Romania, mostly in the southern Carpathian Mountains.
Experts and advocacy groups say between 100,000 and 200,000 hectares (247,000 to 494,000 acres) of virgin forest remain in Romania, most of it in national parks and conservation areas.
But Fern, the environmental group, reports that only one of Romania’s 13 national parks abides by International Union of Conservation Networks criteria. Under those criteria, 75 percent of an area should be protected from logging and other destructive activities.
Environmentalists want the Romanian government to impose a moratorium on logging of old-growth and primeval forests on state-owned lands. They also want Romania’s national parks to adopt guidelines to ensure that 75 percent of the land in a national park is protected.
But environmentalists are not hopeful that Romania on its own will change.
“The current government is not changing; they are denying the problem,” said Schwaderer of the EuroNatur Foundation. He said Romania’s forest minister appeared before the European Parliament this year and denied that logging of old-growth forests was happening.
“He said, ‘This is not true. The media are making a case, but it’s not the reality. If there is a problem, it is in the private forests,’” Schwaderer said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)