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Environment : Don't Paper Over Loss of Forest, Russian Activists Ask : They want Western consumers of wood products to help halt logging at the border with Finland.

June 13, 1995|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian environmentalists, dismayed by a government order approving extensive logging in one of Europe's last pristine old-growth forests, are asking for support from Western paper consumers in halting the project.

Even before the first tree has been cut in the old forest in the Republic of Karelia, along the Finnish border, environmentalists have found themselves in an archetypal struggle with local officials.

Sergei V. Tarkhov, director of a nature preserve inside the forest, sees calamity.

"Logging this forest will affect the entire climate of northwestern Russia, and I think it will also have a negative effect on Finland," he said, adding that the forest serves as a natural barrier to air pollution from industrialized areas.

"Is it really necessary to chop down this forest? There are so many others in Russia."

On the other hand, Anatoly A. Moiseyev, an aide to the prime minister of Karelia, sees the trees as a perishable resource to be exploited while there is still time.

"I agree trees are precious," he said. "They grow, grow and then die standing, meaning they go to rot. There is only a certain period in their life when we can cut them and sell the timber. . . .

"If the Greens want our forests to go into decay and rot away, then let them pay the damages," Moiseyev said. "We are not enemies to our republic and its ecology," he added, promising that the work will be done in a responsible manner.

But, complained Alexei Y. Grigoryev of the Social-Ecological Union, a Moscow-based environmental group, "Hundreds of species live in old trees and rotten trees. . . ."

The greenbelt currently destined for chain saws runs from Lake Ladoga near St. Petersburg about 560 miles north to the region of the White Sea. It ranges from 1 1/4 miles wide at its narrowest point to about 50 miles wide, includes hundreds of unspoiled lakes and is home to many vanishing species, including reindeer, elk and woodpeckers, Tarkhov and other ecologists say.

The remote forest has never been commercially logged but has been a strategic belt. With the advent of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, a 1 1/4-mile-wide strip of the forest along the Finnish border was made off-limits to Soviet citizens as part of the "protection zone" that rimmed the old Iron Curtain.

The forest, thick with pine perhaps more than 200 years old, is untouched, while forests elsewhere in the region, in Karelia and Finland, have been devastated. Between 1949 and 1989, for instance, more than 12 million acres of forest in Karelia were clear-cut, according to the Taiga Rescue Network, a Swedish-based environmental group. The Finnish side of the border has been so heavily logged that the dividing line between Russia and Finland is visible from space.

Russia has 20% of the world's forests, more than any nation in the world, including Brazil and Canada, yet it ranks only 47th in world paper production. Waste and inefficiency are legendary. For decades, timber was sold at well below Western market value--a practice that continues to a lesser degree today. Economic incentives to conservation are nil.

With the collapse of the Russian economy, annual timber production has fallen by about half in five years, to as little as 200 million cubic meters. However, according to the Taiga Rescue Network, that figure still means that up to 4,600 square miles of timber is being clear-cut every year, most of it in old-growth forest. Replanting programs are few.

Now Russian timber concessions are being granted to foreign companies, and the lure of fast, hard-currency lumber sales is cutting ever deeper into the woodlands. Russia's state pulp and paper company, Roslesprom, announced plans to increase output by 7% in 1995 and establish more contacts with foreign investors.

The Karelian forest, close to ports and the Finnish border, is especially lucrative because the cut logs can be cheaply transported to the West, and pressure to exploit the woodland is rising.

The controversial logging order was signed in May by Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. It allows the 1 1/4-mile former security strip along the Finnish border to be logged, removing up to 1 million cubic meters of wood each year for the next five years, although it was not clear where the cutting could take place.

The timber will probably be exported to Finland or Sweden, with some sold on the London commodities exchange, said Moiseyev, the Karelian official.

But the threat that bad publicity about Russian forestry practices could pose to their Western markets might give timber companies pause, opponents hope. Already a campaign by German consumers to buy only paper made from trees that have not been clear-cut has prompted at least one major Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer to promise to stop using wood from old-growth forests, said Grigoryev.

"We do not ask consumers to boycott, but we do want Western consumers to know which companies are environmentally friendly and which are not," he explained.

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