Forestry and uncontrolled fires destroyed 1.5 million football fields of Russian strictly protected boreal forests just in 20 years

A new study clarifies uncertainties surrounding strictly protected areas in Russia and shows that logging and wildfires are the drivers of deforestation even where they should not happen

Although forest degradation, logging, and wildfires are well-known major threats for tropical forests, they also affect boreal forests and significantly contribute to global greenhouse gases emission. In Russia, taiga preserves biodiversity, hosts endemic species, stores carbon and is inhabited by indigenous people. Russian forests contain, above and belowground, almost 50% of the northern hemisphere’s terrestrial carbon. Nonetheless, during the last years, large areas of Russian boreal forests have been damaged by different factors, mainly by logging and fires, which led to significant forest loss even in protected areas as shown by new research.

Official sources attribute the huge loss of forests in Russia to wildfires and suggest that their fluctuation is due to climatic anomalies, although it was proved that more than 87% of fires in boreal Russia are started by humans. However, in strictly protected areas no forest management and logging activities should be evident. Nonetheless, a preliminary study published early this year in the journal Science of the Total Environment with the provocative title “The smokescreen of Russia protected areas” ( showed that, also in the two-hundred Russian conservation areas with the highest protection, more than 2Mha of trees have been lost between 2001 and 2018. The research led by Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, formerly at the Biological Institute of the Tomsk State University in Russia and now an associate professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, aimed to understand how Russian protected areas effectively contribute to biological conservation and are able to reduce forest loss within their borders. For the first time, the scientists analysed the longest time-series available at that time (2001-2018) of forest loss and fires in 200 Russian protected areas where no human activity (and impact) should be allowed. Despite this preliminary evidence, a relevant percentage of the actual drivers of tree loss in Russian strictly protected areas was surrounded by uncertainties due to several factors. Now, in a new study by Cazzolla Gatti and colleagues (Cazzolla Gatti R, Velichevksaya A, Simeone L., Sustainability. 2021; 13(24):13774., in an attempt to “clarify the smokescreen of Russian protected areas”, by validating previous remotely sensed data with new high-resolution satellite imagery and aerial images of land-use change, scientist shed more light on what has happened during the last 20 years. They used the same layer of tree loss (update up to 2020) but, instead of intersecting it with the MODIS data that could have been a source of underestimation of burned surfaces in the previous study, they overlapped it to the layer of tree cover loss by dominant drivers.

The follow-up study found that although fire is responsible for 75% of the loss in all strictly protected areas, forestry activities still account for 16%, and 9% of deforestation is due to undefined causes. Therefore, uncontrolled wildfires (including those started before or after logging) and forestry activities are the main causes of 91% of the total tree loss in the 200 Russian most conserved areas. The combination of wildfires (often started intentionally) and forestry activities (illegally or barely legally put in place) caused a loss of an astonishing 3 million hectares.

“We are alarmed – declared prof. Cazzolla Gatti – by the fact that ≈10% of Russian tree cover was lost in two decades since 2001 only in strictly protected areas. High attention should be deserved by policymakers and important conservation actions should be put in place to avoid losing other fundamental habitats and species during the next years when climate change and population growth can represent an additional trigger of an already dramatic situation”.

For instance, the researchers considered the special case of Lake Baikal, which ranked first in the previous study in terms of forest loss. Preliminary evidence showed that this World Heritage Site, established in 1996, only from 2001 to 2018, may have lost 79% of its canopy cover mainly because of other uncertain causes, which could not be detected by satellite sensors like MODIS. In the follow-up study prof. Cazzolla Gatti and colleagues clarified the uncertainties and found that although wildfires are still relevant and account for 66% of the forest loss, forestry activities (which, in a strictly protected area and a World Heritage Site, are unexpected) are responsible for 33% of the tree cover loss. An annual basis analysis of the loss by driver showed that wildfires took about 50% of the whole forest loss, but even in years of huge wildfires (e.g., 2015 and 2016), forestry activities were still relevant (e.g., in 2015 ≈22% of deforestation is attributable to forestry activities).

“With a more detailed analysis of the main drivers of tree loss in Russian strictly protected areas – continued prof. Cazzolla Gatti – we can confirm with higher confidence that although uncontrolled fires did exert a relevant role in reducing tree cover even in protected areas, forestry activities are still the second main and relevant driver”. In fact, the problem of uncontrolled wildfires does not seem a concern of local authorities because most of them burn remote areas where authorities are not obliged to take action. Nonetheless, Russian prosecutors confirmed that some of the enormous wildfires that burned Siberian forests in the last years were started deliberately by arsonists trying to conceal illegal logging activity.

“This means that in many cases wildfire and forestry may be the same driver (one the consequence of the other) of forest loss in Russian protected areas – concluded the Italian biologist. Therefore, we call for an urgent response by national and local authorities that should start actively fighting wildfires, arsonists, and loggers even in inhabited remote areas and particularly in those included in strictly protected areas”.

For more information: Cazzolla Gatti R, Velichevksaya A, Simeone L. Clarifying the Smokescreen of Russian Protected Areas.  Sustainability. 2021; 13(24):13774.