Holding onto our Last Wild Areas | WWF
Holding onto our Last Wild Areas

Posted on 25 November 2019

WWF-CEE reported on progress conserving the greatest remaining areas of old-growth forest in Europe outside of Scandinavia and Russia
Conference on Wilderness and Old-Growth Forests in Europe, Bratislava, 20-21 November 2019
As she opened the international conference, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova said that next to climate change, we are facing a biodiversity and extinction crisis that underlines the need to preserve Europe’s last remaining wilderness and old-growth forests. Taking place ten years after former Czech President Vaclav Havel opened the first conference on wilderness in Europe in Prague, the meeting reviewed progress on conserving wilderness areas and old-growth forests (OGF) over the past decade, as well as opportunities and challenges going forward. For example, a number of initiatives have been launched to secure specifically identified wild areas and wilderness, and possibilities for “non-intervention management” (no human intervention, allowing nature to do her thing) of wilderness areas have been included in EU conservation policies.
In a video address, European Commission Environment Director General Daniel Calleja Crespo highlighted commitments by the new von der Leyen Commission and its plans for a European Green Deal and a new EU Biodiversity Strategy for conservation of wilderness and old-growth forests. French President Macron’s pledge to protect 10% of France’s land and sea area “in full naturalness” has given new encouragement to efforts across Europe to conserve natural areas.
Initial commitments have been followed by clarification of what old-growth forests actually are – that is, the formal and legal definitions -- and the process for determining this. This has been followed by a laborious process of identifying and documenting old-growth forests and ensuring that they are officially recognised and thus protected. On the occasion of the conference, WWF called on the Slovak Government to secure formal protection for 7,000 ha of identified old-growth forest areas as national nature reserves.
Old-growth forests in the Green Heart of Europe
WWF reported on progress conserving OGF across a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), which includes the greatest remaining areas of old-growth in Europe outside of Scandinavia and Russia. In the past decade, a number of governments in CEE, including Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine have committed to protecting their remaining areas of old-growth forests.
Thanks largely to the work of organisations like WWF, Prales in Slovakia, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Birdlife in Ukraine, and our partnership with IKEA, we have achieved quite detailed online maps of old-growth forests in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and at least parts of Ukraine. To date, we have identified and protected around 218,000 ha of virgin and old-growth forests in the region, and more than 200,000 ha of high conservation value forests (HCVF).
Fortunately, most of the areas identified are under state ownership, which has greatly facilitated their protection. But a smaller number are in private hands, and in these areas we have been facing opposition from private land owners and communities who feel that they are being taken advantage of through ineffective compensation schemes in exchange for preserving old-growth forests rather than cutting them down for profit. Meanwhile, logging of old-growth areas continues.
Continuing threats
Securing protection on paper does not necessarily guarantee it in practice. Illegal logging is a significant problem in the region. WWF-Bulgaria estimates that as much as 30% of logging is illegal. Comparable credible figures are missing for Romania and other countries, but the figure is certainly simularly high.
That said, in WWF’s estimation of illegal logging is probably less of a problem for old-growth forests, which in most cases are rather remote and difficult to reach. A larger problem is actually legal logging – permitted, either directly or through loopholes, e.g. as sanitary felling to combat bark beetles. This has been an issue across the region, not least in Slovakia.
Determining the criteria for old-growth forests is a subjective and thus a deeply political process. Defining old-growth defines what should be protected – so those areas not falling under this definition may be left without protection. Given the need for political and societal support, there are differences of opinion where that line should be drawn, or can be drawn. A broader discussion is needed about the protection and management of valuable natural forests that do not fit the strict official criteria for old-growth forests protection.
In particular, the conference underlined growing pressure on forest areas, including old-growth, from biomass for energy – a pressure largely driven by EU renewable energy targets and subsidies. Numerous presenters emphasised the perverse policies and subsidies driving biomass for energy, which has limited, if any net energy value, and can have significant negative impacts on forest ecosystems and biodiversity.
One of the special features of the Danube-Carpathian region is its wilderness – relatively large, intact natural areas like the Southwestern Carpathians, Maramures, and the Danube Delta. WWF Central and Eastern Europe focuses our conservation efforts on a number of priority conservation areas, but as they are among the very last intact areas of their size left in Europe, these three have special significance.

Our aim is to secure the wilderness features of these areas through appropriate conservation measures, including non-intervention management. We are working with partners to identify, secure and where necessary and possible restore critical ecological corridors across the Carpathian Mountains. We are also working with protected area administrators to strengthen protected area management and coordinate management planning and implementation across larger areas. In the Southwest Carpathians, we have partnered with Rewilding Europe to reintroduce bison 200 years after their extinction from the area.

At the same time, we are building the long-term support of stakeholders, including natural resource managers and local communities, for whom sustainable livelihoods are a key concern. We are working with local communities and entrepreneurs to develop and promote local development and businesses that support while profiting from natural heritage. We are also engaging in policy work to improve conditions for conservation and local development, e.g. by shaping regional development plans and related EU and national funding programmes.
For more information:
Ionut Sorin Banciu
Regional Forest Coordinator,
WWF Central and Eastern Europe
sbanciu@wwfcee.org, Tel: +40 21 317 49 96
Old-growth forests in Slovakia
© Veen and Raev
Ukrainian virgin, quasi-virgin and natural forests
© Ionut Sorin Banciu
Potential virgin forests in Bulgaria
© Veen and Raev
Potential virgin forests in Romania
© Veen and Raev