Deadwood may seem damp, sterile, an unhygienic source of infection, something to be removed. However, the reality could not be more different. Decaying wood logs, dead and old trees host multiple microorganisms, they help the forest to better resist diseases, they increase its resilience to climate change. They also capture carbon emissions and conserve biodiversity. For these reasons, keeping the deadwood in the forest can bring multiple benefits. The RESFOR project, an initiative co-funded by the Romania-Ukraine ENI CBC programme, is raising knowledge and promoting good practices in “deadwood management”. A novel concept, very little explored in the forestry sector of the cross-border region, but yet very important for the resilience of the forests, some of which represent one of the last old-growth forest reserves in Europe, and have been included as such in the World Heritage List of UNESCO.
In Romania – according to FAO – 29% of the territory is covered by forest: ash trees, fir trees, pine trees, some of which are almost 700 years old. These are old-growth virgin forests, they have attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibit unique ecological features. In Ukraine, the virgin forests of the Trans-Carpathian and Ivano-Frankivsk regions are also amongst the oldest terrestrial ecosystems in Europe. The Secular Forest of Strâmbu-Baiut, in the Maramures region – Romania, but very close to the Ukrainian border – was recently recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Deadwood is a critical component in the structure and functioning of the forests. Dead standing trees and falling logs play a key role in maintaining forest productivity: they help its natural regeneration, conserve biodiversity, and increase the resilience of forests to climate change. “Deadwood acts like a sponge, it captures and storages carbon emissions, which makes the forests more resilient to external threats like climate change”, explains Miradona Krizbai, the RESFOR project communication officer and WWF Romania (Lead Partner) representative. The importance of deadwood is not only associated with maintaining forest’s health and life-cycle, but it also provides valuable ecosystem services to local communities and the general public. “Forests are very important in the Romanian and Ukrainian culture and economy – adds Krizbai – traditionally people live with the help of the forest, they make their houses out of wood, they rely on mushrooms gathering and berries picking. People heat themselves with wood. The absence of deadwood has also a negative economic impact for the community”.
In this context, the RESFOR project is developing the necessary conditions to enable cooperation and joint research on deadwood management between the experts and the relevant authorities from both sides of the border. Deadwood management is a relatively new conservation concept for Romania and Ukraine, and although it has now been promoted for nearly two decades, often, it is still not well understood in practice. “We want to change this. The competent authorities in Romania and Ukraine have always considered deadwood as the “enemy of the forest”, and have put their efforts into systematically remove it. This has led to the disappearance of certain valuable species, unbalancing the ecosystem, reducing the number of soil nutrients and hampering the capacity of forests to regenerate naturally”, explains Miradona.
To break this myth and “reconcile” with deadwood, the RESFOR project has put together a cross-border network of researchers and experts from Romania and Ukraine. These are around 50 people: University professors, Ministry workers, forest managers and specialists in forestry-related research. They are bringing important knowledge from different perspectives and contributing to advance research in the field. “Their input is necessary and very much appreciated – continues Miradona – because they come from different fields, they have a lot of experience, and they can help us see what is better for deadwood management and forestry research. They are so many and so experienced that we could have never hired them, but thanks to this network we can collaborate very closely and ensure long-term cooperation across the border”.
The project team is conducting field research. They are taking samples of deadwood both from virgin and production forests, in five different stages of decadency, to analyse their properties and build a common database. “By making small incisions into the wood core, we manage to analyse the humidity, the capacity of carbon storage and the biodiversity at microscopic level”. The results of the field studies together with the analyses conducted by the network of experts were presented in two press conferences last April, which got wide press coverage both locally (UA) and nationally (RO). All this knowledge is materialising in a set of common guidelines, comprising good practices on deadwood management, that will be disseminated at the end of the project.
But not only. The projects partners are now focusing on spreading the word also among the youngest. The RESFOR team is creating an educational kit, made of wood, with a measuring tape, a magnifying glass and a booklet, containing adapted information with everything they need to learn about forest and deadwood. This way, the thirteen to sixteen year-old schoolers will spend time out in the nature, will learn to measure and inspect deadwood and will be able to admire and observe the bursting life going on in the decaying woods: insects, mushrooms, vegetation…“We want our future generations to be aware of the benefits of deadwood and to take care of our forests and biodiversity. It is easier to teach a child to respect the nature and change habits than it is to an adult”, explains Krizbai. For the older ones, a new course on deadwood management will start already in the current year at the University of Suceava (Romania): it targets students enrolled in forestry management and related fields. “It will be a fully curricular subject, with exams, grades and part of the educative programme. We want our future environmentalists to be fully aware of the latest developments in deadwood and forestry management”, adds Krizbai. A doctoral study has just started on the same subject, so other graduates will also follow and keep developing research on this topic.
Ultimately, forests are an important and big part of the community life in the Romanian and Ukrainian cross-border regions. As the project representative explains, there is a “wood culture” developed over generations. People live in harmony with the forests, these provide vital services or “ecosystem services” like air and water purification or soil formation, erosion, and pest control… But they also provide intangible value, they are a source of inspiration for artists, they are beautiful spaces to relax, to shelter when it’s too hot, to go hiking and to attract tourism. “For us, humans, the nature is similar to a giant “factory”. We should, in turn, respect forests and all their vital components, like deadwood”, adds Krizbai. In this sense, she continues, “cooperating across borders offered us a totally different perspective to forest conservation. Although we live in different countries, our views and beliefs are not different: forests and wildlife do not have boundaries and we need to find a way to protect them together”.
Photos by Timur Chiș for WWF