Now, in an article published by April Reese, a journalist for Science Magazine, forest scientists believe the widespread damage may lead to a significant overhaul of Ukraine’s forest management.
They argue that this change will ensure these areas are better equipped to handle climate change, enhance biodiversity, and safeguard water purity.
Confident that Ukraine will triumph in the war, the researchers are already devising plans for a more sustainable post-war future.
Brian Milakovsky, a US born forest ecologist who lived in eastern Ukraine before fleeing the country and Sergiy Zibtsev, a forest scientist at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine, unveiled their vision during a recent webinar hosted by the Yale School of the Environment on April 10, 2023.
Milakovsky emphasised the need to seek approaches that foster diverse forest habitats while continuing to address Ukraine’s forest issues from his new home in Latvia. He highlights that the present circumstances are genuinely facing difficulties due to climate change and warfare.
The state of Ukraine’s forests
Prior to the war, Ukraine’s forests were amongst the most damaged in the world. According to Global Forest Watch Ukraine lost 1.15m hectares (or 10% of total tree cover) between 2001 and 2021.
The expansion of agriculture in this major food-exporting country had substantially decreased forest coverage; almost half of Ukraine is currently farmland.
In November 2022, Zibtsev reported that conflict-induced fires have harmed crops and livestock, destroyed thousands of hectares of forest, and hindered farmers from finishing the harvest.
“The fires are immense,” he stated, adding that farmers “lost everything they were gathering for winter.”
In many of the remaining forests, open stands of fir-adapted Scots pine have been replaced by dense, more fire-susceptible plantations.
Soviet-era policies advocated for crowded stands, with the goal of “stuffing as much timber as possible into each hectare,” as Milakovsky puts it. Yet, when “fire enters, it simply means death.”
Plantations are prevalent in eastern Ukraine, which is ground-zero for combat.
Since the Russian invasion commenced in February 2022, around 20,000 fires have engulfed over 755,638 hectares, as per remote sensing data provided in the webinar.
Some fires were accidentally set by farmers clearing fields, while many were ignited by weapons. Forests have also endured damage from the building of trenches, bunkers, and roads. Some of the worst destruction is along rivers like the Siverskyi Donets, which have become crucial defensive lines.
Ukrainian law promotes the replanting of plantations whenever an area is logged or burned. In order to try an alternative management approach, special permission must first be obtained, but it is infrequently sought.
“Economics, legislation, and habit” allow plantations to persist, Milakovsky noted, “despite growing concerns that monocultures provide limited support for native species and can exhaust scarce water resources.”
Opportunity to correct poor forest practices
Experts argue that the war-induced damage presents an opportunity for a much-needed policy shift.
For instance, fires and military operations are breaking up some plantations, paving the way for the creation of more diverse forest type mosaics, managed for both restoration and logging, says Milakovsky.
This transition will require political determination but could result in stronger and more resilient forests.
Forests containing a mix of species and well-distributed trees of different ages would be less vulnerable to intense fires and the droughts expected to become more common as the area’s climate heats up.
“Ukraine is quite dry, and it’s getting drier,” says Milakovsky.
This year, a rainy winter has promoted growth, priming forests for large fires, says Petro Testov, an ecologist with the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group.
“If next year is dry, we could see very huge forest fires like in 2020,” he says when blazes ripped through pine forests around Luhansk, killing 17 people.
The researchers also hope to incorporate groundwater protection into forest management. Sandy landscapes, like those in southeastern Ukraine, allow water to seep into the ground and replenish aquifers, but plantations can interfere. When fires thin them, wetlands often reemerge, and groundwater levels recover. Reducing plantations could prevent the “repeated depletion” of these water resources, Milakovsky says.
Bid to call summit for Ukrainian forest scientists
Sergiy Zibtsev plans to convene Ukrainian forest scientists – many of whom have relocated to other countries – soon to discuss how to advance these and other reforms and enhance collaboration.
Once the conflict ends, he and Milakovsky also hope to resume work they started before the war with local foresters around the city of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine, now one of the most intense combat zones.
The local partners agreed to test alternative management methods, such as allowing low-value areas to regenerate naturally.
“They liked those [sustainable forestry] ideas,” Zibtsev says, but are concerned about violating government regulations.
“All of them were just like ‘help us get some kind of [legal] protection’,” he said.
Violating Ukranian government regulations
In a statement, Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources Ruslan Strilets said Ukraine was “moving towards the trend of creating mixed forests … coniferous with deciduous, as well as the planting of additional shrubs.” However, he also noted that the war has meant that “access is temporarily restricted to a significant area of forests. As of now, about 776.6 thousand hectares of forests are under Russian occupation or affected by hostilities.
Even as Ukraine’s forest scientists look to the future, the war’s ongoing impact on the forests they have worked in for years is never far from their minds. Copernicus, the European Union’s satellite monitoring system, displays clusters of fires across eastern Ukraine, particularly between the cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk.
Nevertheless, Zibtsev is confident that his vision of a conflict-free Ukraine, abundant in sustainably managed forests, will become a reality.
“We expect within the next 20 years, there will be quite radical changes,” he says. “We’re in a position to push this agenda. And we already have some progress.”