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Disappearing natural landscapes in Europe
Georgia, a country in western Asia, was a part of the Soviet Union and is now an independent republic. Source: Google Maps.
In Europe, humans have intensely transformed virgin landscapes (i.e., unfelled forests preserved in their original form). If we survey the history of land development in Europe, we discover that over the past few centuries virtually all the European forests — from Norway to Bulgaria, and Spain to the Northern Urals — have been felled, consistently and repeatedly.
- About 2000 years ago virgin landscapes covered 80% of Europe.
- Toward the end of the 19th century they had been so drastically reduced that they covered only 10-15% of their original area.
- These landscapes were further destroyed in the 20th century. Now they make up no more than 1% of all of Europe. By the beginning of the 21st century, virgin landscapes were preserved only in a few geographical locations, including Europe’s northeast, the Caucasus, and Georgia.
Nowadays the destruction of virgin forests continues though deforestation, construction of new highways and industrial enterprises, and the excessive human use of mountain meadows and winter pastures. Lands that were once fertile have been reduced to “badlands” — barren, rocky, erosive land, devoid of soil and vegetation cover.
Why are virgin landscapes important?
Whit Gibbons, an environmental professor, has defined virgin forests as:
The original meaning is simple, from the word meaning “chaste,” representing a forest that has never been timbered and in which the dominant, old-growth tree species have reached their maximum ages.1
The International Union of Forest Research Organizations extends this view to include young growth:
There seems to be general agreement that not every virgin or primeval forest is of great age; that young stands may be of virgin or primeval character although they are not old growth. These would be stands that have regenerated after natural disturbances and have not been subjected to human disturbances.2
Virgin landscapes are unique natural complexes that, among other things:
- regulate climate; for example, they store large amounts of carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to greenhouse gases
- maintain water cycles and freshwater resources
- ensure the survival of unique and endangered species
- protect one-of-a-kind mountain meadows, marsh tracts and other ecosystems within their territory
- prevent soil erosion and flooding of streams
- provide ecological refuges for indigenous knowledge
The size of virgin landscapes may vary. For example, landscapes in mountainous countries range from a few square kilometers to dozens upon dozens of square kilometers. It is of great significance that a landscape is a sum of smaller natural units. These units are closely interconnected and dependent on one another.
Why protect Georgia’s virgin landscapes?
Georgia is good example of why protecting virgin landscapes far outweighs the economics of developing them. Georgia is a small country and it is not rich in mineral resources. It does not have large deposits of oil, or deposits of strategically important metals. But Georgia does possess significant natural resources, which consist of the country’s biological and landscape diversity:
- Georgia is located in one of the most diversified landscapes on our planet, within the Caucasus and the Black Sea Basin.
- The virgin landscapes of Georgia are especially valuable because of their rich biodiversity and uniqueness. They are the fundamental natural wealth of the country.
- Forests cover about 38%, of which a small percentage is virgin. The ecosystems are diverse, ranging from sub-alpine to flood-plain forests.
However, human activity is beginning to destroy these landscapes. A great number of projects, financially supported by international or state associations and private firms, have been planned or carried out recently. These include:
- the transport corridor “Europe-Caucasus-Asia”
- new oil pipelines
- a government forestry development project that wants to escalate logging, which may eventually destroy most of Georgia’s forests
- economic development projects such as agriculture and tourism in Georgia
All these projects have, to a certain extent, environmental issues and concerns that must be resolved. In particular, the implementation of these projects will bring about severe damage to the virgin landscapes of Georgia.
The basics for a conservation plan
Before a conservation program for virgin landscapes can be designed, it is essential to identify and map these territories. This is important not only for Georgia, but elsewhere.
The study of virgin landscapes as intrinsic support structures for preserving unique flora and fauna has received attention in world publications only recently. As a result of the activism of the “Greenpeace” movement, attention has been drawn to the problem of preserving the last remaining virgin forests of Europe. In 1999, a map of “the last large tracts of European taiga” was compiled for northeastern Europe.
Data on the spread of virgin landscapes in Georgia, however, was absent. Scientific publications provide fragmentary information; but it should be noted that until very recently the study of landscapes did not include the concept of “virgin” landscapes, much less criteria for their qualification.
Thus, in 1999, I undertook a science project to create a map of virgin landscapes in Georgia. My year-long project involved:
- analyzing 220 sheets of topographic maps of Georgia (1:50,000)
- selecting possible areas of virgin landscapes were and mapping their borders using various tools, including field expeditions
- transferring the obtained borders onto a 1:200,000 map
- using my own and GIS data (GIS = Geographical Information System) to facilitate the work
- verifying the data with satellite surveys of select regions
The result of the work is a compiled map of potential virgin landscapes of Georgia. The entire area amounts to 7,024 square km., or 10% of Georgia’s territory. Of this area:
- Marshes are present in 5 areas and cover 162 square km
- Virgin forests — in 187 areas, 4015 sq.km
- Alpine landscapes — in 88 areas, 2828 sq.km
This is the first time such a map has been compiled. But this is only a map of possible virgin areas. In reality the situation may turn out to be somewhat different because:
- topographic maps do not always show the complete network of paths in an area (in the remote areas, maps were compiled on the basis of aerial photography)
- relativity in the criteria used; for example, a landscape unit that was too small for study using our methods
The Georgia project involved preliminary mapping. Actual maps will require further verification using forest materials data and economic activity analysis, satellite photo surveys and, most importantly, field research expeditions.
Georgia in perspective
Georgia has one of the last tracts of virgin European mountain forests. These forests are not only of scientific interest, but they are also an important resource. They are home to a high level of biodiversity. Combine this with the rich cultural-historical heritage of this ancient country, and you have the makings of a place that is beautiful in its environment and in its society.
Recently environmental organizations in Georgia have called on the government to:
- create a full inventory of existing forests in Georgia
- specify the areas that are virgin forests to protect them from logging and ban road construction within these areas
- establish accurate logging rates for various regions, and
- develop sustainable forestry management plans and practices for non-virgin forests3
Many of us hope that this will be done and that Georgia can set an example for the rest of the world.
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