Romania moves to protect some of Europe's last virgin forests

VIDRARU, Romania (Reuters) - With new technology and a crackdown on logging, Romania is racing to save some of Europe’s last virgin forests, home to wolves and brown bears.

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To speed the process, the European Union state has invited environmental NGOs to join official administrators in mapping the threatened woodlands and adding them to a newly established national database to guarantee their protection by law. The database should go online within six months.

Some beech forests are candidates for UNESCO’s world heritage list, which could enhance Romania’s appeal as a destination for wilderness hikers and wildlife enthusiasts.

On a recent wet afternoon in the Fagaras mountains in central Romania, Greenpeace volunteers emerged from a deep forest. They shared snacks as they discussed a day spent charting trees in a virgin area of 140 hectares, some bearing scratch marks from large animals.

“Virgin forests were preserved on valley bottoms, rocky areas, near alpine terrain,” said Valentin Salageanu, Greenpeace forest campaign coordinator for Central and Eastern Europe. “They are forests that were hard to reach, maybe that is why they were saved.”

He estimated their area had halved in the decade since 2005, when a partial inventory indicated Romania could have 250,000 hectares of virgin forests left.

“Many of them were destroyed in the last 10 years ... partially as a result of both illegal and poorly executed legal logging,” Salageanu said. Corruption is also a factor.

In response, the environment ministry has overhauled forest management, strengthened the role of guards and imposed steep fines for those who cut, ship or trade logs illegally.

It has launched a mobile app called Forest Inspector, enabling citizens to track timber trucks. For the first time, it has allotted funds to help small private owners protect their forests, a legal requirement that many can’t afford.

Environment Minister Cristiana Pasca Palmer highlighted the role of an electronic tracking system that monitors logs at every stage, from sawing to factory gate.

“This is super-important because I believe in the future it’s only through this electronic monitoring that we can in fact reduce illegal logging,” she said.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan