Chainsaws & Tree Huggers in the Land of Fairy Tales

– how WWF and IKEA are marrying commerce and conservation in Maramureș, Romania, and helping protect some of Europe’s last remaining old growth forests.

Sacred forest

“If you want a confession, I found God and His creation, pure nature, in the old growth forest. And at that moment I decided I had to do everything possible to protect it so my children could see it for real, not just in books and museums.”

Radu Vlad, Forest & Regional Project Co-ordinator for WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme, cuts an imposing figure, unmistakably a man of the Transylvanian forests he’s been campaigning to protect for over a decade.

Those in the ancient county of Maramureș in the heart of the Carpathians in north-western Romania are particularly special to him because they contain much of Europe’s last remaining old growth forest.

“We can burn all the books and discover the real forest ecosystem here. It’s a living laboratory. Everything in balance in a natural community. Even dead wood leaves an inheritance and supports life!”

Radu Vlad, Forest & Regional Project Co-ordinator, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme. © James Morgan / WWF

Nothing quite prepares you for the majesty or vibrancy of the old growth forest in Spring.

Giant five hundred-year-old beech burst into life flouting an infinite palette of the freshest shades of green.

Their ancestors, dead from old age, stand or lie on the forest floor, providing refuge for innumerable creatures and micro-organisms that work unseen to renew the forest.

Trees of all ages shelter more than 10,000 species from lynx, wolves and bears to spectacular fire salamanders and tiny fly-eating sundews in hidden acid bogs.

The forest is the product of thousands of years of natural evolution, all but free of human intervention.

Land of wood

The Maramureș Village Museum in Sighet, which opened in 1981, contains over 30 traditional wooden houses brought in pieces from across the county and reassembled.

All have steep shingled roofs, and the oldest, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, are made of jaw-dropping two-metre-wide beams of oak cut from a single tree — felled and left to dry for several years before being split when its sound rang true. And each house is symbolically divided by a main beam into sacred and profane, a space for the spiritual and a space for this life — cooking, eating, sleeping, conceiving and dying.

Like the forest itself, everything is held in balance — there are no nails, only dovetail joints and wooden pegs.

A traditional house in Sighet Village Museum made from 17th century oak,
part of the Ethnographic Museum of Maramureș. Romania. © James Morgan / WWF

“People used to say the ‘forest is like a brother’. Each time a tree was a cut, a prayer was said,” says Radu. “We’ve been dependent on it for millennia. The fungus on the beech is called ‘meat of the shepherd’ — it’s a delicacy that grows when shepherds move their flocks in Spring.”

Even beyond the museum, it’s plain to see why Maramureș is known as the ‘land of wood’. Everything is made of it — churches and chairs, tables and tools, barns and bridges, fences and farmhouses. Even modern houses of brick and stone retain monumental wooden gates whose traditionally sculpted motifs represent the journey of life.

“Twisted rope as a symbol of eternity and balance in a spiral, and the sun a symbol of life — it’s about relativity,” says Radu. “Today, we think we’re smarter but you become wise with time for reflection.”

Fall from grace

“Communism was a golden age for forest management in Romania — good principles for the time, strict legislation and enforcement! If a forester used a log for firewood that could be sawn, or sent a log to the sawmill that could be used for veneer, he went to gaol accused of wasting the country’s resources,” says Radu.

Under communism, forests were state-owned and relatively well-protected. Its collapse in 1989 and the turbulent journey into democracy and capitalism put their future in jeopardy.

The challenge of land restitution in the 1990s triggered an explosion of ownership claims, many false or inflated, and a dramatic increase in illegal logging.

In Maramureș, mining and other industries collapsed, forcing people to turn once more to the forest, putting it under pressure as never before.

Mission forest

“I’m not the first forester in my family — it’s a tradition. I don’t think my daughter will want to study forestry but I never wanted to do anything else! Usually Mondays and Tuesdays are in the office but the rest of the week, I try to be in the field.”

Workers from the Strâmbu-Băiuț Forest Management Unit at their HQ. The forest is state-owned and managed by Romsilva, the state Forest Directorate and the Forest Management Unit. © James Morgan / WWF

Shunning senior management for his hands-on role as Technical Director of Maramureș Forestry Directorate, Iacob Andreica has worked for state forest service Romsilva for the last seventeen years.

Co-ordinating all forest production activities from timber valuation to road maintenance across almost 140,000 ha, he’s been an important ally for WWF for most of that time.

Like Radu, he’s a forester on a mission to protect the forest for his children and his country.

First cut

Parcel 69A near Poiana Botizii, managed by the Strâmbu-Băiuț Forest Management Unit, is one of several in Maramureș supervised by Iacob and the Forest Directorate.

Covered with 110-year-old beech, it’s up for its first cut and is being harvested by Taparo, a Maramureș furniture company.

A team of two men, one wielding a chainsaw and another a wedge and sledgehammer, fell a tree in seconds that began growing before they were born.

This is the reality of the working forest upon which local livelihoods and businesses depend.

Workers from the Strâmbu-Băiuț Forest Management Unit harvesting FSC-certified beech trees. © James Morgan / WWF

Independently certified as responsibly managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the forest is part of around 70,000 ha in Maramureș that are similarly certified.

From the scheduling of the harvest to the special machinery that removes hundreds of tonnes of timber from the forest without damaging what remains, everything is carried out to the highest standards.

What looks to the untrained eye like random cutting is in fact meticulously planned.

“For the first cut we make a ‘negative’ selection of lower quality trees, keeping the most valuable for the next cut in 10–15 years’ time. The best wood is yet to come,” says Florin Mârzac, head of Strâmbu-Băiuț Forest Management Unit proffering a map showing the age and type of each forest parcel. “The forest regenerates naturally, so by the time of the final cut, the next generation of young trees are already growing — perhaps 1.5m tall.”

Forests for all forever

Relentlessly promoting responsible forest management is central to WWF’s approach, not just in Romania but across the whole Carpathian region. And with a strapline of ‘Forests For All Forever’, FSC certification has been a key tool, helping ensure forest companies meet high social and environmental standards.

While it sounds like the perfect solution, it hasn’t been a straightforward journey.

Today in Romania, around 2.6 million ha of state and privately-owned community forest are FSC-certified, yet little more than a decade ago, in the height of the post-communist free for all, that figure stood near zero.

“Back in 2006, our biggest challenge was a lack of understanding about the need and opportunity for certification. There was no demand and the cost of implementation was high,” says Radu.

Waste not, want not

“We produce something that can be used by the whole world — a solid wooden chair.”

Vasilică Muntean, is Acquisitions Manager at Plimob, a Romanian furniture manufacturer whose Sarasău factory on the border with Ukraine makes 1.5 million IKEA Terje chairs every year.

Unsurprisingly Plimob use a lot of timber — 130,000 m3 of Romanian beech a year, three months’ worth of which stands at any one time drying in the vast timber yard, stacked in rows that disappear like railway lines to a vanishing point.

The factory interior is similarly immense, a humming vortex of production logic. A master class in economy of scale, nothing is wasted. Even sawdust is compressed into thousands of ‘eco’ fuel briquettes.

The Plimob furniture factory in Sarasău makes millions of chairs for IKEA every year, Sighetu Marmației, Maramureș, Romania. © James Morgan / WWF

Plimob’s operation is so shaped by its relationship with the home furnishing giant that even its factory façades sport the retailer’s bright yellow and blue colours but more significantly for Romania’s forests, IKEA has influenced more than just Plimob’s corporate colours and thriftiness.

“We’ve reached 100 per cent FSC-certified wood,” says Vasilică. “IKEA asked us to do this. Problems occurred early on given our suppliers weren’t certified. But we ran joint programmes with IKEA to help them. We’ve always been connected to reach this goal.”

Market transformation

When WWF began to promote voluntary uptake of FSC certification in Romania, Radu knew that without market demand for sustainability, it would not fly. IKEA’s role has been crucial. Its ambitious commitment to obtaining all timber from more sustainable sources (FSC certified or recycled) by 2020 has driven uptake of FSC globally. And in Romania, where IKEA has already met the target, it’s shaped both conservation and forestry practice in a country from which the retailer sources 5 per cent of all its timber.

“In partnership with IKEA, we’ve been able to show forest managers and suppliers the value of certification,” says Radu. “When Iacob started as Technical Director in 2009, a week of consulting local processors and checking market trends convinced him Romsilva should go for FSC certification!”

Outstanding universal value

On a technical level, it’s a natural forest made up of trees at all stages of growth from seedlings to mature examples (450 years for fir and 550 for beech) as well as lying and standing dead wood. All trees must be native species and the result of natural regeneration, and there must be a near absence of human intervention. For listing in the National Catalogue of Romanian Virgin Forests, there’s a limit of fewer than five trees felled per hectare of forest, which is judged to be insignificant enough not to affect the natural dynamics of the forest.

Yet technical definitions belie the magnificence of an old growth forest in its prime — not simply a collection of ancient trees but a dynamic system. While in Europe we often look to the great tropical rainforests of the world for beauty and diversity, on our doorstep there is still natural heritage beyond compare. That’s why in 2014, WWF, Greenpeace, Romsilva and the National Forest Research and Management Institute proposed the designation of more than 24,000 ha of Romanian old-growth beech forest (976 ha in Maramureș) to UNESCO for World Heritage listing.

Accepted by UNESCO in July 2017 and made on the basis of ‘outstanding universal value’, the pursuit of listing has been inspired as much by commerce as by conservation: beyond establishing FSC as a tool for good management, WWF and partners have also helped broker agreement on FSC Principle 9 criteria for the identification and management of ‘High Conservation Value’ (HCV) forests in Romania. This makes protecting old growth forest integral to obtaining FSC certification.

“Setting aside 10 per cent of the forest in Strâmbu-Băiuț particularly when it contains more than twice the volume of timber as working parcels wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Forest Directorate,” says Radu.

It’s a breakthrough in forest management and market-driven conservation that’s been precedent-setting for all countries in the Carpathian region. Though protected old growth forest generates no revenue, it makes timber from the forest units that contain it more attractive to buyers committed to sustainable sourcing.

National security

Alongside promoting FSC and protecting old growth forest, WWF’s long-running campaign has also focused on preventing illegal logging through a timber tracking system. This is now enshrined in national legislation that places illegal logging on a par with terrorism and war as a threat to national security.

“The implications are massive. Even the secret service has become involved in combatting illegal logging!,” says Radu.

No system is perfect, however, and there remains an unhelpful industry lobby in Romania that sometimes works against both conservation and community interest. While mountain and pastoral communities in the forest rely on firewood for fuel, access to it is a lottery by annual tombola.

“It’s madness! Profiteering and lobbying by the harvesting and primary processing sectors makes local communities the losers — they only receive about 5 per cent of all timber,” says Radu. “Big players want the lion’s share of timber to be reserved exclusively for them so they can get the best deal, and Romsilva are powerless to do anything about it.”

Amendments to the forest code designed to improve community access to firewood have recently been tabled in the Romanian parliament but the tombola looks set to remain for the time being.

Life on the edge

Ioan Mât and his wife Rodica live in a tiny hamlet a few kilometres up a rough mountain track from Viseu de Sus. They have a cow, two horses and cart, and bought their house from Ioan’s grandfather who built it and who’s buried on the steep hillside a stone’s throw away. They’ve lived here all their lives.

Like many villagers in Maramureș, Ioan’s life is spent outdoors on the land or in the forest. His daily routine centres on the animals, collecting firewood, sometimes collecting it and reselling it. Each tree has to be dragged from the forest by his horse — either from his land or selected, cut and paid for from what the Forest Directorate mark as community allocation.

“Life wouldn’t be possible without the forest for fuel and construction but it’s hard to make a living. The steep land here isn’t so fertile,” says Ioan. “Sometimes I work abroad, two months in the summer in Germany, berry picking.”

Rodica and Ioan Mâț at home in Viseu de Sus, Maramureș, Romania. Community access to firewood can be a contentious issue in the area. © James Morgan / WWF

Land of the free

Maramureș wider landscape is a bucolic mosaic of forest, grassland, wetland and pasture shaped by centuries of human activity. It’s easy to romanticise this seeming idyllic throwback to medieval times but for the families that work the land by hand, scything hay and tossing it with pitchforks on to rough-hewn wooden racks to dry, the reality of life is hard. Nevertheless, interdependence with the land and the forest has existed for millennia and part of what makes the region of major cultural importance.

Saint Parascheva Wooden Church in Desești is one of eight buildings that make up the wooden churches of Maramureș UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1779, it contains spectacular frescos by renowned post-Byzantine painters Radu Munteanu and Grigore Zugravu among which is a depiction of the Last Judgement. In it Maramureș’ Turkish occupiers of the time are seen tumbling into eternal hellfire led by a demon toward death. Even though Romanians have been the majority in Transylvania for over 900 years, foreigners ruled them for much of that time and ignored their rights. And yet the Romans who gave the country its name never reached Maramureș, the place of the free Dacians.

Saint Parascheva Wooden Church in Desești, Maramureș, declared a UNESCO monument in 1999. © James Morgan / WWF

Kindergarten for trees

The Directorate’s nursery in Gutin is a kindergarten for trees, a small paradise on a sunny hillside.

A few large beech offer shade to young fir seedlings set out neatly by the thousand in row-upon-row across five strips, each with one more year’s growth than the previous.

The youngest has just been planted and the most mature just taken, producing nearly 100,000 plants used to supplement any shortfall in natural regeneration in the working forest. Strict controls match the genetic provenance of seeds and seedlings to local climatic and soil conditions in this mountainous part of the forest.

“FSC requirements mean we can’t use many pesticides so we do a lot of weeding!,” says Adrian Danci who supervises the nursery. “I started in forestry 25 years ago and interrupted three generations of railway station workers! I won’t see these trees mature but it’s the best kind of solidarity between generations — one to plant trees, another to care for them, and another to cut them.”

Like the whole campaign for forest protection, responsible management and an end to illegal logging, Adrian’s is a labour of love infused with attention to detail.

Students from Transylvania University of Brasov, Faculty of Silviculture and Forest Engineering, learn about forestry management in Gutin, Maramureș, Romania. © James Morgan / WWF

For the common good

“FSC’s strength is its transparency and the huge chance it gives society to participate in change and play a constructive role in sustainability. It’s up to us to get everyone involved, change mindsets and build a better future!,” says Radu.

“Awareness, this is the most important thing. If my generation change their mentality, younger generations will surely live differently,” says Iacob.

Conservation is about working together to find solutions that meet people’s needs.

Mission forest began at a time when Romania’s forests were unprotected.

Much has been achieved since but commerce and conservation are in the balance in Maramureș. Sometimes they make an uneasy marriage, yet one that’s necessary.

A living working landscape, Maramureș deserves protection, investment and celebration.

Europe destroyed most of its ancient forests centuries ago. Romania and the Carpathians still have them — for now.

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