Forest cover change and illegal logging in the Ukrainian Carpathians in the transition period from 1988 to 2007


Illegal logging is a major environmental and economic problem, and exceeds in some countries the amounts of legally harvested timber. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, illegal logging increased and reforestation on abandoned farmland was widespread after the breakdown of socialism, and the region’s forest cover trends remain overall largely unclear. Our goal here was to map forest cover change and to assess the extent of illegal logging and reforestation in the Ukrainian Carpathians. We used Landsat TM/ETM+ images and Support Vector Machines (SVM) to derive forest change trajectories between 1988 and 2007 for the entire Ukrainian Carpathians. We calculated logging and reforestation rates, and compared Landsat-based forest trends to official statistics and inventory maps. Our classification resulted in reliable forest/non-forest maps (overall accuracies between 97.1%–98.01%) and high clear cut detection rates (on average 89.4%). Forest cover change was widespread in the Ukrainian Carpathians between 1988 and 2007. We found forest cover increase in peripheral areas, forest loss in the interior Carpathians, and increased logging in remote areas. Overall, our results suggest that unsustainable forest use from socialist times likely persisted in the post-socialist period, resulting in a continued loss of older forests and forest fragmentation. Landsat-based forest trends differed substantially from official forest resource statistics. Illegal logging appears to have been at least as extensive as documented logging during the early 1990s and so-called sanitary clear-cuts represent a major loophole for overharvesting and logging in restricted areas. Reforestation and illegal logging are frequently not accounted for in forest resource statistics, highlighting limitations of these data. Combating illegal logging and transitioning towards sustainable forestry requires better monitoring and up-to-date accounting of forest resources, in the Carpathians and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and remote sensing can be a key technology to achieve these goals.

Remote Sensing of Environment, 113(6) 1194-1207
Tobias Kuemmerle
Tobias Kuemmerle
Professor & Head of the Conservation Biogeography Lab