Forests are the basis of the country's ecological stability, which is extremely important not only for the air, water and soil quality of the whole country but also for the Lithuanian identity. However, deforestation caused by intensive forestry and low restriction levels of human economic activity is already visible to the naked eye. According to Vilnius University (VU) geographers, the current wood-oriented forest policy needs to be changed. In order to preserve Lithuania's ecological stability, it is important to consider the ecological and social benefits of forests as a priority condition of public welfare, and forest issues cannot be solved within the framework of forestry alone.
More than a third of the country's land area must be allocated to forests
In the National Forest Agreement (NFA) initiative to discuss and decide what Lithuanian forests should look like in the future, a group of scientists from the VU Faculty of Chemistry and Geosciences works in the Landscape and Protected Areas and Climate sectors.
At present, land officially dedicated to forests in Lithuania covers 33.7% of the country's area, but nurseries older than 10 years make up only 27.9%, and the condition of most rare species habitats is poor. According to VU scientists, the area covered by nurseries should reach 38-42%, and efficiently functioning natural framework territories should occupy at least 64% of the country's area.
Vice President of the Lithuanian Society of Geographers Dr. Giedrė Godienė explains that the natural framework is a network of interconnected natural territories, where the prevailing natural processes compensate for the consequences of human economic activity and restore the conditions in which we can live.
"Natural systems determine the purification of water, air, and soils. Without them, we would not be able to develop any production, fly planes, drive polluting cars; in completely built-up areas, we would maintain the water circulation and the microclimate only by artificial measures. It is not just ethical incentives that we need to protect biodiversity and ecological chains – we will be left without food when pollinators disappear. In the face of climate change, we do not have other systems that absorb excess CO2 as efficiently. Therefore, when thinking about future generations, in order to develop sustainably, we must ensure sufficient space – a certain area of natural territories and their quality,” says Dr. Godienė.
The geographer adds that deforestation is also an ethical issue: "Trees are living organisms that are much bigger and more durable than us humans, so we should aim for coexistence, feel a greater responsibility, and preserve the balance of nature more. As a result, deforestation must not take place during the growing and breeding seasons."
Researchers emphasize that forests and human activities should not be completely separated, but that they can complement each other and that forestry activities should be sustainable. According to doctoral student Agnė Jasinavičiūtė, a large part of cultural heritage sites – mounds, burial mounds, old pagan shrines – are managed and adapted for forests intended for visiting. "The country's history has determined that most of the historically significant places are currently in forests, and the environment is also important for the adaptation of these places to cognition. Therefore, they need to be viewed in a complex way – as a single unit of natural and cultural value. We need to set priorities and set boundaries which we can cross and which we cannot."
Another example of the integration of forest and human activities is forests intended for improving health. "In Scotland, Japan, doctors are already prescribing walks in the woods. Such treatment is prescribed for patients with circulatory diseases, psychological problems. Stress levels decline in the forest. It is estimated that municipalities that maintain and invest in natural structures spend less money on public health because people are less likely to be hospitalized,” says doctoral student Jasinavičiūtė.
Importance of ensuring real protection
Geographers, together with other groups of society emphasizing the ecological functions of forests, are in favour of increasing the area of old, naturally mature forests in Lithuania and protecting all such forests. In Lithuanian forests, naturally valuable stands of various structures, species and ages must make up at least 35%. Meanwhile, the most ecologically valuable, most sensitive places in Lithuania must be granted the legal status of protected areas.
VU researchers emphasize that the area of commercial forests must decrease in the future. According to them, the legal framework is important for proper forest management. However, it is necessary not only to adopt new laws but also to fulfill the obligations already enshrined in national and European legislation and to achieve a real balance between the benefits of forests and their ecological and social benefits.
"Currently, even if certain areas have already been declared protected, their real protection is insufficient. Although it is prohibited to create bonfires in such areas and it is allowed to set up tents only in the indicated places, it is allowed to cut down forests in clearings,” says the head of the Lithuanian Society of Nature, geographer Associated Professor Dr. Ričardas Skorupskas.
According to him, 17.69% of the territory of Lithuania consists of various protected areas, but about half of the economic use of this area is the same as that of forests outside protected areas: "For example, in Dzūkija National Park, 50% of forests are commercial, they are exploited in exactly the same way as in unprotected areas. In order to preserve rare species and their important habitats, the EU Biodiversity Strategy requires having 30% of areas protected at a national level, 10% of which must be under strict protection, i.e. of reservation type,” says the researcher.
Associated Professor Dr. Skorupskas does not hide his disappointment that forest exploitation now seems to be like vandalism causing non-exploitation of the direct and even more indirect economic potential: "Even in the National Forest Agreement, ecological interests are represented only by individual public organizations, not by state institutions."
Objective – open and interdisciplinary forestry
Geographers agree that forest conservation and development and the harmonious integration of nature and human activities would help to create a more livable environment and ensure the protection of biodiversity.
"Everyone really cares about the forest. It is the only component of the landscape that, evenly while being distributed and in the most ecologically sensitive areas, ensures the ecological stability of a part of the territory and, at the same time, the whole country, public health, and the success of all sectors of the economy, and absorbs about a third of our CO2. Forestry should be based not only on economics but also on physical, natural, and ecological sciences, while responding to global climate and biodiversity crises, changing societal needs and ethical attitudes,” says Associated Professor Dr. Skorupskas.
"It is our responsibility for our future generations. Therefore, openness, involvement of various fields of science and different groups of society, communities is one of the basic requirements of the National Forest Agreement. We hope that the NFA will be an important basis for the development of the Forest Sector Strategy, at the same time providing specific directions for the use and protection of forests, the values of the indicators to be achieved, and the principles and concrete actions for their implementation,” says the geographer.