Photo: © SSokolov/

Bulgarian forests – biodiversity under threat

By: Kliment Mindjov

Forests cover more than a third of Bulgaria’s territory. However, they face numerous challenges, such as poor management, illegal logging and the effects of climate change.

Bulgarian forests are part of the European and world forest wealth, occupying more than 37% of the country’s territory. One of the oldest trees in Europe is in Bulgaria – the 1300-year-old Baikush Black Mura (Pinus heldreichii).

The largest share of the forest territory in Bulgaria is occupied by the forests that arose as a result of natural regeneration – about 70%, while the share of forest crops is 21%, and of natural forests 9%. Approximately 62% of the forest stock is mainly intended for logging and environmental functions (economic forests), while the rest – about 38% – has protective and special functions. Only about 4% of the forests have been preserved as “virgin forests”, unaffected by human activity.

Bulgarian forests are distinguished by an extremely rich biological diversity of coniferous and broad-leaved tree species. Their average age is 51 years. The distribution of forest territory by forest types follows a characteristic trend reflecting a permanent decrease in the area of coniferous forests and coniferous crops, which, as a result of large-scale afforestation programmes, increased sharply in the middle of the last century. Since 1990, this area has gradually decreased and coniferous forests currently occupy about 22% of the forest area of the country. Deciduous forests occupy around 68% of the total area of forest territories in the country and continue to expand their share. Coniferous plantations over 80 years old occupy around one fifth of the area of coniferous forests. The area of middle-aged and mature coniferous forests is increasing at the expense of a decrease in the area of young forests. Data on the age structure of deciduous tall-stemmed forests also show an increase in the proportion of middle-aged and mature stands. About 75% of all forests are exclusive state property, 32% are for special purposes, and over 8% are located in protected areas.

Bulgarian forests provide 85% of the total outflow of water in the country, or 3.6 billion cubic metres of clean drinking water. They play a huge role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon in their biomass and absorbing carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis. The forestry sector employs about 43,000 people, and in some rural areas it is the main driver of economic production. The Bulgarian forest fund is home to more than 80% of all protected plants and 60% of rare and endangered animals in the country, including 43 globally endangered species of animals and plants. Bulgarian forests are a place for recreation and tourism and provide economic and social benefits for people.

There are many problems and threats to Bulgarian forests. The most serious are the short-sighted management of forest resources and the high level of illegal activities in the forest sector.

Overexploitation of economically valuable species affects many ecosystems and habitats. This also includes the specific threats from illegal logging, fires, the collection (and export) of edible mushrooms, medicinal plants, snails and a range of reptiles and amphibians, fishing, poaching and sport hunting of large mammals and birds, as well as the control of predators – especially those such as the wolf, fox, wildcat and jackal, which feed on game.

Habitat loss and destruction are a significant threat to biodiversity. This affects all forest ecosystems and especially high mountain forests. Erosion caused by human activities, especially visible in mountain resorts such as Bansko, is fatal for forests.

Pollution of air, soil, freshwater and coastal waters has increased in recent decades and is a major threat to both biodiversity and human health. Practically all sources of pollution – domestic, agricultural, industrial and transport – are present in the forest landscape and threaten forests to varying degrees.

The emerging trend of permanent changes in the climate represents a serious challenge for the Bulgarian forests. Projections of rising temperatures, warmer winters and more summer droughts, along with the greater frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold snaps, violent storms, wet snow and ice accumulation, will worsen forest health and tree growth, increase attacks by pathogenic insects and fungi, including invasive species, and will cause severe losses from fire and storm damage. There is already evidence of the impact of these various climatic events on the forestry sector in Bulgaria. In the future they may contribute to very high economic losses and the deterioration of the ability of forests to fix carbon, as well as affecting the quality of life in Bulgaria by limiting opportunities to perform valuable ecosystem services.

According to an expert study, total forest growth could decline significantly, which would result in a 42 percent loss of annual timber yield and would have a devastating impact on primary production of forest products and the rural economy. Impacts of a similar magnitude can also be expected on the ability of forests to maintain drinking water supplies, mitigate the effects of extreme rainfall and flooding, stabilise vulnerable soils on steep slopes, meet the growing needs of the recreation and tourism sector, assimilate and fix carbon and conserve the rich resource of natural biodiversity.

The main vulnerabilities of forests to climate change include the following:

  • Species-specific physiological responses to altered temperature and precipitation regimes and inability to respond to changing climatic conditions. Some species may lack the adaptability to cope with new climate conditions and thus become extinct locally or globally.
  • Uncertainty about the interaction between species inhabiting forest ecosystems.
  • Large areas of conifer plantations at too low altitudes and the associated potential risk of reduced growth and various health problems – in recent decades there have been numerous waves of mortality due to the combined negative effects of drought, aging and lack of opportunities for regular cultivation.
  • Increased likelihood of large fires and other disturbances such as damage from high winds, damage from wet snow and ice, insect attacks.
  • Improved conditions for invasive species with high potential for significant forest damage.
  • Predominance of the use of wood as firewood.

Climate change is very likely to lead to undesirable consequences as well as interaction between forests and different sectors of the economy. The Forest Act provides information and regulation relating to forest status, grants, ownership and changes to it. It classifies all forests into three categories based on their primary functions: timber production, habitat, and protected areas.

The European Union Forest Strategy sets the agenda for sustainable forest management and includes among its priorities “forests in a changing climate”, which covers the integration of adaptation actions into forest policies.

The national forest legislative framework largely reflects the requirements of environmental legislation, including those related to climate change. The National Strategy for the Development of the Forestry Sector in the Republic of Bulgaria (NSDFSRB) defines the national priorities in accordance with the European framework for planning in the sector. The strategy’s priorities include “maintaining vital, productive and multifunctional forest ecosystems contributing to mitigating the effects of climate change, as well as increasing the resilience of forest ecosystems and their ability to adapt to climate change”. The strategic plan for the development of the forest sector for the period 2014–2023 included 20 operational goals corresponding to the NSDFSRB and 102 activities for their achievement.

The Forest Act and a number of other legislative acts govern the protection of the environment and the management of forest territories in Bulgaria. In addition, there is a specific “Programme of measures to adapt forests in the Republic of Bulgaria and mitigate the negative consequences of climate change on them”. This outlines the most problematic areas under different climate change scenarios and measures to adapt forests to climate change.

The measures envisaged and applied nationally include:

  • Conducting scientific research, improving awareness and disseminating information aimed at preserving and improving the status of forests. Establishment of a national forestry advisory service and a system for the dissemination of results.
  • Improvement and protection of forest resources, including: sustainable management of regeneration processes and increase of area and wood stock of forest territories; implementation of reforestation programmes; maintaining biodiversity, genetic diversity and resilience of forests; improving the capacity of Bulgarian nurseries and the seed collection and storage system; taking measures to limit the possibility of invasive species entering forest ecosystems; building a national system for rapid detection and response to fires and other natural disasters.
  • Development of agroforestry as an integrated system combining agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land use systems by growing trees and shrubs alongside or between pastures or fields. When properly implemented, agroforestry systems contribute to adaptation, including flood protection, increased water retention capacity, while generating benefits from mitigation actions such as carbon storage and reduced loss of soil organic matter.
  • Improving the potential for sustainable use of forest resources, including: improving the potential for long-term use of wood products with higher added value; improving the potential for sustainable and more environmentally friendly use of wood biomass for energy production; review and extension of current building standards to improve the use of wood as a building material; creating a programme to encourage the installation of modern energy and heat production systems for households, businesses and small communities.

The writer is a senior expert at Borrowed Nature Bulgaria.
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