Official data shows sanitary felling, both in clearcut and selective form, accounted for one-seventh (14 per cent) of the total average annual volume of wood produced in Russia in the period 2010-2019.23
This type of felling is a common cover for illegal deforestation in the country, a loophole for loggers to avoid various restrictions on timber harvesting (including in protected forests) and exceed quotas set by forestry bodies.24
“The experience of our organisations in different regions of Russia shows that the main motive for the authorisation of sanitary logging is a desire to harvest wood in those forests where that is normally not allowed, including due to legal restrictions,” the Russian branches of WWF and Greenpeace said in a joint statement in 2016.25
The environmental groups said “skimming the cream” off forests was commonplace, through the harmful application of selective sanitary cutting, which is meant to target dead or damaged trees, to healthy ones. Environmental degradation often resulted in the weaker, more fragile forests that remained, they added.
Sanitary clear-cutting, or chopping down whole tracts of trees, was frequently industrial logging in all but name, the statement went on. This was thanks in part to Russia’s laws on sanitary felling which, unlike those on commercial logging, set no upper limit of the area which can be levelled.
Commercial logging on sanitary pretexts features prominently in multiple recent high-profile cases of illegal logging involving corrupt local officials, as uncovered by Russian law enforcement agencies.26 Russian authorities estimate that the environmental damage from some of these schemes runs as high as tens of billions of rubles (or hundreds of millions of dollars).27
WWF Russia has also repeatedly raised concerns of widespread use of fraudulent documents used to justify extensive clearances on sanitary grounds.28 In 2019, the organisation reported that its monitoring of 297 legally mandatory expert reports recommending sanitary felling in Irkutsk revealed violations in 96 per cent of cases. Following the checks, 52 per cent of the reports were revoked and others revised, preventing 3700 hectares of illegal sanitary logging. Confronted with two possible explanations – rank incompetence or corruption – WWF’s experts speculated that the evidence suggested that in many cases, the forest pathologists who had signed off on the logging had never even visited the planned felling sites.29
Russian authorities are well aware of the problem of illegal sanitary logging and have had some success in tackling it. Stricter requirements for the prescription, implementation and control of sanitary logging have led to a reduction in the volume of wood produced this way in 2019 and 2020, both across the country and in some of its illegal logging hotspots. There have also been enforcement actions, like the criminal investigation into illegal sanitary logging involving Irkutsk’s former forest minister in 2019. But the problem persists, and much more needs to be done if the country is to avoid it bouncing back to its previous peak. In Irkutsk, a total suspension on such logging implemented following the 2019 scandal is due to be lifted later this year.30 The floodgates may be about to reopen.