Logging, road building and the fires that often follow are threatening to destroy Russia's last remaining tracts of wilderness forest, new maps produced using satellite images show.
Five years of study by a Russian-American team of scientists and environmentalists show that the degradation of virgin woodlands in northern European Russia is severe. A study of Russia's forests, to be published soon, is expected to confirm degradation across Siberia and Russia's far-east regions.
Alexei Yaroshenko, forest campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Russia, said that only half of all Russia's original forests remained intact. "At the moment the forests are maintaining equilibrium in terms of carbon dioxide, but if more damage occurs, carbon release will increase," he said.
Alexander Isaev, of the Russian Academy of Sciences and one of a group of scientists from Russia, Sweden and the US who reviewed the report, said:
"The significance of this work goes far beyond Russian forestry. These are the last big forest wilderness areas of Europe and an important part of our common European heritage. We need to keep them wild and protected by law."
Logging in Russia had declined after the collapse of communism, he said, but the maps now showed an increase.
Kate Brown, an expert on land use and global warming in the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia, said protecting Russia's forests was essential to combating adverse climate change.
She said: "Russia is hugely important - it has more than a fifth of the world's forests and its boreal woodlands account for over a quarter of global carbon storage. Feedback loops in climate change - erratic rainfall and higher temperatures in northern Europe - could increase the risks of pests, disease and fire. Fragmented forests have less resilience and those in higher latitudes have more vulnerable ecosystems."
Environmental schemes tended to work best in countries where strong environmental organisations exist. Russia's political situation and weak civic society present challenges to protecting its forests.