Clearcuts and related secondary dieback undermine the ecological effectiveness of FSC certification in a boreal forest.
Background: Over the last 25 years, the prominent forest certification system established by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has used by many companies worldwide for claiming responsible forest management. The objectives of the Russian National FSC standard to decrease the size of clearcuts and the retention of forest elements such as residual seed trees need on-site validation to proof the effectiveness of FSC. To assess the ecological impacts of harvesting practices and benefits of FSC certification, we geospatially compared logging activities with and without FSC certification. Within a sample area covering approximately 3,000 km2 in the east of the Russian Arkhangelsk Region, we used available data on tree cover loss and satellite images to assess secondary impacts of clearcuttings on adjacent remnant forests and to quantify the logging intensity. Additionally, the size and structure as well as the density of skidding trails of ten specific clearcuttings located within the sample area were surveyed using satellite images and in the field observation to delineate the boundaries of clearcuts and forested remnants within the clearcuts. Results: We found a significant increase of small-scale tree cover loss in the proximity of the clearcuts. Patchy dieback is possibly linked to the scale and intensity of logging in the surroundings. On the investigated clearcuts, FSC failed to reduce the size, to increase the retention of forest remnants including seed trees on logged areas, and to maintain larger tracts of undisturbed ground and soil compared to clearcuts that were logged before they received FSC-certification. Conclusions: Trees and forest remnants remaining inside an increasingly stressed forest ecosystem matrix may not resist further harvesting-related and climate change-induced stresses and disturbances. Large-scale clearcuttings seem to have negative impacts even in adjacent forests and undermine the ecological effectiveness of FSC certification in the study area. The Russian FSC standard is not clearly setting effective guidelines that induce a change in clearcutting practices in order to reduce ecological risks.