Corruption, greed and neglect have exacted their toll in Russia, Central Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. A series of reports based on new maps covering nearly half of the world's forests warn that unsustainable development practices are responsible for the degradation of vast areas.
The reports, released Wednesday by the World Resources Institute's Global Forest Watch, including the first detailed atlas of the forests of Russia, took more than two years to produce. The World Resources Institute (WRI) is an environmental think tank based in Washington, DC.
Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute president, said, "As we examined what we thought were still vast, untouched stretches of intact forests in the world, we came to the conclusion that they are fast becoming a myth."
In North America, less than half of the region's forests and woodlands are in tracts of land at least 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) in size. Over 90 percent of these are found in Alaska and Canada.
In the Lower 48 states, only six percent of forests are relatively undisturbed in large tracts and only 17 percent of these are strictly or moderately protected.
"Much of the threats facing the remaining intact forests boils down to bad economics, bad management, and corruption," said Dirk Bryant, founder and co-director of Global Forest Watch.
"We are rapidly moving towards a world where wilderness forests are confined primarily to islands of parks and reserves, with surrounding areas managed commercially for timber and other resources. The health of the planet's forests will depend on how well we manage and protect these remaining areas," he said.
While many countries have enacted laws to protect their forests, in many places regulations are simply not enforced. In Indonesia, about 70 percent of timber production is illegally logged.
In Central Africa, Global Forest Watch found logging concessions already cover more then half of the world's second largest tropical rainforest. Initial data indicate most lack even a basic plan for managing these forests.
Government policies that favor short term economic gain, instead of long term stewardship hold sway in Chile, where people are encouraged to clear native forests that are thousands of years old to make way for plantations of exotic species. "As a result, the prehistoric araucaria forests and the second oldest living trees in the world, the alerce, are in danger," WRI says.
In Venezuela, logging and mining practices threaten one of the most pristine forests on earth. Researcher Mariapía Bevilacqua and her team analyzed the Guayana Region south of the Orinoco River. Forests here contain more than half of recorded mammal and bird species found in Venezuela, a country noted globally for its biodiversity.
With the exception of illegal mining and limited logging, the researchers found, most of the forests of the Guayana region have yet to be subject to timber and mineral exploitation. But, the 3.2 million hectare Imataca forest reserve is subject to conflicting land use interests, with agricultural, mining and indigenous settlements located within and around overlapping logging and mining concessions.
Close to half of logging concessions in the region fail to fully comply with regulations regarding local processing of wood, and a fifth are under investigation for failing to comply with management plans, the researchers found.
"Our most recent studies show that we have underestimated the destruction in some countries," said Bryant. Two years ago, he started Global Forest Watch to keep track of what is left of the remaining intact forests of the world.
Global Forest Watch combines on-the-ground knowledge with digital and satellite technology to provide accurate forest information to anyone with access to the Internet. It has 75 partners in eight countries, though it eventually hopes to expand to 21 countries and cover 80 percent of the world's intact forests.
"There is good news. Our work is already making some impact which will hopefully conserve more of the intact forests or slow down their destruction," said Jim Strittholt, head of Global Forest Watch - USA. "For example, our mapping work is helping the private sector make better business decisions, which help safeguard the environment."
IKEA, the world's largest home furnishings company, sponsored Global Forest Watch's mapping of intact forests, to assure that they do not get wood supplies from these areas unless they are certified as well-managed.
The European bank ABN Amro is supporting Global Forest Watch's monitoring of the environmental performance of logging companies, in order to promote environmentally friendly lending policies by the investment community.