Branching Out to Save the Mongolian Forestlands

grassland steppe of Mongolia

While the Mongolian landscape is dominated by the grassland steppe, what little forestland the country has is threatened by deforestation. (Photo credit: Ocean/Corbis)

You normally don’t think of forests when you think of Mongolia, a country known for its extensive grasslands. Forestland, however, accounts for about 8 percent of the Mongolian landscape. Unfortunately, this percentage is decreasing quickly, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Studies show that up to 150 million trees are lost each year in Mongolian forests, for an overall decrease in forestlands of about 10 percent since 1990. The consequences of shrinking forestlands range from the environmental, such as the effect it has on the water cycle, to the economic, such as higher food prices. While there have been some attempts by the Mongolian government to address the issue of deforestation, for a long time these actions have been ineffective and unfocused. Increasing pressure is being placed on the entire region to reverse the deforestation trend through both environmental action and better resource management.

Mongolia is located in a transition region between the deserts of Central Asia and the boreal taiga of Southern Siberia. With no large bodies of water nearby to help moderate the climate, Mongolia experiences cold winters and hot summers. Rainfall in the region is very low, with annual averages ranging from 100 mm per year in the desert regions to 800 mm per year in the forests, all of which typically falls between the months of May and September.

Where exactly are the threats to forests coming from? Primarily, they’re a result of resource mismanagement. Environmental studies have shown that only 60 percent of the total harvested timber gets used in a profitable way. Compounding this problem  is the fact that Mongolian forest rangers, whose job it is to protect the land, lack training and are poorly paid, giving them both little ability and desire to do their job effectively. As trees disappear, the water cycle is affected and the already sparse rainfall is at risk of becoming even lower. This, of course, does nothing to help reverse the trend. In fact, it only increases the chances of unpredictable weather, such as an excessively harsh winter. These devastating climatic conditions cause those in poorer parts of the country to move to larger cities, such as Ulaanbaatar, and, due to a lack of opportunities, leads to an increase in unemployment levels. Interestingly, the migration of populations from the countryside to cities also decreases tourism, as many visit Mongolia to catch a glimpse of shepherds tending to their flocks in the country’s remote areas. While not a direct threat to the forests, it shows that maintaining shepherding communities benefits the entire country.

In addition, the biodiversity in the forest regions is also threatened by what might perhaps be the region’s greatest claim to fame: the herding of the goats that provide fur for cashmere sweaters. The demand for cashmere in Western markets has grown so significantly in recent years that herders are occupying more and more grazing land, displacing and even killing species such as snow leopard, wild yak, chiru, saiga, Bactrian camel, gazelles, and other already endangered species of Central Asia.

Steps have been taken since the 1970s to help counteract the effects of deforestation. While forestlands have steadily been reclaimed, the rate is simply not fast enough. Also, the methods used to replant the forests are not always the best, so it’s questionable if they can be sustained. Most agree that the problem can only be solved by concerted action on all levels. Herd sizes need to be restricted and they must not spill into forestlands. The harvesting of timber also needs to be monitored to ensure that it’s accomplished with the least amount of waste. In addition, forest rangers must be better trained and fairly compensated to enforce the protections placed on forestland. Most of all, however, all believe that the problem will only go away with increased education of the entire population to the consequences of deforestation. Everyone must have a better understanding of the consequences of human actions on the environment and the need to respect the land.

More to Explore
Why Mongolia Needs Trees
Nomad Green: Mongolia On the Brink of Eco-Catastrophe
Mongolia Is Turning to Wind Power, Despite Its Significant Coal Reserves

Country: Mongolia

Location: Mongolia is located in northern Asia between China and Russia.

Area: 1,564,116 sq km (slightly smaller than Alaska)

Climate: Desert conditions (large daily/seasonal temperature ranges)

Terrain: The terrain in Mongolia includes desert plains, grassy steppe, and mountains.

Natural Resources: Coal, copper, fluorspar, gold, iron, molybdenum, nickel, oil, phosphates, silver, tungsten, zinc

Economics: $15.17 billion (est. 2012)

Environmental Issues: Urbanization, desertification, pollution, deforestation, habitat destruction

Source: CIA – The World Factbook 


What Do You Think?