Geographically the Steppe or Grassland Zone covers 40 % of Ukrainian territory. Today the main problem of the steppe is a wide-scale plowing up. The area of lands under plough in some regions amounts to 85-90% of their total territory. Moreover buildings, industrial enterprises, roads and other communications also occupy wide spaces. Therefore the area of natural steppe fragments (‘frægments) is miserable, and covers less than 3 % of Ukrainian territory. At the same time the Steppe Zone is one of the richest habitats in Ukraine. Third part of all the plant and animal species included into the Red Data Book of Ukraine are steppe species. There is a paradox situation when the steppe is almost absent in the Steppe Zone.

However a new thread for the steppe has arisen. Ukrainian authorities have declared the enlargement of forests as one of the main priorities (prai’oritis) of ecological politics. 29.12.08 (3 years ago) State Agency of Forest Resources (SAFR) issued the Order (decree) No.371 in which the optimal indexes of forest area for each Ukrainian region were elaborated. According to the Order the main areas for afforistation are situated on the state reserve lands of steppe regions.

Most of these lands consists of ravines (small flat-bottom valleys or “balka” – sing.), cloughs (klafs), and slopes along rivers which are the typical steppe fragments. Artificial afforestation of steppe lands changes entirely vegetation (vejiteishion) cover and species composition. Moreover, it is usually made with alien (‘eiliən) or strange tree species from other continents, for example using North American species Robinia pseudacacia. This species has no local phytophages and indigenous plant diseases. After fires there is neither steppe nor forest on the place of fire. Steppe landscape transforms into bushes of Robinia which entirely suppress and crowd out grassland vegetation. Thus, a good intention to increase forest area has endangered the existence of last steppes. That is why ecologists have established the public campaign “Save Ukrainian steppes!” for protection of grasslands.

In fact afforestation of steppe fragments violates the requirements of the Laws of Ukraine “About the Red Book of Ukraine”, ”About Plant World” and “Bern Convention”, Convention of Biological Diversity. These legislative acts forbid destruction of natural habitats. Unfortunately, the transfer of lands for afforestation takes into account only their suitability or unsuitability for agricultural purposes neglecting environmental value.

In a great measure enlargement of forests is based on the ratification of Kyoto Protocol by our country. However, Kyoto Protocol indicates not only forests as ecosystems which can accumulate CO2 (dai’oksaid). It calls “forests and other ecosystems”. Why cannot the steppe fulfill this function?

Scientists call the steppe a “forest upside-down” because the weight of grass roots is much more than the weight of top plant parts. Dead organic (o:’gænik) matter decomposes slowly, and doesn’t burn down being disposed below the ground surface. Forests planted on steppe lands build theirs tissues lifting carbon compounds from the soil to biomass above the land surface. However, young forests often burn down and make emissions of the carbon dioxide accumulated by grasses during thousands years in the soil, and CO2 accumulated during photosynthesis of trees. Thus, afforestation of the steppe sometimes aggravates greenhouse effect. Biological conservation of carbon dioxide must not exterminate natural landscapes and should fit to conditions of natural geographic zones. Such a principle is mentioned in Outlook 3 “Global Biodiversity”.

One of the biggest problems in the protection of steppes is absence of law-term or legal (juridical) definition “steppe” in the Ukrainian legislation (lejis’leishion) in fact. Usually steppes are indicated in official documents as degraded and low-yielding agricultural lands. When we protest against steppe afforestation we often receive official answers of SAFR (forest agency) with following argumentation: “SAFR doesn’t afforest steppes, it afforests degraded, eroded and low-yielding lands”. But usually steppes and low-yielding lands are one and the same.

The natural Forest Zone of Ukraine (that is Carpathians (Ka:’peithiənz) and Polesye) has the most suitable climate conditions for a quick growth of forests. But SAFR doesn’t want to plant new forests on the large-scale felled areas there. Why? Because deforested territories (or felled forests) are often indicated as real forests in official documents. Therefore SAFR tries to enlarge forest area in the Steppe Zone to get well statistics (and money). Analyzing satellite observation we can see that most of artificial forests of the Steppe Zone are in suppressed state now and they are rather light thin forests like savanna. They cannot provide essential accumulation of organic matter because suffer from fire and droughts.

It is impossible to say that forests never grew in the Steppe Zone. Hundred years ago they were situated along riversides of wide steppe rivers like Dnieper or Samara. These areas could be used for forest restoration in the Steppe Zone but now riversides are built with cottages. There is a strange situation: where must be steppes somebody wants to set forests, but where must be forests somebody builds luxurious houses.

It is important to note steppe defenders are not against enlargement of forests in Ukraine. We stand for correct selection of lands for afforestation only. Forest Agency explains steppe afforestation as a compensatory mechanism of high anthropogenic pressure in these regions. However such an approach means additional interference (inte’fierense) in the nature. The contradiction between us and SAFR is not a conflict of persons. This is a conflict of worldviews. We try to keep modern principle of wildlife protection: “man’s non-domination under nature”. We are against an anthropocentric strategy of “improvement of the nature”. All human activity should maximally correspond to nature state and conditions. Therefore we consider the Steppe Zone first at all must consist of steppe landscapes, and the Forest Zone must consist of forests. It is so simply. Partly we admit possibility of afforeststion of some small territories in the Steppe Zone, for example, territories destroyed by mining industry, and river flood plains. We support planting of protective forest strips against erosion on the arable fields. However, we are totally against afforestation of territories with natural steppe flora and fauna.

We understand the main cause of the problem of forest and steppe restoration in the world is a deficiency of free lands. For example, 70 % of Ukraine is agricultural lands and most of them are private. It is very difficult to return part of them into natural state because exact legal approaches for this are absent or not perfect.
A new generation of people must understand the correct landscape is a natural wild landscape. We are sure it is necessary to direct international efforts to reservation of grassland fragments in the Steppe Zone, and restoration of the steppe on eroded plow-lands. Current situation in environment calls us to return considerable part of disturbed ecosystems into wild state again. Otherwise we will have catastrophic consequences because the absence of permanent natural plant cover is a direct way to total desertification.

We appeal secretariats of international conventions ratified by Ukraine and all environmental organizations of the world to support our requirements to Ukrainian authorities to forbid the planting of forests on steppe areas because it causes a direct destruction of habitats and the extermination of species populations which are under protection of international conventions.

Oleksiy Burkovsky