Challenges and opportunities for managing the Caspian Hyrcanian Forests

March 14, 2016 - 0:0

TEHRAN — Human-induced warming of the climate is expected to continue throughout the 21st century and beyond. Our climate is influenced significantly by changes in atmospheric CO2 levels as a human-induced pollutant.

Forests play a crucial role in storing carbon (in their timber and soils) and good forest management can help to avoid CO2 emissions. Destruction and degradation of forests around the world is increasing, and this change could enhance global warming by adding to CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, as well as reducing biodiversity. Forests take up about 90 percent of the carbon removed from the atmosphere as CO2 by terrestrial ecosystems and store 20-100 times more carbon per hectare than agricultural lands.

Deforestation can also affect precipitation, causing the region’s climate to get hotter and drier, and soils to be eroded. The importance of forests, especially in arid regions like Iran, cannot be exaggerated.

The Caspian Hyrcanian forests contain remnants from the Tertiary period and are rich in relic and endemic species. Whilst in many parts of Europe and Siberia forests were unable to survive the cold temperatures, the climate near the Caspian Sea remained milder, which allowed the survival of much of the forest including some species which consequently became endemic to the Caspian Hyrcanian forests.

The combination of a moderate climate, rugged topography, varied geology, and geographic proximity to both Europe and the Near East, account for the uniqueness and complexity of plants and wildlife here. There are currently around 150 endemic species of trees and shrubs in the Caspian Hyrcanian forests, including the Hyrcanian box tree (Buxus hyrcana), Caucasian pear (Pyrus communis subsp. caucasica), Caucasian oak (Quercus macranthera), Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) and Caucasian lime (Tilia x euchlora).

The Alborz and Tallish mountain ranges run for 1,000 kilometers from the northwest of Iran to the northeast, separating the low-lying Caspian coast from the Iranian plateau. The cold northern front of the Alborz Mountains meets the mild climate of the Caspian Sea coast and forms a warm and wet subtropical climate in summer and a cold humid climate in winter.

This climate is ideal for deciduous broad-leaved forest, which covers the northern slopes from sea level to the timber-line and stretching 800 kilometers from Astara to East Gorgan, in a belt approximately 110 kilometers wide. The total forested region covers an area of over 1.8million hectares, or 1.1% of the land area of Iran.

It encompasses parts of five provinces of the northern border of Iran from west to east, including Ardabil, Gilan, Mazandaran, Golestan and North Khorasan. Historically Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan, which make up the majority of the forested region, were known as Hyrcania; therefore, the area is now known as the Caspian Hyrcanian Mixed Forest Ecoregion, and has been labelled a Global 200 Ecoregion by World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The Caspian Hyrcanian Forest Project is a pioneer project in Iran which is designed around the premise that decision-makers and local communities must together support the sustainable management and restoration of the Caspian Forests. It is being implemented by United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Forests, Rangelands and Watershed Organization (FRWO), with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The project aims to conserve biodiversity in key landscapes within the Caspian Hyrcanian forest ecosystems by first strengthening the national and local policy framework governing land use in the Caspian Hyrcanian forests, nest enhancing the rights and roles of the local communities in their management, and finally demonstrating ways and means of improving management (including land use planning, zoning, compliance monitoring and enforcement).

The project works at three levels: strategic policy and regulatory interventions across the whole 1.8 million hectares forest; integrated management for multi-purpose forestry demonstrated in 4 pilot basins totaling 120,000 hectares; community-based management demonstrated in 30,000 hectares within the pilot landscapes. Capacity building is a key theme at all three levels.

Tehran Times had an interview with Dr. Mike Moser, international advisor of the Caspian Hyrcanian Forest Project. Dr. Moser has experience and contacts regarding large-scale ecosystem conservation in more than 30 countries, and with leading international organizations and conventions such as Ramsar and Bonn Conventions, GEF, UNDP and international NGOs.

Q: What are your impressions of the Hyrcanian Forests? How much has your view changed especially because of indiscriminate use of forest resources?

A: My impressions of the Hyrcanian forest have evolved as I came to know the area better. During my first journey along the Caspian coast, I was astonished by the sheer scale of the forests (after all, the largest intact forest in my own country (England) is just 65,000 hectares, compared to the 1.9 million hectares of the Hyrcanian forests!).

Then, visiting the intact forests of Gilan province and elsewhere, I was struck by their great beauty, diversity and often inaccessibility as they rise up towards the magnificent peak of Dorfac, Gilan province. But what strikes me most, when comparing the Caspian region to the rest of Iran, is the climate and abundance of water. These forests are the lungs and kidneys of this remarkable area, essential for providing clean air, water and such wonderful opportunities for both the economy and quality of life of people living in, and visiting, the Caspian area. They are a resource that deserves looking after very, very carefully.

Certainly there are some big challenges, and I have visited areas where large areas of forest have been converted to agriculture, or have been damaged by poorly planned infrastructure development. Over-grazing is also a serious issue in many areas, and of course the biggest question arises from the impacts of climate change. But all is not lost! Thanks to the FRWO’s management and re-afforestation programs, the area of forest is actually increasing again, and if the UNDP/GEF Caspian Hyrcanian Forest Project can achieve its aims, then the prospects for better management overall are good.

Q: Which steps accomplished for biodiversity monitoring so far?

A: I was very (pleasantly) surprised when I heard that the FRWO had, already (more than 2 decades ago), established a permanent grid of sampling plots throughout the Hyrcanian forest to monitor forest condition. This has already been very helpful to the FRWO in their work on forest management plans and has contributed to the very strong research/knowledge base on the trees (and to a lesser extent, the flora) of the Hyrcanian Forests.

But much less is known about the other biodiversity (mammals, birds, invertebrates), and about the social and cultural aspects of the forests. Understanding and monitoring these issues is crucial to informing how changes in forest management affect the forests for people and biodiversity. For this reason, the project has undertaken detailed baseline assessments in its four pilot basins to better understand some of these issues.

Q: Why endemic species are important?

A: It is extraordinary to think that the Caspian Tiger still roamed the coastal plains and lowland forests of the area just a few decades ago! The extinction of this remarkable top predator from the area is a loss to present and future generations that can never be replaced. And the Hyrcanian forests are full of so many more treasures like this – not least the other top predator, the leopard.

Already, a staggering 3000+ plant species have been recorded in the Caspian provinces of Iran – including many endemic trees and other plants - and surely many more (especially new invertebrate) species still remain to be discovered. Collectively and individually, every one of these species is important – making up the biodiversity that is the Hyrcanian Forest. Each one plays its own role in the ecosystem and together they provide all the benefits of the forests for people: clean air, abundant water, landscape, timber, berries, honey, recreation, inspiration – the list is endless….

Q: As I know this project managed a bird-watching plan in 2014, what was the object of this work and what was your method for biodiversity evaluation?

A: As part of our work to understand how forest condition affects biodiversity, the project carried out a detailed bird survey in the 4 pilot basins in the spring of 2014. This survey was remarkable in being the first extensive survey of the birds of the Hyrcanian forests, as well as the first holistic survey of birds to be undertaken by volunteer amateurs and professional ornithologists in Iran since the (Islamic) Revolution of 1979.

Twenty-four volunteer, experienced ornithologists surveyed 94 of the FRWO fixed plots, recording all birds seen or heard during a one-hour period. The results revealed a rich abundance of forest birds, but immediately raised many questions. Just looking at maps of the abundance of woodpeckers raises the question as to why these species are abundant in some parts of the forest, but not others. The near-endemic Caspian Tit was found in just 6 of the plots. Analyses are ongoing to link the forest condition data to the results of the bird surveys.

Q: What is your evaluation at this point?
A: The project is approaching its mid-point, and has made some very good progress. Work to prepare integrated management plans for each of the four pilot basins is well advanced, with strong inputs from all stakeholders especially the local communities. Local Coordination Committees have been established in the pilot basins, and a Regional Coordination Committee is also established by the three province Governors and is overseeing the preparation of the Green Development Strategy for the forests.

Important studies have been completed to map and evaluate the ecosystem services provided by the forests, to understand the socio-economy of the area, and to identify options for low impact ecotourism and alternative livelihoods, and zoning options. Many training courses have already been held. A significant achievement has been made in mobilizing the local communities in the pilot basins.

This is really important particularly in terms of developing community forestry and in ensuring that local people play a bigger role in looking after the forests. Several women’s groups have already found new livelihood opportunities in making handicrafts, several villages have started work on waste management, and other community initiatives are under way.

I was really delighted when the local women from Chehelchai, Golestan province, gained a great success through winning the first prize at the First National Women Startup Weekend in Isfahan on December 18, 2015. These rural women clearly showed everyone that if they are provided with equal opportunities, they can showcase their capacities and make enormous development change.

Q: would you like to add any comments?

A: Perhaps the thing that surprises me the most is that, outside Iran, so few people are aware of the existence of the Hyrcanian Forest. This needs to change, and this remarkable natural jewel should be placed on the world map. The project needs to think hard how it can help to achieve this.

Working with colleagues in the FRWO, the project team and UNDP is also a great pleasure. It is wonderful to be part of a team where everyone is so committed to making a real improvement to the management of the forest. For such a remarkable place, it is a very big responsibility for all of us!


I was really delighted when the local women from Chehelchai, Golestan province, gained a great success through winning the first prize at the First National Women Startup Weekend in Isfahan on December 18, 2015. These rural women clearly showed everyone that if they are provided with equal opportunities, they can showcase their capacities and make enormous development change