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Ukrainians prepare for winter by cutting down trees, raising concerns about forests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russia's attacks on Ukraine's energy and heating infrastructure have left millions of people wondering how they'll stay warm over the coming winter. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on efforts, legal and otherwise, to supply Ukrainians with firewood.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW BUZZING)

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: In a light rain, among jumbled, spent Russian artillery shells, a Ukrainian man saws away at a half-burnt tree, its top a fray of splintered wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW BUZZING)

ROTT: His co-worker Oleh beckons us over to look at rubble covering the forest floor - Oleh not being his real name because this logging isn't strictly legal and because he's still nervous after being held and tortured, he says, by Russian soldiers when they occupied this northeast corner of Ukraine.

OLEH: (Through interpreter) So you can see that these are the boxes. They were full of shells. Then there was fire. And you can see that only metal pieces of these wooden boxes are left. You can see them everywhere.

ROTT: Whew.

This was a Russian ammunition depot hidden in the woods outside of the town of Izium. It was hit by Ukrainian artillery strikes during their counteroffensive in mid-September.

OLEH: (Through interpreter) And there are a lot of woods like this in Izium.

ROTT: Woods that are damaged, mined, littered with unexploded ordnance, too unsafe for anyone working in an official capacity to deal with.

So I understand you collect wood that you then bring to people in Izium, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: "(Speaking Russian)?"

OLEH: (Speaking Russian).

ROTT: Is there a big need for firewood?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: "(Speaking Russian)?"

OLEH: (Speaking Russian).

ROTT: "Of course," he says. "I get a lot of requests because in some areas of this place there's no electricity," he says, "no natural gas. So this is the only way to get heat."

Ukrainian officials acknowledge millions of people are in a difficult position because of Russia's concentrated attacks on the country's heating and electrical infrastructure. But it's environment ministry, responsible for the country's forests, is urging people to not do this, not collect their own firewood, making it a crime punishable by fines. Ruslan Strilets is the country's environment minister.

RUSLAN STRILETS: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "Because of the trenches, the explosions and fires," he says, "one-third of Ukrainian woodland has been damaged by war."

That figure, one-third of the country's forests, could not be verified. But it's what has environmental groups in the country concerned too. Some have set up websites to report people illegally harvesting wood. Strilets says he doesn't anticipate it being a huge issue, though.

STRILETS: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "I don't think there are a lot of cases like this," he says. "And it shouldn't be needed," he adds, "because of an effort by the state, an effort to supply people with wood through a government-run program."

(SOUNDBITE OF CRANE MOVING)

ROTT: In the densely wooded Zhytomyr region east of Kyiv, you get a small scale of that government effort. Among rail lines, a crane moves bundles of freshly cut logs, piling them two stories high. The whole area is huge.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRANE MOVING)

ROTT: Dmytro Hotsuliak, the director of the state forestry enterprise, points at one grouping of piles.

DMYTRO HOTSULIAK: (Through interpreter) That's about 200 railway cars.

ROTT: Two hundred railway-cars worth of firewood - in normal years, Ukraine makes roughly 2.5 million cubic meters of firewood available for people to purchase. This year, Hotsuliak says, they've more than doubled it.

So Russia's goal of trying to make everybody here really cold this winter ain't going to happen?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: "(Speaking Ukrainian)?"

HOTSULIAK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ROTT: "They try to scare the residents and cause a lot of problems," Hotsuliak says, "but there will be no problem with supplying people with firewood."

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWOOD BEING LOADED)

ROTT: In hard-to-reach parts of Ukraine, though, like Izium, where the sounds of artillery fire can still be heard, Oleh, the illegal logger, takes a break from loading firewood into the back of a bus. He's doubtful that state-logged wood will make it here, he says, or that people will be able to afford it. That's why they're here, despite the risks. I ask if he's worried about being fined or stepping on a mine.

OLEH: (Through interpreter) I think that freezing temperatures are scarier than forestry (laughter).

ROTT: Scarier than logging amidst explosives - Nathan Rott, NPR News, Izium, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.

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