A major conservation organization is urging Russia to implement responsible and sustainable forestry practices to better preserve the nation's unique natural treasures. The World Wildlife Fund made the appeal as world leaders meet in Johannesburg for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development.

After a four-year study, the World Wildlife Fund has issued a report criticizing Russia for mismanaging its valuable forests, especially in southern Siberia and the Russian Far East.

The WWF says Russia's forests face a significant threat from what the group calls, inappropriate management and illegal logging, fueled by increasing wood consumption in neighboring countries.

In the region, the forests are virtually unique to Russia. Similar forests have largely been destroyed in China, Japan and the Korean peninsula.

The co-author of the report, Anatoly Kotlobay, says the most alarming thing the WWF found was the scope of the illegal timber trade.

"There is a very high level of illegal logging in some parts of Russia," he said. "For example, in the Far East, we estimate about 50 percent of logging is illegal logging, and it is approximately the same picture in northwest Russia and in the Caucasus."

To profit as much as possible, Mr. Kotlobay says the loggers will often violate responsible cutting technologies. He says most illegal logging is by what is called high-grading or "skimming," when only one or two high-quality logs are used from every 10 felled trees.

Mr. Kotlobay says WWF estimates that the illegal logging trade in Siberia alone nets about $300 million each year. He says other regions, including the Russian Far East and the Caucasus, bring in about the same amount, and all away from the eyes and coffers of government tax and customs collectors. He says most of the illegal timber trade is with Japan.

Mr. Kotlobay says the cost to Russia is not only financial, but ecological. He says the WWF believes the trade endangers Russia's already threatened Siberian tiger and Amur leopard populations. He says it also wreaks havoc on the ecosystem as a whole, because forests in both regions have a huge storage capacity of carbon dioxide believed to lessen the intensity of climate change.

In a bid to pressure loggers to change their ways, the WWF has designated a so-called responsibility rating of leading Russian wood exporters to Japan. It also is urging business and government leaders not to engage in trade with firms designated as poor performers.

One of four companies to receive the lowest performance rating is Ruslesprom Trading of Siberia. The WWF says the company exhibits a high percentage of illegal logging and a low level of transparency. The company's public relations director, Natalya Lukina, told VOA the rating is a mistake, saying the company's biggest problem is that it did not implement a western-style mass media campaign to publicize its good works in Siberia. At the same time, she said fierce competition makes it tough to stay on the right side of the law. But she said it is her firm belief it is the only way to have a future in the timber industry.

Ms. Lukina said that for the first few years, Ruslesprom Trading did not earn enough money to fund the firm's activities. But she said that recently, profit margins have been better, affording the company the chance to broaden its production.

She says companies who practice illegal logging are in business only a brief time, before having to close to avoid detection, or failing altogether.

The WWF's Anatoly Kotlobay welcomed Ms. Lukina's comments. But he said he fears she is merely exhibiting a practice also shared by the government.

"Now we investigate some interest from government structures to the problem of illegal logging and sustainable forestry in Russia, [but] that is only in words or only on paper. Unfortunately there are no real actions from the government side to solve the problem of illegal logging and to develop sustainable forestry in Russia," he said.

Many environmentalists say Russian President Vladimir Putin is to blame, after abolishing the State Committee for Ecology as one of his first items of business after assuming office.

Its functions were taken over by the Ministry for Natural Resources, which manages the country's forests. But ecologists say that makes the agency effectively gamekeeper and poacher.

Russia's Ministry for Natural Resources has declined comment.

But in a recent meeting with scientists from a Far Eastern Sea preserve, President Putin spoke of the need for new environmental laws in Russia. As environmental problems accumulate, he said cooperation and joint efforts should be organized with Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Mongolia.

Mr. Kotlobay of the World Wildlife Fund says he hopes Russia will see changes within the timber industry, especially, within the next few years. Or else, he says he fears that illegal loggers will be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

He says due to intensive illegal harvesting during the past decades, mature forests of ecological and commercial value have decreased by nearly 50 percent in Russia's Far East, with similar losses elsewhere. An unnecessary decline, according to the World Wildlife Fund, for what could be a viable growth industry for Russia and a biodiversity boon for her neighbors.