Estonia looking at €100,000 fine for clearcutting protected areas

RMK clearcutting also impacted Natura 2000 protected habitats in the Otepää Nature Park. PHOTO: Paul Poderat

Estonia is looking at a fine warning of €100,000 a day similarly to Poland unless it stops destroying protected forests. The Ministry of the Environment allows protected areas to be raided and Deputy Secretary General Marku Lamp and State Forest Manager RMK CEO Aigar Kallas to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

“Felling is not taking place in Natura habitats of protected areas on state land – neither in special nor limited management zones,” Marku Lamp said on June 11 or two days after it became known the European Commission had launched infringement proceedings against Estonia for the practice of clear-cutting Natura 2000 areas that has been going on for years.

A few days later, the Environmental Information Association Foundation (SA Keskkonnateabe Ühendus) sent the ministry and the Riigikogu an analysis of the true extent of the devastation. On the day of Marku Lamp’s statement, the state greenlit cutting 636,229 cubic meters or 20,000 truckloads worth of timber on 8,289 hectares of protected areas. This includes 512,488 cubic meters (on 6,562 hectares) in internationally protected Natura 2000 areas.

Felling keeps destroying Natura 2000 habitats where rare and endangered species under international protection can be found. Many of these species only inhabit virgin forests that conservationists say are being destroyed at breakneck speed. Contrary to Lamp’s claims, the state authorized felling in Natura 2000 forest habitats for around 18,015 cubic meters on 255 hectares of state forest and 76,448 cubic meters on around 1,075 hectares of private forests.

The Environmental Information Association Foundation compared currently valid 12-month forest notifications (logging permits) to map layers depicting protected areas. The European Commission launched infringement proceedings over past violations. A total of 15,000 hectares of Natura 2000 forests have been destroyed in Estonia in 2001-2019.

European Union ramping up protection of virgin forests

After making a few excuses, the Ministry of the Environment admitted that both the analysis that led to infringement proceedings and the recent one are accurate, with differences of a few hectares making no impact. Harvesters are destroying protected forests from the inside out like a wasp eats an apple.

At the same time, the ministry presents the public with the “outer layer of the apple” or the total area of protected forests. Explanations by officials working for Marku Lamp revealed that the hocus pocus of looking at surface area is also at the heart of disputes with the Commission.

“The activities of the Ministry of the Environment directly clash with EU measures for limiting the destruction of protected forests, especially the requirements and spirit of the EU Nature Directive,” Siim Kuresoo, head of the Estonian Fund for Nature’s (ELF) forest program, said. His pleas to stop felling in Natura 2000 areas for the duration of infringement proceedings fell on deaf ears.

“The European Parliament on June 9 approved the “EU biodiversity strategy for 2030” resolution. It reads that it is vitally important to place under protection Europe’s remaining primeval and virgin forests and lay down a temporary memorandum on felling to avoid the destruction of these forests before they can be placed under protection.”

Kuresoo said that the Commission’s infringement proceedings memorandum constitutes a proposal to rectify deficiencies outside of court, as opposed to an invitation to open a legal environment debate, which is the ministry’s interpretation. (Marku Lamp: “The European Commission is suggesting we should supplement effects analysis pertaining to management of forests in Natura 2000 areas.”)

Every day stalled profiting industry

Poland, that chose to have a similar debate, was handed a humiliating defeat in the European Court of Justice that culminated in a fine of €100,000 for every day felling in violation of the Nature Directive continues,” Siim Kuresoo pointed out.

“It comes as a surprise that a close circle of environment ministry officials is authorized to take such risks the materialization of which would see the entire country pay for the damage,” Kuresoo said, pointing to the fact that potential fines would be paid from the state budget, not the pockets of Marku Lamp and his associates.

“The infringement procedure is much more serious than the ministry admits. It includes a very thorough treatment of how Estonia completely fails to consider the effect of felling on the integrity of forest habitats in protected areas. The Ministry of the Environment’s position that everything is just fine with Natura 2000 habitats in Estonia is not convincing in the eyes of the European Commission,” MP Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democratic Party) added.

It took Ossinovski six months to gain access to proceedings documents – with the ministry trying to classify documents on a level that would have remained out of reach even of MPs who have access to most state secrets.

(RMK uniform shelterwood cutting in the Marimetsa Ecological Reserve (Natura bird and animal area) limited management zone and Natura habitats. PHOTO: MtÜ Roheline Läänemaa

“Estonia is accused of continued violation of the EU Nature Directive, especially in the form of felling of private forests in Natura 2000 limited management zones, whereas the ministry has denied being in breach of the directive for years,” Siim Kuresoo said.

Jevgeni Ossinovski added that Marku Lamp sent virtually the same message to the European Commission. “The ministry fails to recognize any shortcomings. However, truth be told, it is very difficult not to agree with the Commission’s position,” the MP said after reading proceedings documentation. Stalling efforts have already been launched as the ministry has asked for an extension of nearly six weeks to reply to the Commission’s letter.

Its Polish counterpart deployed the same tactic. Poland started ransacking the Bialowieska primeval forest that is one of the last of its kind in Europe under the guise of bark beetle control efforts in 2016 and stopped in March of this year, when the EU Court fine of €100,000 a day could no longer be escaped.

Every day of stalling profits logging and other timber industry companies. Forest owners are pocketing revenue from the sale of timber as well as Natura 2000 compensation: €60 per hectare annually in limited management zones and €110 per hectare in special management zones.

How does it work in Estonia? “The way protected areas are zoned makes sure habitats fall mostly (!) in special management zones and aims for compliance with the European surface area (!) obligation being fulfilled based on areas in special management zones,” Deputy Director of the Environmental Board Leelo Kukk said.

Further felling in Natura 2000 areas

“Directives carry no obligation to avoid all negative effect on habitats but only such effects that widely impact the integrity of the area and achieving favorable habitat conditions,” Taimo Aasma, head of the ministry’s nature protection department, told the Environmental Information Association Foundation.

“We cannot say at this time whether all acts concerning authorizing felling in Natura areas have been performed sufficiency and correctly as that is what infringement proceedings are meant to determine,” he told Postimees.

The foundation’s analysis compared forest notifications as of June 11, 2021 against protected areas map layers in the EELIS database. Postimees asked the ministry to verify the accuracy of the analysis.

While the ministry promised to do so at first, it eventually refused, saying that a difference of a few hectares would not change the big picture – the analysis is accurate in broad strokes.

RMK clear-cut a long stretch of forest in the Vooremaa Landscape Protection Area, visible on the right side of the protected area on the photograph. PHOTO: Maa-amet

“The Environmental Board has not recognized the foundation’s calculations but said in its reply that their recent analogous query of valid forest notifications for Natura areas yielded more or less the same result, which is why it makes no sense to start counting individual hectares,” Taimo Aasma said.

In its reply to the Environmental Information Association Foundation, Aasma forwarded data according to which valid forest notifications totaled 11,869 on 11,605.41 hectares of land in Natura areas as of June 10, 2021, and protected species habitats, including outside of protected areas (not included in the association’s analysis – ed.), as of June 29, 2021. Forest notifications for all types of cutting in Natura areas were issued for 94,000 hectares in 2011-2020.

Marku Lamp claims that everything is in order. “Natura 2000 areas are protected based on the Nature Conservation Act, conservation regulations consider Natura conservation goals and forest habitats that require strict protection are placed in special management zones. Effects are evaluated when putting together conservation regulations and processing forest notifications in which case the Environmental Board considers the effects of forest management in protected areas in each separate case.”

“Logging in protected areas is taking place because the legal environment makes it possible,” Deputy Director of the Environmental Board Leelo Kukk said, pointing to the fact that while the board can deliberate all it wants, it is no use, as laws made by the Ministry of the Environment make it impossible for the agency to refuse issuing felling permits in Natura 2000 areas.

Conservationists called for lower felling volumes and the resignation of Ministry of the Environment Deputy Secretary General Marku Lamp at a protest meeting on June 15. PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

For some reason, officials are reluctant to mention that the European Commission sees the problem primarily in private forests where the ministry is doing little to stop cutting.

“It is true that some habitat areas have fallen into limited management zones,” Leelo Kukk admits. However, she proceeded to only comment on what is happening in state forests and covering Marku Lamp: “RMK is not logging in habitats or limited management zones. Therefore, habitats are protected also in limited management zones on state land.”

“The Ministry of the Environment is lying and misleading people!” NGO Green Lääne County (Roheline Läänemaa) said, circulating on social media pictures of RMK uniform shelterwood cutting in the Marimetsa Ecological Reserve (Natura bird and animal area) limited management zone and Natura habitats. “These habitats have now been destroyed,” Lääne County conservationists said. Several Natura 2000 areas in the Otepää Landscape Protection Area have seen clear-cutting recently. Felling on nearly a hectare has destroyed three types of Natura 2000 habitats, while another has impacted habitats of 1st and 2nd category protected species.

Leelo Kukk was on leave and unavailable for comment, while Marku Lamp came up with a new version. “A decision by the management board of RMK from 2018 (December 4 – ed.) bans management of woods designated as Natura forest habitats in the limited management zones and conservation areas of protected areas and permanent habitats in state forests managed by RMK.”

As of June 11, RMK has already or plans to cut on 254 hectares of Natura forest habitats.

During Postimees’ correspondence with the ministry, Marku Lamp went on holiday, with Taimo Aasma stepping in: “We would like to clarify that Marku Lamp’s reply concerned cutting on commercial grounds. RMK is not felling for profit in habitats, special or limited management zones.”

Therefore, designating cutting as “non-commercial” is all one needs to be able to clean house in habitats of endangered species under international protection?

Alleged conservation efforts given as the reason

Your use of quotes around the word “non-commercial” seems to suggest a conviction that nature conservation automatically means banning all human activity and maintaining the status quo in relevant areas. This treatment is one-sided and could be misleading,” Aasma replied.

“Felling also takes place on concrete conservational considerations,” Aasma said, changing the subject to swamps and wooded meadows that are being restored using European subsidies which projects are often planned in protected forests that cannot be cut without a reason.

“Reestablishing marshland usually entails filling in ditches and cutting nearby forest stands. Restoring swamp ecosystems and heritage meadows is an important nature conservation priority. These are habitats and feeding grounds for a lot of endangered species. For example, the Eurasian whimbrel, willow grouse and other swamp wading species are not doing well,” Aasma explained.

“Growing forests are not a threat to any species, while forest that has been planted too thick by humans could be an unsuitable habitat for the great grouse.”

Aasma gave other justification for felling in Natura habitats. “RMK cutting notifications overlapping with habitats could also arise in connection with safety concerns (such as the felling of dangerous trees near paths and trails). “What this means is RMK issuing a forest notice should it prove necessary to cut down trees that have become a danger on a hiking trail. It does not mean cutting takes place everywhere in the appropriated area. Only the trees that have become a danger to hikers will be removed.

Aasma “forgot” that forest notifications list the type of cutting and its cubic meter target. A clear-cut hectare yielding 300 cubic meters of timber points to a “dangerous” pine grove that has been growing for a hundred years.

The ministry is attempting to highlight a few exceptional cases to hide its extensive activity,” Siim Kuresoo said.

Pine cultures on dunes are thinned out and gaps created to give stands a more natural look,” the Environmental Board said of what it considers to be “conservational” felling on 110 hectares of the Nõva Ecological Reserve in Lääne County. PHOTO: Kati-riin Simisker

While Kuresoo regards efforts to restore swampland and other ecosystems to be warranted, more extensive than necessary logging using heavy machinery remains questionable and angers conservationists.

Outrage was sparked in the Nõva Ecological Reserve. “Pine cultures on dunes are thinned out and gaps created to give stands a more natural look,” entrepreneur Kristjan Võrno read from documentation pertaining to felling on 110 hectares.

“And then you go there and see the forest being cut down for round logs under the guise of conservation,” he said.

Forest notices reveal prevarication on part of RMK head

On June 15, when the Environmental Board and the ministry had admitted that the reality differs from Marku Lamp’s claims, RMK CEO Aigar Kallas remained loyal to the deputy secretary general: “What Marku Lamp said is still true – Natura habitats are areas where felling does not take place for RMK.”

Kallas ignored a chart he received from Postimees detailing recent RMK cutting in protected areas, including Natura habitats.

“We would like to point out that RMK carries out different conservation work in cooperation with administrator the Environmental Board, including restoring semi-natural biotic communities and wetlands that require the removal of woody flora,” Kallas said of felling in protected areas. “Some of these areas no doubt coincide with places where 1st and 2nd category protected species have been found as well as Natura habitats.”

This creates the illusion of all RMK felling in protected Natura habitats being conservational work coordinated with the Environmental Board. Forest notifications designate whether felling serves conservational goals.

If no relevant comment is added, logging simply serves the purpose of generating revenue. The notifications also reveal that both RMK and private forest owners prefer more destructive clear-cutting in protected areas.

Ministry tried to stop a member of parliament

The Ministry of the Environment refused to release European Commission infringement proceedings materials and the ministry’s relevant correspondence with the Commission to a member of the Riigikogu over nearly six weeks. “Because the ministry tends to cover tings up and lie when it comes to the forest topic, we cannot rule out the ministry having also presented the Commission with false data concerning Natura habitats,” Jevgeni Ossinovski said in terms of why he applied for the data from the ministry. “The ministry spent weeks looking for harebrained excuses to hinder parliamentary control. At first, I was told they would need a week to find the materials. Next, it was suggested the European Commission does not allow Estonian agencies to share proceedings materials.” Ossinovski described the latter argument as ridiculous. “MPs even have state secrets clearance as the activities of the government cannot be monitored without credible information.” “The infringement proceedings documentation has been designed for in-house use only by the European Commission. We are working on a procedure for accessing the documentation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Riigikogu, and it has taken time,” Taimo Aasma explained. Ossinovski finally received the materials on July 15, with the Riigikogu Environment Committee set to discuss infringement proceedings in mid-August.

A few examples

RMK just cut 1.41 hectares of forest close to nesting sites of crane in the Nabala-Tuhala Ecological Reserve in Harju County. The felling served no other purpose than extracting 305 solid cubic meters of timber.

Environmental Board “restrictions” on forest notices are not an obstacle for clear-cutting: “Cutting (including transport of timber) needs to take place outside cranes’ breeding and nesting period that spans from April 1 to July 15. The area needs to retain old crop trees in the volume of 20 cubic meters per hectare.”

RMK cut down a hectare of pine forest more than a century old for 364 cubic meters of timber in the Oodsipalu grouse habitat limited management zone in the Meenikunno Ecological Reserve in Põlva County.

“Infringement proceedings have not been brought against RMK, which is why we are planning no changes in our activities,” RMK CEO Aigar Kallas said when asked whether RMK is willing to cease felling for the duration of European Commission infringement proceedings.

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