Environment minister sacks forestry plan steering committee

Rain Epler (foreground) appearing before the Riigikogu earlier in the week.
Rain Epler (foreground) appearing before the Riigikogu earlier in the week. Source: Erik Peinar/Office of the Riigikogu

Environment minister Rain Epler (EKRE) has sacked a committee tasked with developing a national forestry development plan, citing slow progress. One environmental group has said that the move was to pave the way for big business, however, particularly with regard to tree-felling volumes.

Epler said the committee had been dragging its heels in coming up with a draft of the plan, which covers the period to 2030 and is know as MAK2030 for short, and should have had the finished product ready in September (Epler became minister last month – ed.).

Epler said, via spokespersons, that: "The discussions at the steering committee meetings had become very unfocussed, as increasingly detailed subjects were being added on a continual basis, which has resulted in a loss of focus in the drafting of the national strategy document," Epler was quoted by spokespeople as saying. 

Epler says a new steering committee will replace the outgoing one, after consulting with internal ministry officials and also external experts – the latter should be the driving force behind the plan's content, he said, while a steering committee's job is to keep things on track and solve conflicts of opinion.

MAK2030 began in 2018

MAK2030's drafting process started in 2018 and has, according to BNS, been one of the largest ever inclusion projects in Estonia, involving practically the entire nation.

Epler's predecessor Rene Kokk stepped down in early November, citing ill health, though speculation at the time suggested issues related to the forest plan and the management of a resource which has a huge impact on both Estonia's economy and, more esoterically, its national psyche.

Close to 50 percent of the country is forested, around half of that managed by the state forestry commission, the RMK. Protests outside RMK offices in Tallinn are not unknown.

Epler hired from the private sector

Epler was not promoted from the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) Riigikogu bench, though he is reportedly a party member, but instead was plucked from the private sector, where he was an entrepreneur, to fulfill the task.

The role, despite its name, carries with it a wide purview of business interests, with sectors such as wind power on the related issuing of contracts being of immediate interest to the ministry.

Epler says he also plans to call a meeting of the ministry's forestry council to look at ways of getting the national forestry development plan back on track.

Environmental group: Steering committee victim of cancel culture

An environmental NGO, Eesti Metsa Abiks (EMA), says that the steering committee was swept aside in favor of business interests, however.

The EMA said: "The steering group was actually made up of top experts in forestry as well as most influential interest groups from both the timber industry and ecology, and the primary reason why no 'compromises' were reached was that representatives of the timber industry were not prepared to make any concessions in their inflated expectations even though the conservationists were willing to compromise."

"A compromise cannot mean, however, that industry representatives are allowed to impose without any intervention such an intense burden on our forests - one that would continue to damage our ecological, cultural and social assets and one that both experts and elected representatives have been alerting the public to for years," the EMA went on, according to BNS.

EMA former steering committee member: Incompetent ministry officials to blame

EMA coordinator and former steering committee member Linda-Mari Väli said: "The new minister is using the poor work of leading officials in the process as an excuse for removing from the decision-making process interest groups which protect the environmental, cultural and social assets of Estonia's forests."

The EMA named names when it came to claims of incompetence, notably ministry deputy secretary Marku Lamp, who, the EMA says, left the steering committee virtually rudderless in considering different potential visions for Estonia's forests after he rejected the development plan's impact assessment.

This assessment was led by the Estonian Institute for Sustainable Development (SEIT) with contributions made by distinguished experts from all relevant fields. It also restricted annual tree-felling to eight million cubic meters, from an average per year of 11 million cubic meters over the preceding decade, at a time when the timber industry was seeking an increase in felling rights.

The ministry's official reason for rejecting the impact assessment was that it was excessively focused on the ecological situation of forests, and mitigation of climate change.

Rain Epler has already approved a separate, five-year forestry regeneration plan.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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