Estonian court suspends logging at Natura 2000 sites

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Logging in an RMK forest. Source: RMK

The Tallinn Administrative Court has banned logging at Natura 2000 sites under interim injunction - the dispute concerns a total of 106 forest notifications.

Tallinn Administrative Court agreed to the application submitted by pro-forest environmental NGO Eesti Metsa Abiks (EMA). Natura 2000 is a network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species and spans all 27 EU countries, both on land and at sea.

Indrek Kukk and Karin Marosov, the attorneys at law representing EMA in court, said that this is one of the most important environmental disputes of this decade.

"In February of this year, EMA began to analyze how many forest notifications the Environmental Board has issued for logging in Natura 2000 areas over the past year. It appeared that dozens of protected forests and permanent habitats in nature and bird areas are at risk," Kukk, an attorney at law at the PwC Legal law firm, said.

He added that the complaint submitted to the court concerned forest notifications in twelve nature and bird areas. No complaint was lodged in respect of areas where the forest had already been felled.

It is also noteworthy that the European Commission recently initiated infringement proceedings against Estonia for failing to properly implement the environmental impact assessment requirements laid down in EU law when permitting logging at Natura 2000 sites.

"Similarly to the circumstances of the infringement proceedings initiated by the European Commission, we are also guided by the fact that the Environmental Board has not carried out appropriate environmental impact assessments when registering forest notifications," the attorney at law said. "According to the consistent case law of the European Court of Justice, any activity which is not directly linked to the achievement of the conservation objective of a Natura 2000 site must be presumed to have significant effects on the environment. In any event, the felling carried out on the basis of the contested forest notifications was not linked to the attainment of conservation objectives, which means that an appropriate environmental impact assessment should have been carried out in order to consider logging authorization at all."

According to Kukk, in the case of the contested forest notifications, it is important to take into account their cumulative effects. In many cases, dozens of forest notifications have been registered regarding a single nature or bird area in a short period of time. For example, in the Taarikonnu-Kaisma bird area, a total of 13 forest notifications were registered from October 5 to December 17 last year, mainly for clear-cutting on approximately 21 hectares.

Thus, even if the negative environmental impact of felling under a single forest notification may not be significant, it may have a significant negative impact on protected sites in combination. According to the Habitats Directive, the impact of a proposed activity on the integrity of a Natura 2000 site must be assessed unless a significant adverse effect on the Natura 2000 site from the proposed activity or project, including in combination with other projects, has been objectively ruled out.

Foreign media has also drawn attention to increasingly extensive logging in protected Estonian forests. For example, on January 20, Postimees published an article entitled "Danish media: Biomass from protected areas in Estonia burning in Danish furnaces".

The article refers to an investigative article published in Ingenioren, a Danish weekly newspaper specializing in engineering topics, according to which Estonian and Latvian wood pellets come from Natura 2000 protected areas and the annual increase in felling volumes is due to demand from other countries, including Denmark, for heating with CO2-neutral biomass.

Ministry to reply to EU Commission's infringement logging notice

The Ministry of the Environment is preparing a response to the European Commission's infringement proceedings to the allegation that logging is undermining the conservation objectives of Natura 2000 sites and that Estonian law is not sufficient to protect such forests.

The ministry explained that Natura 2000 sites are protected nationally in accordance with the Nature Conservation Act and that the conservation rules take into account the conservation objectives of the Natura site. At the same time, the ministry has initiated a legislative amendment that would add a separate assessment of Natura impacts to the environmental impact assessment.

"In our explanations, we reasoned that Natura 2000 sites are nationally protected under the Nature Conservation Act and that the conservation regulations are drafted taking into account the conservation objectives of the Natura 2000 site, and that forest habitats requiring strict protection are zoned as a special management zone," Marku Lamp, deputy secretary general of the Ministry of the Environment, said. 

"This means that, in essence, impacts are assessed both in the drafting of the protection rules and in the processing of the forest notification, where, in the case of protected areas, the Environmental Board every time considers the impact of forest management activities," Lamp said. 

Over the past five years, Estonia has been working to more precisely define its protection regimes - 75,200 hectares of natural values requiring more stringent protection have been rezoned as special management zones. In addition, no clear-cut logging is carried out in Natura habitats in protected areas on state land - neither in special management zones nor in limited management zones. The total area of protected areas has increased by 55,279 hectares, while some 4,000 hectares have been excluded from protection.

In the infringement proceeding concerning Estonia, the European Commission makes it clear that Estonia should improve the impact assessment when allowing forest management at Natura sites. 

Lamp explained that Natura impact assessment under the Habitats Directive is integrated into the Environmental Impact Assessment and Management System Act in Estonia. This was confirmed also by a legal analysis carried out last year. The analysis showed that it would be sensible to develop a separate procedure for Natura impact assessment in cases where there is no need to initiate a (strategic) EIA for other reasons.

"An amendment to the relevant legislation is being prepared: a separate procedure for Natura impact assessment will be introduced in the Nature Conservation Act," Lamp said.

The European Commission sent a notification to Estonia this week indicating the start of an infringement procedure. The complaint was lodged with the European Commission by the Estonian Chamber of Environmental Associations. The content of the complaint was that the Estonian state allows logging at Natura 2000 sites without assessing in advance whether these logging activities could affect the conservation objectives and integrity of Natura 2000 sites.

The ministry said Estonia will analyze the information contained in the notice of infringement proceedings and then formulate its stance. It will prepare a response, which needs to be done within two months. The preparation of amendments to the Nature Conservation Act and the Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management System Act will also continue.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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