Time is, once again, running out for consultations with municipalities, and to convene a forestry council in the framework of preparations for the Forestry Development Plan (MAK). Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas believes, that, for the sake of nature and Europe's carbon sinks, a compromise must be reached, whereby Estonia's annual forest felling volumes are below 10 million cubic meters.
Three and a half years ago, Estonia's first forestry council was convened. Interested parties, chosen at random, contributed to the creation of the "Wolf," (Hunt) "Fox," (Rebane), "Lynx," (Ilves) and "Bear" (Karu) scenarios for the Forestry Development Plan. Six environment ministers later, and those animal names have disappeared from the documents.
The four, now slightly duller-named, scenarios were also the subject of a recent environmental impact assessment, in the context of the MAK. Ideas in which annual felling rates ranged from seven to nineteen million cubic meters, were compared. Environment Minister Madis Kallas has no direct complaints about the work, which cost €100,000. However, he admitted, that the results were written into the methodology and that perhaps extreme scenarios could have been ruled out without the need for a thorough analysis.
The author of the impact assessment, environmental consultant AS Maves, declared the scenario whereby the average annual felling volume is 10 million cubic meters, as the overwhelming winner. In comparison, the average annual volume of forest felled between 2010 and 2019 was 10.3 million cubic meters. The average for the last four years has been 11.6 million cubic meters.
A long way to go
If the bureaucratic machine were left to run its course, the final draft of the development plan would soon be ready. It would circulate between ministries for a while and then the environment minister could take it to the government. From there, it would be just one political decision away from being discussed in the Riigikogu. However, Kallas believes, that at the moment, it is very difficult to move forward.
"After all, the idea behind the MAK is to create a document that forms the basis of a social agreement on how we manage or maintain Estonia's forests," Kallas said. But, at the moment, we do not have this agreement in society."
Kallas highlighted a joint appeal by 43 environmental associations, which criticized the development plan for being superficial and ignoring the real problems.
"We still have a lot of experts who also do not support (the plan) in this form. Maybe we need to make some changes, if we want to implement the main objectives of the development plan," Kallas added.
There is still a long way to go before a social agreement is reached. The Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association (EMPL), which brings together influential entrepreneurs, agrees with the environmental groups. However, they also believe that the forestry development plan and the impact assessment need to be thoroughly revised.
Jaan Lindmäe, the EMPL's head of legislative affairs, prefers to use an alternative name for the process: "harmonious forest use." "With tens of millions of trees felled each year, this is (a form of) politically regulated non-management of forests," said Lindmäe, adding that this level of felling does not take into account the opinions of scientists. "Those who find that forest felling rates should be based on the amount of timber we have that is ripe for felling," explained Lindmäe.
However, listening to the scientists is a bit difficult. For example, the University of Life Sciences (EMÜ) sent a rare letter of praise to the environment ministry. "The analysis of the environmental impact is science-based and relies on highly competent experts," said University Rector Mait Klaasen.
The Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences at the University of Tartu, however, sent a much more concerned message, with scientists pointing out, that calculations made about deforestation were based on outdated data on, for example, how much carbon Estonian forests absorb. In fact, the message states, the MAK is ignoring pre-existing problems.
"In this situation, it is difficult to see how continuing with essentially the same situation is presented, in the impact assessment, as a realistic way forward," the researchers complained.
Siim Kuresoo, board member of the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF), also said that 10 million cubic meters of felling per year was too much. The fact that this was the result of three and a half years of discussion is a credit to the environment ministry, he said.
"However, all the benefits from these steps have been discarded at critical moments. Precisely because neither the Forestry Department of the Ministry of the Environment, nor the deputy minister in charge not seem to be in favor of forestry (policies) that would actually support biodiversity," Kuresoo said.
Although Kuresoo believes that the economic aspect of Estonia's forests is at the heart of the officials' concerns, Jaan Lindmäe says, that 10 million cubic meters a year would be a huge blow to the whole industry. "With a reduction in forest volumes, eight thousand jobs in rural areas would have to be cut," says Lindmäe.
Municipalities and the new forestry council
Nevertheless, Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas believes, that the idea of a social agreement must not be disregarded entirely. Before the ministry starts drafting the latest version of the bill, new rounds of consultations will be launched, with local authorities the first to be consulted.
"All forests in Estonia belong to the territories of local governments," Kallas said. "Local authorities are perhaps the most balanced in their view of where to place the emphasis between forest protection and the economic contribution of forests."
According to Kallas, a parallel debate should also take place on the fate of RMK's areas of heightened public interest, or KAHs. In November, once some ideas have already been gathered, the minister wants to convene a forest committee.
However, (the process of selecting participants) would no longer be a lottery, and no wolves, foxes, lynxes or bears would be redeployed. Kallas said the new forestry council should be smaller and involve those who have a say on the most hotly debated points of the development plan. He mentioned, for example, the amount of logging, bird roosting and the size of woodlots.
Exactly who will be part of the new body and what force their input will have in the development plan is still to be determined. "If we say right now that this person or that person will be on the committee, we may be setting ourselves up for another false dawn, and we won't get anywhere with it. So, we will take it step by step," Kallas said, adding, "Our goal is a solution."
Minister would reduce felling
Kallas admitted, that it would probably not be possible to come up with a solution that pleases everyone. Instead, he wants to find a compromise, adding that the point of agreement should be below 10 million cubic meters per year.
"If we want to reach this agreement, (the volume) should move downwards," Kallas stressed. He added, that the plan should be looked at again in the years to come, when the energy crisis may also require higher felling rates.
However, in the long term and in the context of the development plan, he believes that a reduction in the volume of felling is crucial.
The LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry – UN initiative to chart greenhouse gas emissions directly caused by human land use – ed.) targets set for Estonia cannot be overlooked.
Kallas confirmed, that the carbon capture, utilization and storage targets agreed by EU environment ministers in the summer also require Estonia's annual deforestation levels to fall below 10 million cubic meters.
"But it is not only about the volume of deforestation. It is also important what we cut down, how we cut it down and where we cut it down," Kallas said.
Siim Kuresoo of the Estonian Nature Fund also believes that targets EU ministers have agreed, will require a reduction in the amount of wood cut down in Estonia. The EMPL's Jaan Lindmäe also stressed that not doing so, would mean Estonia doing itself a disservice. "Ageing wood no longer absorbs CO2. Instead, it will start emitting it," Lindmäe said.
Editor: Michael Cole