Madis Kallas: Forest is much more than timber

Madis Kallas.
Madis Kallas. Source: Ministry of the Environment

Our goal needs to be to manage forests in a way that allows us to maintain diversity, alleviate climate change and for timber to maximally benefit the Estonian society, Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas writes.

As environment minister, I have met with environmental organizations, toured Estonian forests and visited major timber industries. The forestry debate has always been one of various standpoints and emotions.

We cannot really criticize any of the sides as everyone has acted in accordance with their means and seeking to protect their position and interests. That said, preservation of nature and the economy do not have to be at odds. We could see economic and social value in maintaining forests and biodiversity.

Our lives directly depend on forests. For some, they form the surroundings of home, while others rely on them for work and income, as well as a place to go walking and berry-picking. Over half of Estonia (51.3 percent) is covered in forests that are home to at least 20,000 different species.

But forests are also important for satisfying people's everyday needs. Timber allows us to build, heat and furnish homes. The situation of forests affects the planet's climate and everyone's future. Forests are increasingly receptive to the effects of climate change, which we need to consider to a greater degree.

We have long sought to strike a balance between protecting forests and making economic use of them, while we should try and ascertain limits the crossing of which would no allow forests to provide us with vital benefits.

Half of Estonian forests are in the hands of private owners and half belong to the state, with the annual logging volume at around 10 million cubic meters. Data from the Environmental Agency suggests that almost half of timber felled in Estonia (4.6 million cubic meters) is used to generate energy in Estonia, with an additional 2.5 million cubic meters imported for the purpose.

Because a lot of Estonian cities and smaller settlements are heated using wood chips, forestry directly affects people's security. It is clear that timber is important for our daily lives, subsistence and quality of life.

On the other hand, the wealth of Estonian forests is not just in timber but also biodiversity. Even aging forests cannot be viewed as "wasted" revenue. They need to be seen as a part of the natural life cycle, accommodating species –such as woodpeckers or owls – for which young forests are not a good fit. We must keep a watchful eye on how our activities affect fragile forest ecosystems as even minor changes can have serious ecological and economic consequences.

Is it possible to protect nature while satisfying mankind's economic needs?

Yes, it is. But it requires a shift in our thinking. A lot of Estonian forests are protected today for one of the largest shares in Europe. Around 17 percent of Estonian forests are subject to strict natural conservation rules, while some measure of environmental restrictions applies to roughly 30 percent of all forests. However, the relevant question is not how much of our woods we can protect, but rather how we manage the rest and use the timber. Right now, Estonia is exporting a lot of timber as raw material without attaching much value to it.

But even managed forests must consider biodiversity and climate change. Logging volumes have doubled, jumping from six million cubic meters to 12 million in the last 14 years. Coupled with changes in the age-specific makeup of forests and the share of forest land no longer growing, this fact has led to dwindling forest reserves, reduced carbon storage and contributed to the risk of species extinction. Our goal needs to be to manage forests in a way that allows us to maintain diversity, alleviate climate change and for timber to maximally benefit the Estonian society.

One possibility is to support attaching more value added to timber. We can give the example of the timber industry that employs a lot of people year-round, while needing relatively little timber. At the same time, the carbon in timber remains locked in the final product for many years.

Looking to the future, we can view forests not as a "timber warehouse" but as "carbon storage." Estonia has a lot of forest compared to most European countries and it makes for our greatest advantage. During an era when the world is struggling to lock down carbon and reduce mankind's carbon footprint, our still standing forests are a source of economic value. The wiser and more thoughtful we are in managing our forests today, the more success future generations will find when reaping the benefits.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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