Environmental agency seeks new owner for Viidumäe Center on Saaremaa island

Viidumäe educational center.
Viidumäe educational center. Source: ERR

The Environmental Board (Keskonnaamet) is giving up its nature reserve center in Viidumäe, Saaremaa, and is looking for new owners, who will continue nature education and research.

The Environmental Board has decided to give up the Viidumäe Nature Reserve, which is located in western Saaremaa, near the coastal terrace of ancient lake Antsülusjärv. This is the oldest and highest part of Saaremaa with its peak in Raunamägi Hill 58.8 meters above sea level. The nature reserve was established in 1957.

"The Estonian government heats, illuminates and maintains over 400 square meters of the Viidumäe building, but there are presently no officials working there. This is one of the reasons for our decision to end the lease. These most valuable assets, nature and hiking trails are of course accessible," Rainer Vakra, head of the Environmental Board, said.

The agency has to cut its costs by a million euros; giving up Viidumäe saves €65,500. The fate of the classroom there is still open, he added.

"The approach to environmental education has also changed significantly, with the Environmental Board carrying out activities for children and young people in nature, as well as, if necessary, in school facilities, i.e. where the students are. We go where our clients are, rather than forcing them to attend some environmental classroom in the woods. An empty room does not count as environmental education," Vakra said.

The agency has offered the center to RMK, the University of Tartu and the Estonian University of Life Sciences. According to Kristjan Tõnisson, member of the management board of RMK, they are considering different options, given the historical and nature educational importance of the Viidumäe Center.

"We have the visitor infrastructure in Saaremaa, so if we have to take on an additional burden — as far as we know, the Environmental Agency has to cut back because they lack the funds to maintain it — that will incur additional expenses for us, we have to carefully evaluate the situation and make a decision," Tõnisson said.

For the University of Tartu, it is still unclear whether this proposal implies a sale or a lease, so a takeover has not been considered.

"It is an important location for fieldwork and environmental education and we believe that this function could and should be maintained. The eventual loss of it would be cause for concern," Maarja Öpik, director of the institute of ecology and earth sciences at the University of Tartu, said.

The Estonian University of Life Sciences also said that the agency's appeal was too general and that discussions were still pending. The Viidumäe center has been used for research and the university hopes that this will continue to be possible in the future, irrespective of who owns it.

The Allikasoo study trail starts from the Viidumäe Nature Reserve Centre and goes down an 18-metre escarpment. While hiking in the Allikasoo fen, you can find out about its ecosystem and how it differs from ordinary swamps. Source: Marko Vainu/Vikipeedia

The municipality does not have the capacity to run the center

Mari Reitalu, a former nature center employee who lives next door, can confirm that the doors of the two properties are now locked on a daily basis, even though the doors of the nature reserve are still open. And if one of Estonia's oldest nature reserves, Viidumäe, fails to have its own center and nature expo, it will be a devastating loss not only for natural scientists but also for the growing number of nature enthusiast.

"It is certainly needed. And the fact that there are so many visitors speaks for itself. University researchers have been here and have stayed here, and quite a lot of people have been here from the Estonian Seminatural Community Conservation Association," Reitalu said.

Mikk Tuisk, the mayor of Saaremaa municipality, said the center is important for the whole of Saaremaa, but the municipality does not have the capacity to buy or manage it.

"The municipality is of the opinion that nature education is still a national responsibility. In addition to nature education, there is also environment science taught there. There, both the University of Tartu and the University of Life Sciences are located. Perhaps it is still a nationally significant task to support and complete," Tuisk said.

Reitalu's worry is that no public body adopts the Viidumae center and it falls into private hands, the new owner will be interested in nature. "The historical and cultural significance of this location is very important, but when it comes to business, business is business and other considerations are often ignored."


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Editor: Marko Tooming, Kristina Kersa

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