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Law change in managing Natura 2000 sites to cost state about €800,000 a year

Logging.
Logging. Source: RMK

After EU infringement actions, Estonia is requiring thousands more Natura impact evaluations a year. The Environmental Board will hire 20 officials for about €800,000 for this purpose.

Around 7,000 forest felling notifications are submitted each year in Natura areas. The Environmental Board must stamp the declarations before logging can begin.

"Essentially, we have to consider how this activity could affect Natura values," Leelo Kukk, deputy chief of the Environmental Board said.

However, the European Commission believes that this is not enough and has launched an infringement procedure against Estonia to bring its legislation into line with EU requirements.

In the context of the infringement procedure, which has been ongoing for more than a couple of years, the Commission stresses that the impact on Natura areas must be assessed according to a clearer procedure, as otherwise threats to Natura values could be overlooked.

To address this concern, the Ministry of Climate presented a draft last December that would require all logging in Natura sites to be preceded by a special kind of Natura pre-assessment.

Kadri Möller, adviser at the biodiversity protection department of the ministry, said that the change does not merely concern forest notifications, so that in the future, about 9,000 Natura pre-assessments will have to be launched each year.

"Any activity for which a permit is sought, or a notification is submitted, or a registration is made to the Environmental Board to do something in a protected area – in principle, all these activities should be subject to a preliminary Natura assessment to check whether the impact of the activity on the Natura value is excluded or not," she explained.

"And if it turns out that it is not excluded, then an appropriate Natura assessment procedure has to be initiated," Möller said.

Kukk clarified that the Natura pre-assessment process would probably not need to be started for all permit issues. For example, from time to time, the agency is asked for permission to organize a film shoot or a nature hike in a protected area.

"We have conservation management plans where we have to be very specific," Kukk said, adding that the agency currently issues about 18 different types of permits.

The Environmental Board estimates that the preliminary Natura assessment will require two to three times as many man-hours of work compared to discretionary decisions. This is in addition to publicity: preliminary evaluation that finds there is no need for a lengthier Natura impact study must be also publicized for two weeks before adoption.

"Now that we know how much interest there is in logging, especially in protected areas, we are sure to get a lot more inquiries and requests for clarification, so we decided we would need to hire more staff to keep up," Kukk said.

If the preliminary assessment shows that impacts on Natura values cannot be excluded, i.e. a full-fledged Natura assessment is required, the whole process takes four to seven months. In how many cases this might be the case, no one knows. "Practice will tell," Möller said.

The Environmental Board estimates that it will need 20 additional posts as a result of the change in legislation. Staff costs will be €786,000 per year, plus operating costs.

Draft decouples Natura assessment from broader environmental impact assessment (EIA)

To ensure that the workload for officials does not become too burdensome, the Ministry of Climate is also planning another fundamental change. Currently, the impact of an activity in a Natura site can only be assessed if it is part of an extensive process called an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). Such work considers a much wider range of potential impacts and the whole process takes two to three years.

Last year, when the Nursipalu training area received a lot of attention, the law was changed to allow a Natura assessment to be carried out for the construction of national military bases without a full environmental impact assessment (EIA).

It is now planned to expand this option to include more projects that do not immediately require a full EIA.

Möller said that some of the already planned procedures will be shortened as a result of the amendment.

In the explanatory memorandum, the Ministry of Climate states that the amendment may have nevertheless a positive environmental impact.

"This is particularly the case where EIA or SEA has been deliberately avoided or impacts have been reduced in the preliminary assessment because EIA and SEA would be too burdensome given the small scale of the activity," the document states.

The ministry also stated that if, instead of a more lengthy procedure, the impact of an activity can be reviewed through a faster and less expensive Natura assessment, the shift may encourage both developers and decision-makers to be more transparent in identifying the impact of an activity rather than minimizing it.

Möller said he was not sure how many of these cases ended up in court and how many went under the radar. Kukk recalled a number of such cases involving land reclamation activities. "We've also drawn attention to things like that," he said.

The Commission asked Estonia to take measures to manage its Natura 2000 sites to respect obligations under the Habitats Directive. The directive requires member states to establish specific conservation objectives and measures for habitats and species found in special areas of conservation (SAC) in order to maintain or restore them to favorable conservation status at the national bio-geographical level. These are critical requirements for protecting biodiversity across the EU.

The European Green Deal and the European Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 both emphasize the importance of the EU halting biodiversity loss by preserving natural areas and restoring damaged ecosystems. Estonia's conservation objectives do not always meet the legal requirements of the Habitats Directive because they are not sufficiently detailed, measurable and reportable, the EU said.

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Editor: Mait Ots, Kristina Kersa

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