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Ministry Failing to Protect State Forests, Says Audit Office

Source: Photo: Postimees/Scanpix

The National Audit Office has concluded that the State Forest Management Centre is clearing prime state forests – old trees on fertile soils – at a rate faster than such forests can regenerate.

The audit office recommends that policymakers reduce the amount of clear-cutting planned for 2010 by up to 70 percent in some forests.

An audit finds that the permitted age for clear-cutting has repeatedly been lowered, as younger and thinner forests are consistently chopped down. The decrease in the area covered by old forests is damaging ecosystems because they provide greater biological diversity and form habitats for many species.

At the same time, the audit reports, dying forests are increasing in percentage, since smaller trees and more difficult conditions create financial or physical barriers for forest management and thinning.

Both the environment and profitability in the timber industry are at risk because trees at the right age for felling will, at some point, simply run out.

However, the office points out that in his response to the audit, Minister of the Environment Jaanus Tamkivi rejected all of the agency’s conclusions, asserting that current policy is sustainable. The office criticized Tamkivi, adding that more attention needs to be paid to internal pressure stemming from the nature of the State Forest Management Centre because as an agency intertwined with the commercial timber industry, it is interested in making a profit.

In 2003, the forest management agency predicted that given the structure of Estonia’s forests, felling volumes in the country would decrease further in the coming years.

“The reason here lies in the age structure of the forests. In recent years it has only been possible to carry out more felling thanks to the large proportion of mature stands in our forests. Now, however, there is less and less forest suitable for felling, and it will be decades before felling volumes can be increased again,” stated an annual report.

However, this year the State Forest Management Centre cited economic conditions, the need to maintain employment levels within forestry and to generate as much revenue as possible from the sector. “What’s also important is that we can continue to give hundreds of people work and put bread on their tables with the economy the way it is today,” said Mati Polli, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Centre.

In 2010, the forest management agency plans to increase state forest available for timber sales to a record 2.8 million cubic meters, compared to 2.36 million cubic meters sold in 2009.

The audit revealed that the area of old forests has decreased sharply over the last decade, since the extent of clear-cutting in fertile forests is greater than the rate at which middle-aged forests can reach old age. In the fertile forest types outside of protected areas, old spruces (90 years and older) and old aspens (40 years and older) will disappear within the next 20 years, if current policy continues. The situation is less critical for pines, but they too will run out within the next 50 years.

Audit Director Tarmo Olgo said the state must understand that the policy is not sustainable.

“If the current rate of felling continues, it would make sense to slow it down considerably in three or four years’ time, once the recession is behind us,” Olgo said. “However, in doing so the drop-off in revenue from state forests would likely be much sharper than if we were to start slowing things down now, at a more gradual pace. Either way, our forests need to be given time to re-grow. Felling volumes could be increased again, keeping a careful eye on them and maintaining balance within forest types, but only in the longer term – which is to say decades down the track.”

The audit analyzed clear-cutting data from 2004 to 2008 and planned for 2009 and 2010. The audit office sought the opinions of experts from the University of Tartu and the Estonian University of Life Sciences regarding its methodology and results. The views of the university experts are reflected in the audit report.

The total area of strictly protected forest land increased notably at the turn of the century and in the first half of the last decade. State-owned forests comprise 37 percent of Estonian forests.

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