Following a motivational intervention by the European Commission, the Estonian Environmental Board has moved to suspend logging in Natura 2000 habitats for the next 28 months – a hopeful, and surprising development that is drawing attention in other EU Member States.
For years, the Estonian Council of Environmental NGOs had observed intensified logging in protected areas, among them, Natura 2000 sites. “We noted that the regulations concerning several large protected areas had changed in favour of logging, and logging then quickly intensified,” says Siim Kuresoo, Eestimaa Looduse Fond (Estonian Fund for Nature). “We drew the attention of our national government to this, citing the Nature Conservation Act, but the Government did not respond seriously. So, our group of 11 environmental NGOs complained to the Commission.”
The Estonian Government seemed to shrug off the Commission’s inquiries as a bureaucratic matter – but apparently took notice after formal infringement proceedings began. In June 2021, the Commission sent a stern letter of formal notice to Estonia for its failures to correctly implement both the Habitats and Strategic Environmental Assessment Directives; it cited Estonia’s “so-called protection rules”, which fail to require assessments prior to allowing economic activities, such as logging, in protected sites, pointing to 217 site-specific rules. The Commission has sent a strong signal: Estonia could be liable for more than €100M in fines.
On 4 February 2022, the Estonian Environmental Board suspended logging in Natura 2000 habitats for 28 months; it is early days, but it seems likely that Estonia’s Nature Conservation Act will be amended to cover protection of forest habitats, further inventories of sensitive habitats will be carried out, and some form of compensation to private forest owners will be set up.
“We are happy with the Estonian Environment Board decision, and that forests will be protected. But it would be even more positive if action were taken not out of fear of penalties, but from an understanding of the importance of habitats and forests, and that these are Estonia’s treasures,” Siim says. “As a society we would be much better off if we could solve these issues internally, but clearly on this occasion, the Commission has proven it takes biodiversity seriously.”
The environmental organisations are very conscious that this step forward comes with a cost – to the habitats and forests already destroyed, certainly, but also to people involved in commercial logging. Siim continues, “A critical element of a new policy must be mechanisms for a just transition of the jobs and livelihoods affected by these provisions. The industry has grown very large, and plays an important role in certain areas. Any policy that sets restrictions must also acknowledge the social impacts and address them.”
Indeed, the decision elicited anger on the part of private forest owners accustomed to a more conciliatory tone from Estonia’s authorities, and stung by the Environmental Board’s shift to a more protective stance.
Estonian NGOs are still concerned that a significant portion of Estonia’s forest riches has already fallen to chainsaws, but are encouraged that the situation has drawn attention across EU Member States. The indication that the Commission is taking a more piercing look at complaints has not gone unnoticed; NGOs in other Baltic states, and farther afield in Romania, France and Germany are taking notice, and taking heart. In the meantime, Estonian NGOs will continue to keep watch as the process of remedying past protection failures unfolds.