Logging surges in Estonia’s protected habitats, study reveals

30 March 2021

Logging surges in Estonia’s protected habitats, study reveals

A new study reveals a significant increase in logging in Estonian Natura 2000-protected forest habitats, driven by the relaxation of logging restrictions in the country’s conservation rules. 

Between 2008 and 2018, 1,663 hectares of protected forest habitats, the equivalent of more than 3,000 football fields, were destroyed, with more than half of this happening between 2015 and 2018. According to the report "How well are protected forests of high conservation value cared for?" published today by the Estonian NGOs Estwatch and Estonian Fund for Nature, nearly half of the forest habitats razed were in the priority habitat Western Taiga, i.e. a habitat in danger of disappearing. 

The study shows that logging has been boosted by the relaxation of felling restrictions in the rules governing protected areas. In the last ten years, protection rules for 104 Natura 2000 sites with forest habitats have been amended, of which over half – 58 in total - have relaxed the logging regime, 12 have tightened restrictions and 34 have maintained the same logging restrictions. Natura 2000 sites are meant to offer a haven to Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats, and are the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world.

This study builds on the December 2020 report that found that Estonia is unable to meet its climate and biodiversity targets because of an overall increase in harvesting, which is being fuelled by demand for bioenergy from the Netherlands and Denmark. Those two countries rely on wood burning to meet their renewable energy targets, under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). 

According to the study’s co-author, Uku Lilleväli, a researcher at Estwatch:

The increasing pressure to cut down trees in protected areas in Estonia is largely due to international demand for woody biomass and bioenergy. As long as countries can meet their renewable energy targets by burning timber that comes directly from forests, precious habitats will be destroyed in the name of misguided climate policies.” 

Hannah Mowat, Campaigns Coordinator at forests and rights NGO Fern, said: 

Natura 2000 is meant to be the highest form of protection in the European Union. This report shows how low Member States will stoop to meet rising demand for wood. EU policies that incentivise the use of wood for energy are, in part, to blame for this rising pressure. To give forests immediate relief, it must stop incentivising the burning of wood that comes directly from the forest.

The European Union is set to revise its main climate tools to ensure that they are in line with its beefed up climate ambition. In June 2021, the European Commission will unveil its proposal to review the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation. Fern is calling for the revised RED to end incentives for the burning of forest wood for energy, and the LULUCF Regulation to include a new carbon removal target to encourage the restoration of EU forests to increase their carbon sequestration potential. 

Co-author of the study Liis Kuresoo, forestry expert at the Estonian Fund for Nature, explained that the number of forest habitats lost is probably higher than shown, because 49% of the Natura 2000 forest area has not been mapped.:

"Estonia’s protection regime is not sufficient to protect forest habitats of high conservation value. In order to comply with international obligations, Estonia must without delay conduct an inventory of the land covered by the Habitats Directive and compensate by restoring those felled and allocating new sites to be protected.

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