Changes in logging
pressure and restrictions of protected forest habitats within the Natura 2000 network in Estonia
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).
Natura 2000 is an ecological network spanning European Union countries where the Member States are required to ensure or restore the favourable status of high conservation value species and habitats in their natural range. One of the two legal instruments governing the protection of the network is the Habitats Directive (HD), which, inter alia, aims to protect forest habitats.
Out of the 11 HD forest habitat types present in Estonia, most are in an inadequate state. The poor situation is amplified by the logging pressures arising from the increasing demand for biomass, which, among other things, suggests contradictions between the European Union’s climate, energy and nature conservation policies. Although the proportion of forests under strict protection in Estonia has increased over the years, the poor state of and logging activity in the forest habitats indicate that the current protection procedure may not be sufficient to protect these habitats.
This study has three objectives:
Assess the logging pressure in Estonia’s forest habitats in protected areas, i.e. forest habitats that are part of protected areas or protected as a species’ protection site or a conservation area. For this purpose, data from the Environment Agency has been used to observe forest loss area and the regeneration cutting and deforestation notices issued during the period 2008–2018, both for protected zones and for forest habitats.
Highlight the extent to which forest habitats belonging to the Estonian Natura 2000 network have been inventoried.
Map changes in logging restrictions in protected areas with forest habitats during 2011–2020, i.e., after 2010 by which most of the Natura 2000 network had been compiled. To this end, first, those protected areas (i.e. national parks, nature and landscape conservation areas) have been identified, which consist of areas with forest habitats protected within the framework of Natura 2000 network HD, i.e. special area of conservation (further: SAC). Second, the logging restrictions stipulated in the protection rules for these areas have been compared to those in the earlier versions of the same rules. In case the protection rule had first entered into force after 2010, it has been compared with the most common logging restriction applied in restricted zones in the protection rules in force in 2010, i.e. the so-called standard restriction.
The results of the three sub-objectives described above are as follows:
1. The logging pressure on protected forest habitats is widespread and has increased significantly since 2015. During the period 2008-2018, the loss of such forest habitats amounted to 1663 hectares and notices of regeneration cutting and deforestation were issued for 5575 hectares. In the observed period, more than half of the forest loss took place and almost 80% of all notices were issued in 2015–2018. Out of the areas under protection, the logging pressure was highest in the limited management zones of protected areas (45% of forest loss and 59% of the notices during the period), and out of the forest habitats, it was highest in the habitat type Western Taiga (9010*) (48% of forest loss and 44% of notices).
49% of the forest area of the Natura 2000 network is not covered by the forest habitat inventory. This suggests that the calculations of forest losses based on the habitat inventory have been underestimated and that forest habitats have probably been destroyed on a much larger scale.
The logging restrictions for protected areas with forest habitats have been significantly more relaxed than tightened in the past ten years. There are 248 such Natura 2000 SACs in Estonia where at least one HD forest habitat type is protected and whose protection procedure is determined by the protection rules as a result of being part of a protected area. Of these, 104 have either had their protection rules amended or adopted for the first time after 2010. Out of the protection rules of these 104 SACs, the logging restrictions have been relaxed in 58 cases; in other words, logging in those areas became easier in the period 2011–2020 compared to the previous protection procedures or, in the case of new rules, compared to the standard restrictions of 2010. Logging restrictions were tightened in 12 and remained largely the same in 34 cases. The impact of changes in logging restrictions on logging pressure is also illustrated by more specific cases, such as in Lahemaa National Park – the biggest national park in Estonia that regulates the protection of Lahemaa SAC. While 79 clear cutting notices were issued in the national park in 2011–2014, then after relaxing the logging regulations in 2015, there were already 667 clear cutting notices issued in 2015–2018.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The protection of the protected forest habitats within the Natura 2000 network in Estonia has been weakened under the increased logging pressure during the past 10 years. This is shown by the loosening logging restrictions in protected forest habitats, increased forest loss, and notices of regeneration cutting and deforestation issued to these habitats. Based on the study, ensuring and restoring the favourable condition of the forest habitats requires:
Completing the inventory of forest land belonging to the Natura 2000 network as soon as possible, and also mapping HD forest habitat types outside the Natura 2000 network;
Updating the existing protection rules and establishing new protected areas so that the logging restrictions in the Natura 2000 network forest habitats would not be loosened and that regeneration cutting in these areas would be forbidden without exception;
Ensuring that the energy and climate policies of the European Union lower logging pressure by removing forest biomass from the incentives within the Renewable Energy Directive. In addition, as part of the implementation of the Habitats Directive, the EU should require that Estonia compensates for the damage that is already caused, e.g., allocating new areas to the Natura 2000 network.
Use of the report The report is intended primarily for public institutions at the Estonian and European Union level involved in monitoring, legislation and policy-making related to nature conservation, forest management, and bioenergy. The results are also important for environmental associations and citizens in general to raise awareness of the conservation arrangements for forest habitats and to increase public interest in the subject.