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EuroNatur: New EU Forest Strategy must promote biodiversity and ecosystem functions – not intensified logging

The world is facing an interconnected climate and ecosystem crisis. Natural forests play a crucial role for both climate change mitigation and preservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Therefore, they must  be better protected and the biological diversity of forests restored – also in Europe. EuroNatur Foundation submitted the following feedback to the EU Commission’s Roadmap for a new forest strategy:

Europe’s forests have been affected by climate crisis born drought, storms, wild fires and insect calamities in the past years. These impacts of climate heating now combine with the failures of past forest management, which is primarily based on maximized exploitation of wood resources resulting in large scale clear-cutting, even aged wood plantations (often comprised of one or two fast growing trees species), harvesting with high-impact heavy machinery, drainage of swampy stands and/or the complete removal of critically important old and dead trees.

The latest “State of Nature” report paints a bleak picture of Europe’s forests. Only 15% of forests in the Natura 2000 network are in a favourable status. Less than a third of forests are of uneven aged and 30% are monocultures with only one tree species. Only 5% have five or more tree species. The increase of exploitation, especially for energy production, leads to a further loss of threatened species due to clear-cutting and destruction of habitats, including the loss of dead wood and old trees and reduces the potential for carbon sequestration.

At the same time, the rather small remains of intact natural forests are shrinking, especially in the Carpathians and in Scandinavia.

Forests play a multifunctional role for life on earth and for human society. Therefore, the Forest Strategy needs to go beyond the promotion of the traditional wood extraction-based economy and shift its focus to better consider promoting ecological functions and sustainable flows of goods and services.

In contrast to other regions of the world that are mainly oriented towards aggressive wood extraction and overuse, Europe has a tradition of sustainable forest management when it comes to reforestation and forest planning.

However, sustainable forest management is more than growing at least as many trees as harvested before and needs to ensure durable ecological functioning of forest ecosystems as a key priority. Even-aged monocultures or clearcutting methods cannot not be considered as “sustainable” from an ecological point of view and need to be prohibited in times of emerging climate and nature crisis.

These counterproductive management practices should not be repeated with future efforts regarding afforestation and tree planting, which should be governed by clear and strict ecological criteria. Natural regeneration needs to be considered wherever possible including allowing development of pioneer forests.

We appreciate that the EU Forest Strategy will “foresee measures to avoid or correct unsustainable practices” and seek the “right balance and synergies” between ecological functions and socio-economic interests related to forests.

It is important, that the new Forest Strategy is kept consistent and mutually supports the Biodiversity Strategy and the Green Deal and is not turned into a “Forestry Strategy” driven forward by economic interests.

We support the improvement of “forest protection and restoration to meet the EU biodiversity and climate objectives, and de-crease the loss of forest coverage, while strictly protecting all remaining EU primary and old-growth forests”.

The key formula for the future of Europe’s forests should be: Preserve all biodiversity rich, resilient, close to nature forests – including all remaining old-growth and primary forests – and manage the production forests in a way to enrich biodiversity, maintain and strengthen ecosystem services and improve climate stability. 

Strict protection of all remaining primary and old-growth forests in the EU is crucial, also because of their important ecosystem services and their genetic pools for the re-forestation of collapsed wood plantations.

We are convinced that the EU Forest Strategy must go beyond the focus on protection of “old-growth forests” and also consider preserving previously “managed” close-to-nature forests with closed canopy, intact interior micro climate and healthy tree diversity. This is key in particular when it comes to beech and other mixed deciduous forests where a well shaded and cool interior is crucial to keep forests healthy and resilient in the face of climate crisis challenges with increased heat and extended periods of drought.

These kinds of forests could be considered under the title “climate and ecosystem protection forests” and should be either preserved without management or managed in a very cautious and close to nature way (following continuous cover forestry methods or similar to close to nature forest management principles as defined by German “Naturland” certification system), giving priority to the restoring biodiversity, durable functioning of ecological services and their role as important carbon sinks.

Owners, especially private owners of these “climate protection and ecosystem services forests” deserve fair compensation payments.

Furthermore, the habitat and species protection obligations from the Natura 2000 regime need to be respected and better enforced in the forestry sector. In numerous Natura 2000 sites (SCI, SAC, SPA) all over the EU, but in particular in countries such as Romania and Slovakia, valuable and biodiversity rich forest habitats (including old growth and primary forests) are being destroyed or significantly deteriorated by logging – either by clear cutting or by stepwise removal of entire mature stands by shelterwood cuttings. Often, appropriate assessments are not being pursued at all or done with very poor quality and lacking a scientific basement.

Without better enforcement of Natura 2000 legislation in the forest sector and strengthening the conservation aspects of Habitats and Birds directives, the EU Biodiversity Strategy will be severely undermined.

We appreciate development of new products that replace the intensive fossil-based materials and effectively contribute to a TRULY new climate neutral society, but we object any fostering of systems that lead to increased logging of intact forests and more carbon emissions from burning of wood for energy purposes.

The expansion of the wood biomass demand for energy production is a major driver of logging in intact, natural forests in the EU. Forest biomass burning is NOT climate neutral in the short to medium term (the carbon debt can last for centuries), and certainly not at scale by 2050. Emissions from burning wood are seen by the atmosphere just like emissions from fossil fuels. They are real and thus need to be considered as such on the emissions side of the greenhouse gas accounts. The decline in the EU forest sink is a shocking consequence of the increased use of forest biomass as a “renewable” energy source. Forest biomass should not be considered a “renewable” source like solar and wind and should not be eligible for subsidies.

Afforestation and tree planting can contribute to CO2 capture and sequestration, but such efforts must not open doors for a new wave of non-natural tree plantations with low biodiversity value or lead to a revival of monocultures but need to follow strict ecological criteria with clear biodiversity outcomes.

To date, most nature conservation efforts, fostering ecosystem service provision, have come from the public forest estate. Private forest owners have been largely absent in this debate and have mainly reflected their interest in developing timber based economy or even acted in opposition to the promotion of the common good aspects of the forest sector. In the future, private forest owners will have to be more actively engaged in the critical climate and biodiversity functions that forests must play, as they manage a large part of the forest area in Europe.

These solutions should strive to integrate timber production with a wider range of ecosystem services, beyond the classical wood based economy, including public-private partnerships and payment schemes for sustainable supply of ecosystem functions.

Natural forests not only safeguard biological diversity, but also offer important ecosystem functions such as the storage and supply of fresh water

Romania: Protection of some primary forests announced – shortly before national elections

After years of bureaucratic burdens some iconic primary forest – such as Boia Mica valley in Fagaras Mountains – are finally protected. However, studies about 13.000 ha of precious forest are still blocked by the government – and hundreds of thousands of hectares of high nature value forests are still under threat from destructive logging …

The Romanian Ministry for the Environment recently announced a new version of the „National Catalog of Virgin Forests“ on its website. The new version now includes 43.823,36 ha of forests. The „Catalogue“ has been growing by 14.000 ha since the year 2019. This includes 9.500 ha of forests, which were protected strictly already before as UNESCO World Heritage site component parts. Thus, the real enlargement of strictly protected primary forest area in Romania melts down to 4.500 ha.

The environmental organisations EuroNatur Foundation and Agent Green welcome this „long overdue“ last minute step by the government, two weeks ahead of the national elections. Nevertheless, the conservation organizations make clear that 43.000 ha is far below the real number of primary and old-growth forest in Romania. Thus, they conclude that this instrument has obviously failed largely.

Among the newly inscribed primary forest areas there is also the outstanding natural heritage of Boia Mica valley in the Fagaras Mountains Natura 2000 site. This pathless, steep valley harbors 960 ha of untouched primary forest. Boia Mica is one of the wildest and most pristine mountain forests of the EU. However, Romanian forest experts, in partnership with the German Forest University HFR Rottenburg, had been burdeend by a years long bureaucratic back and forth driven forward by provincial forest authorities and the „Technical Commission“ in the Forest Ministry. Luckily, Boia Mica was now finally accepted without further complications.

At the same time, logging of primary and old-growth forests in national parks and UNESCO sites (buffer zones) as well as Natura 2000 sites all over Romania continues at a catastrophic level and without any counter action by the Romanian government.

On November 16, Agent Green succeeded at the Appellation Court in Bucharest in suspending forest management plans in parts of Domogled -Valea national park (and Natura 2000 site) and a neighboring Natura 2000 site. Agent Green has filed a lawsuit against logging pursued by state forestry Romsilva. The court confirmed that the forest management plans are finally suspended. So, logging in state forests in the area concerned is stopped. Conservationists now hope that the precious beech forests – especially in wild upper Cerna valley – will be included in non intervention management zones.

However, despite the High Court decision and the currently running EU infringement procedure against the Romanian state, Romsilva managers started to auction logging permits in 32 plots in the south-western section of Domogled National Park, where logging plans have not been suspended.

EuroNatur and Agent Green call on the EU Commission not to be lulled by this minimal expansion of the “Virgin Forest Catalog”. Clear cuts in protected, natural coniferous forests and the multi-phase clearing of the biodiversity-rich mixed beech forests is continuing unabated. The ‚Catalog‘ currently does not even protect 10% of the 500.000 ha of natural forests that identified in the Primofaro study.  

Especially with the new EU Biodiversity Strategy – adopted unanimously by the EU environmental ministers including Romania – requesting the strict protection of all primary and old-growth forests in the EU, Romania has to make sure that these forests are safe from logging.

Fantastic Boia Mica Valley in Fagaras Natura 2000: after years of struggle with bureaucracy, the valley is finally included in the “National Catalog of Virgin Forests”.
Boia Mica is (hopefully) safe now and the ancient creatures living there (numerous 400 – 500 years old beech trees) will be there for a longer while. However, in the rest of Fagaras Mountains Natura 2000 site forest destruction continues. It has even accelerated.
Natura 2000 areas in Romania are hot spots of forest destrcution. And it is not just large clear cuts in spruce forests that wipe out the unique wealth of primary forests. Also stepwise shelterwood cuttings ultimately lead to the complete removal of ancient habitats and all the rare creatures that have lived there undisturbed for thousands of years. Here: Logging road crossing the UNESCO protected forest “Codrii seculari de la Sinca”.

Attempted political coup in Romanian Parliament against the EU Biodiversity Strategy

In a direct attack on EU nature protection goals, a draft decision was introduced to the Romanian Parliament by the President of Chamber of Deputies, with the aim of pushing it to a vote on the next day, November 17. Luckily, this decision has been delayed. Agent Green and Greenpeace call on Deputies to reject this unprecedented attack against nature protection.

Agent Green and Greenpeace reacted immediately and drew the attention of the parliamentarians of the Chamber of Deputies that the draft decision on the EU Biodiversity Strategy would seriously endanger national security and biodiversity and would aggravate the climate crisis. The underhanded intent of this draft decision is to block the enlargement of strictly protected areas in Romania from current coverage of only 1% to the EU goal of 10% of the country’s surface and the expansion of the European network of Natura 2000 protected natural areas from 23% to 30%. These targets are to be met gradually by 2030.

The draft decision was submitted by the President of the Chamber of Deputies. It is not known who the drivers in the background are for this unprecedented attempted political coup against nature protection. In the end, the draft decision was not voted in the Chamber of Deputies immediately as planned. However, it will be sent to the internal Commission of European Affairs in two weeks time. NGOs see this as an attempt by vested industry lobby interests to derail nature protection regimes.

For conservationists, it is completely incomprehensible that this unprecedented step has been initiated in the middle of ongoing EU infringement proceedings against the Romanian government triggered by widespread and systemic non compliance of the Romanian forest sector with EU nature protection legislation.

“Deputies cannot adopt a decision that endangers the future of nature and the life of every citizen, a life that depends on a healthy natural environment. The decision submitted to the vote today is a deeply anti-European one, it deprives Romania of key financing and endangers the economic recovery. It is unprecedented in the European Union “, warned Gabriel Păun, the president of Agent Green.

Ciprian Gal, Greenpeace Romania: “We are concerned that some in the Romanian Parliament do not understand how important biodiversity is to us. However, we hope that parliamentarians will have time to google ‘biodiversity’ before voting on one of the most shameful legislative initiatives in the history of environmental protection. In addition to a lot of information that even for children can understand, they will be able to find reports, including by the United Nations, that talk about the importance of saving natural ecosystems.“

Furthermore, the EU strategy provides for an allocation of EUR 20 billion per year for biodiversity protection from various sources, including EU funds and national and private funding. Aspects related to natural capital and biodiversity should be integrated into commercial practices.

A key element of the European biodiversity strategy is to increase the Natura 2000 network to 30% of the natural ecosystems of each Member State, including Romania. The Natura 2000 network is estimated to support 104,000 direct jobs in protected area management and conservation activities and another 70,000 indirect jobs. All this is based on annual investments of EUR 6 billion for the management and restoration of the network. In the future, biodiversity needs are expected to generate up to 500,000 jobs. Nature restoration means direct and indirect jobs, which give new life to local communities.

The draft decision fundamentally attacks the new EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and the need of biodiversity protection as such and apparently lacks any understanding of the issues addressed. It states that there is a need to conduct scientific analyses, based on long term experiments and monitoring, to demonstrate in detail, that biodiversity of natural and anthropic ecosystems really contribute at the resilience of the communities.

In May 2020, when the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 was published, the European Commission announced that “it is time to reconcile with nature. Nature restoration is a central element of the EU’s recovery plan from the coronavirus pandemic, providing immediate business and investment opportunities to revive the European economy. Climate change, biodiversity loss and the spread of devastating pandemics are proof that this is necessary.”

Rich, intact biodiversity is essential for functioning of ecosystems and their services for humans – such as water storage, food provision, soil protection, slope stabilisation, oxygen production and local climate regulation.

The world is facing an escalating biodiversity crisis, as the UN Biodiversity Council revealed in 2019. Wildlife population has declined by 60% in the last 40 years.
1 billion species are at risk of extinction. The decline of biodiversity and the climate crisis are interdependent. Restoring forests, soils and wetlands and creating green spaces in cities are key to mitigating the effects of climate change by 2030.

“This proposed decision utterly undermines science and humanity’s common understanding of the critical importance nature plays in sustaining life on earth. It must be rejected”, Mr Păun says.

 

Cemetery of majestic centuries-old trees: giant chipboard factory of an Austrian company in Romania. Large companies’ hunger for timber is fueling excessive legal and illegal logging of high biodiversity value forests all across the country. Thus, the new EU nature protection goals are apparantly seen by the networks in the forest industry as a threat to their “business”. The latest attack on the EU protection goals in the Romanian Chamber of Deputies is likely to be seen as a crude statement by parts of the industry against law enforcement and improved protection goals.
Brutally built road in Fagaras Natura 2000 site, financed with EU funds. Ruthless cutting down of old forests in protected areas as a boundless El Dorado for greedy individuals, supported by the Chamber of Deputies in the Romanian Parliament?