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Tackle illegal logging or face court, Commission warns Romanian Government

The European Commission has demanded today that Romanian authorities take immediate action to stop illegal logging of old-growth and primary forests in Romania’s protected Natura 2000 areas.

In the latest step in infringement proceedings against Romania, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion over Romanian authorities’ systemic and continuous failure to protect one of Europe’s most precious forests.

A reasoned opinion is a last call for the Romanian Government to address the problem. If the country’s authorities fail to act, the Commission will take a case before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) – the EU’s highest court.

The Commission’s intervention follows a series of complaints submitted by Environmental organisations EuroNatur, Agent Green and ClientEarth, which led the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings against Romanian authorities earlier this year.

ClientEarth wildlife and habitats lawyer Ewelina Tylec-Bakalarz said: “The Commission’s opinion clearly shows that the Romanian Government is breaking EU law and demands specific measures are taken by the authorities to improve the situation.

“If this persistent failure to act continues, there is a high risk the country will appear before the EU’s highest court. The importance of these forests cannot be underestimated – and the European Commission’s opinion reflects how serious the situation is.”

Romania hosts two-thirds of Europe’s remaining primary and old-growth forests found in the temperate climate zone. These precious ecosystems, protected by European law as Natura 2000 sites, are being systematically destroyed by large-scale logging operations, unrebuked by the Romanian authorities.

Gabriel Paun of Agent Green said: “We are not surprised that the infringement is going to the next level. The illegal logging and destruction of Natura 2000 sites continues with the consent of the environmental ministry. If fines are imposed on Romania for breaking EU law, taxpayers’ money will be used to pay it – this is unfair and continued failure to act would represent a deeply irresponsible move by the state.”

Gabriel Schwaderer, Executive Director of EuroNatur, concluded: “The Commission clearly recognises the need to urgently protect Romania’s natural forests. We hope that the Commission will continue to act quickly by referring the Romanian Government to the CJEU so that the ongoing destruction of its country’s forests can be stopped.”

The Commission also opened another infringement procedure against Romania, calling on its authorities to respect their obligations to protect and manage their Natura 2000 sites under the Habitats Directive.

Recent illegal destruction of the pristine wilderness in Sambata valley in Fagaras Mountains Natura 2000 site.

Illegal road detected in one of Europe’s wildest mountain valleys in Romania

Illegal road cut into the pristine Sâmbăta Valley in Romania’s Făgăraș Montains Natura 2000 site

A few weeks ago, the Sâmbăta Valley (Sibiu province) was still a true paradise: the valley was not spoiled by any road and hosts vast old growth forests, remote mountain ridges, rare wild animals (including wolves, bears and otters) and a romantic hiking trail that passes under large, mossy, ancient trees. But a few weeks ago, this sanctuary has been despoiled: a local forest owner bulldozed a road along the once pristine river, destroying the banks and slopes covered with wild and biodiversity-rich ravine and mountain forests.

But this is just the beginning. Logging machinery are soon expected to invade the valley, now that they have access to the large old trees that have been growing here for centuries. And the fairytale forest, which is reminiscent of film scenes from “Lord of the Rings” could soon be ravaged. Tragically, Sâmbăta is not the only wild valley in Romania that has suffered from illegal logging during the COVID-19 lock down.

Local environmentalists discovered the new road and called for immediate inspection by officials from the Forest Guard authorities in Brasov. The response caused great concern and shock: no permits are required because an old road already existed that “was only being repaired”. This outrageous claim clearly contradicts the facts: pictures from previous years show that no road actually existed and that the valley was an untouched wilderness, hosting old-growth forest of sycamore, beech and spruce. Forest maps also confirm that the valley was not accessible by a road.

Questions of serious mismanagement are raised.

Why are forest guard officials defending this unauthorized road and why are they covering for the unknown beneficiary who drove this illegal project forward?

How could this happen during the very time when the EU Commission has initiated infringement proceedings against the Romanian state for deliberate, systemic and widespread violations of EU legislation by systemic logging and destruction of natural ecosystems in Natura 2000 sites?

Natura 2000 requires mandatory environmental assessments to be carried out prior to intervention in protected areas in order to exclude the risk of a deterioration of the ecological conservation status of listed habitats and species.

The facts, known to date, are:

  • The new dirt road stretches for about 1.5 km, is 3-4 m wide and was built between March and May 2020.
  • The road is in a Natura 2000 site
  • The road does not have a valid building permit
  • No adequate environmental assessment has taken place
  • No agreement or approval has been given by the Natura 2000 site custodian for works in protected habitats
  • The road has not been approved by the Romanian Forest Guard for cutting in areas mapped as “virgin forests” by the “Pin Matra study”
  • The road has not been approved by the Ministry of Environment for forest works in areas officially proposed for inclusion studies in the protection system of the “National Catalog of Virgin and Quasi-virgin forests”.

This is a long list of evidence showing clear violations of laws, rules and regulations that were supposed to ensure the permanent protection of such precious forests.

The work was carried out without an information panel, under the pretext of “rehabilitating a dirt road” that never existed on the left bank of the Sâmbăta river in a formerly roadless, wild valley. Only the touristic path that leads to mountain refuge Cabana Sâmbăta and which is located on the right bank of the river Sâmbăta appears on the forest maps.

The valley harbors large tracks of old growth forests with high biodiversity and scientific values (researched by the REMOTE Primary Forests project).

According to the NGO Agent Green, this is the list of potential illegalities:

  1. Unauthorised construction of a dirt road without proper building permit
  2. Unauthorised construction of a road without a proper environmental assessment
  3. Unauthorised construction of a road without consent of the Custodian of a Natura 2000 site
  4. Illegal change of land use category, from forest to road
  5. Disturbing the national forest fund and protected species by carrying out the illegal construction of the road
  6. Unauthorised construction of a road in forest stands identified by the “Pin Matra” study as virgin forests
  7. Unauthorised road construction damaging Natura 2000 protected habitats and species, ignoring the legal obligation of carrying out a (nature impact) appropriate assessment prior to any intervention
  8. Unauthorised road construction through the Sâmbăta riverbed and other tributary watercourses
  9. Destruction of the soil and dislocation of rocks on the edge of watercourses and in the forest
  10. Abandonment of felled trees in streams
  11. Unauthorised logging of trees in Natura 2000 priority habitats, in Pin Matra polygons and in potentially virgin forests included in the official list of the Ministry of Environment
  12. Damaging the status of protected species and habitats

In the context of the EU infringement procedure against Romania for forest exploitation in protected habitats without adequate appropriate assessment, it is very worrying that the new road was even built through potential “priority habitats” which are under strict protection in the whole of the EU – in particular:

91E0 * – Alluvial forests with Alnus glutinosa and Fraxinus excelsior – Alno-Padion, Alnion incanae, Salicion albae

9180 * – Tilio-Acerion forests on steep slopes, rubble and ravines

Furthermore, the illegal road was built directly through the habitats of several protected species for which the Natura 2000 site was designated, such as the wolf and the otter, and the fact that the road affected the course of the river Sambata and will have had a negative impact on fish species found in this river, such as Cottus gobio.

Agent Green will file complaints against this illegal road, stating that the  Environmental Guard, Romanian Waters and the National Agency for Protected Natural Areas have a direct responsibility to investigate and prosecute these clear violations of the law and to force those who built the road to restore the affected area to its original state.

This scandalous contemporary example of clear contempt for nature and the law underscores the urgent need for EU intervention, as Romanian authorities are not able, and seemingly unwilling to fight such environmental crimes.

Here is a video by Agent Green showing the extent of the destruction:

 

Pristine Sâmbăta valley in 2016.
The same location in Sâmbăta valley in 2020: the rich biodiversity at the river banks has been devastated.
Untouched fairy tale forest in Sambata valley – Fagaras Natura 2000 site.
Forest maps do not show the existence of any road.
The beginnig of the new road, which is obviously not built on the hiking trail.
The road gives easy access to the old growth. Logging machinery will soon follow. Thus, the road has to be rehabilitated and the natural values completely restored.

 

 

 

Finally a clear announcement: EuroNatur and Agent Green welcome EU biodiversity strategy

The EU Biodiversity Strategy aims at strict  protection of 10% of EU’s ecosystems – including protection of all primary and old growth forests

EuroNatur and Agent Green welcome the announcement by the European Commission regarding the new EU Biodiversity Strategy. The EU Commission clearly states that „nature is in a state of crisis“ and declared that „at least one third of protected areas – representing 10% of EU land and 10% of EU sea – should be strictly protected.” The EU Commission also emphasized, that “it will be crucial to define, map, monitor and strictly protect all the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests“.

The biggest and most precious chunks of never systematically managed or long untouched forests („primary and old growth” forests) of the EU can be found in Romania, Bulgaria and Scandinavia. In particular in Romania, the progress of logging of extremely biodiversity rich old growth and primary forest ecosystems is causing big concern among scientists and conservationists globally.

Lately, conservative voices from the Romanian forestry sector have been drawing the misleading picture that Romania’s high biodiversity value forests are a product of the Romanian forestry system, claiming that 90% or Romania’s forests are ecologically equal to natural forests and try to spread the non-factual picture, that Romania’s natural forests are “man made” and that „forest management“ (= logging) is key to sustain biodiversity in forests. These assertions are in sharp contrast to bold evidence for a catastrophic loss of high biodiversity value forests ecosystems in recent years.

Approximately 8% of Romania’s forests potentially still show a very high degree of naturalness. These forests should be subject of conservation efforts to meet the 10% EU target for strict protection, as now initiated by the EU Commission.

In order to get there, existing mapping inventories need to be further validated in a transparent and cooperative way – also using digital data from forest management plans, which are not publicly accessible yet.

EuroNatur and Agent Green are ready to collaborate with the Romanian government in order to improve forest protection, if it is ensured that this is happening in a fair, transparent and positive manner and the recent wave of attacks against forest conservation is being halted.

Untouched Boia Mica valley in Fagaras mountains: 1000 ha primary forest, but no protection – although the whole mountain range has been designated as a EU Natura 2000 site. The new EU Biodiversity strategy wants to get all primary and old growth forests under strict protection. Lets hope that this does not come too late for this unique natural treasure…