Tag Archives: old growth

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

Groundbreaking supreme court ruling for the protection of Romanian natural forests

Bucharest Court of Appeal decides on full public access to forest management plans; EU Commission calls for full transfer of the Natura 2000 directives into Romanian national law.

Forest management plans contain environmentally relevant information and must therefore be publicly accessible. The Court of Appeal in Bucharest has now also adopted this legal opinion. The NGO Agent Green has filed more than 100 lawsuits against forest owners and authorities in the past year to get public access to forest management plans in order to enforce the EU directive on public access to environmental information, the Aarhus Convention and the EU Nature directives in connection with the protection of ecologically valuable forests. The Court of Appeal in Bucharest has now handed down an important decision: The public has the right to access environmental information in forest management plans.

For a long time, Romanian authorities and Romsilva, Romania’s state forest administration, have kept environmentally relevant information in forest management plans secret  – contrary to the provisions of the Aarhus Convention and the EU Environmental Information Directive. Agent Green has therefore had to seek access to relevant information in numerous legal proceedings. The court of appeal in Bucharest has now found Agent Green is correct and dismissed an appeal lodged by the Ministry of the Environment. With immediate effect, the ministry is therefore obliged to make environmentally relevant information from forest management plans available to the public on request. This means that civil society can finally access information, including: the volume of wood that exists in the forest, the species of trees, the average age of the trees, what kind of logging activity is planned and the volume of wood approved for cutting in the last 10 years. This is an important step to ensure public control of compliance with EU directives and thus the protection of ecologically valuable forests.

The decision also sends a strong signal to the rest of the EU, because forest management plans are kept secret almost everywhere. The issue of inadequate access to environmental information is also essential with regard to the EU infringement proceedings against the government in Bucharest. The EU Commission could soon escalate the infringement proceedings to the Court of Justice of the EU.

At the same time, the pressure from Brussels on the Romanian government is  growing. In its latest publication on infringement proceedings, the European Commission calls on Romania to fully ensure the conservation of the country’s natural habitats and the protection of wild animals and plants in accordance with the requirements of the EU Nature Directives. The EU Commission complains that the forest management plans often do not take Natura 2000 provisions into account. The nature conservationist witnesses of Agent Green have repeatedly documented illegal logging, in particular in designated Natura 2000 sites. Romania now has two months to remedy this situation, otherwise the EU Commission threatens to issue a reasoned opinion, which could lead to legal proceedings at the Court of Justice of the EU – and potentially a harsh sentence afterwards.

Devastation of a (formerly) pristine side valley in the Domogled – Valea Cernei National Park / Natura 2000 area.

 

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.