Campaigners in Estonia warn of new threats to its unique forests

Trees near the coast

Pine trees growing on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Sea and cloudy sky in background. Panga village, Saaremaa island, Estonia.

KalervoK, via Wikipedia
The most recent environmental report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveals that Estonia is using its unique forests intensively. Forestry exports have increased and now make up five percent of exports. Ronan O'Shea visited the forests to meet the campaigners fighting to protect this incredible resource

The current level and methods of logging cannot be called sustainable in the true meaning of this word, as they harm biodiversity…

Having driven 45 minutes outside Tallinn early on a Monday morning, one thing is very clear. There are a lot of trees in Estonia. And not just any trees. The side of the motorway is lined with dense clusters of pine and spruce as we head towards Lahemaa National Park. 

In an odd quirk of history, the Lahemaa National Park wasn’t with the borders of what we would call Russia today, but in one of its far-flung outposts, Estonia, which was under Soviet occupation until 1991. 

Founded in 1971, Lahemaa was the first national park of the Soviet era (when Estonia was still under USSR occupation) and remains protected to this day. Indeed, its foundation was partly designed to protect the country’s vast forest areas. 

Cutting the forests

The country’s official tourist board puts Estonia’s forest areas at 50 percent of the country’s territory, with 30 percent protected. Though not inaccurate, per se, there are caveats to this statistic. 

Artur Talvik - campaigner, filmmaker and now leader of the Estonian Freedom Party - greets me in his office at the Estonian parliament. He says: “Half of the land is forest, and half of it is state owned. But forest land doesn’t mean it’s covered with trees… when you cut all the trees down, it’s still forest land. That’s the tricky thing in the sense of statistics.”

Talvik tells me that there is more forest now than in years gone by. But, he adds: “The pressure [on] the forest is absolutely bigger. Recently, Parliament passed a law which says that you can cut younger spruce trees. Earlier the age was 80 minimum. Now it is lowered to 60. Which means that it’s also moving towards the industrial forests”. 

The activist is keen to clarify that his opposition is not to the cutting down of trees under any circumstances - he loves high-quality wooden furniture and owns a wood-built home - but to the lower quality of the forests that are growing, and an imbalance between areas that are heavily protected and those which are not. 

All the while, the level of cutting in areas that are used for felling is quite severe. “The problem we see today is that… they loosen the regulations of cutting the forests in the national park areas or the protected areas and that is very strange…  

Greener mentality

"The machinery is very advanced now, so they can cut quickly and aggressively. The machinery is very expensive, so it should work 24 hours [a day]. This is also dangerous.” 

While Talvik is intricately wrapped up in the political debate that rage over Estonian forests, there are concerns from those outside mainstream politics as well. 

Siim Kuresoo, deputy chairman of the Board for the Estonian Nature Foundation (ELF) told The Ecologist: “In my view, all elements of sustainable forestry are presented in [the] Estonian forest policy, but they are currently badly under balanced in favour of economic interests of intensive logging oriented forest owners and wood industries. 

The current level and methods of logging cannot be called sustainable in the true meaning of this word, as they harm biodiversity…

“The current level and methods of logging cannot be called sustainable in the true meaning of this word, as they harm biodiversity… As a very forested country with distinct age patterns in these forests, we have had a unique chance to maximize all goods and benefits that forests have to offer – biodiversity, mitigating climate change, offering sustainable and meaningful jobs and self-realisation for rural communities."

Kuresoo raises concerns over risks faced by Estonia’s forests - while arguing that there are high hopes for the future, with a nascent, greener mentality among the country’s population.

Wood products

“There are new threats in runaway bio-energy developments, as well as other wood incentive technologies, that create a need for even stronger safeguards than previously needed,” he says, echoing Talvik. 

A protest on 15th December last year against overlogging saw many people descend on the Estonian parliament. 

Their fears seemingly bolstered by an OECD (2017) report on Estonia’s environmental performance, with details of logging in the country. It reveals a figure of 91 percent of fellings related to annual productive capacity, putting Estonia behind only Belgium in its use of forests as a resource.

The report states: "Forests are used intensively. Over the past decade, logging increased considerably, providing for a forestry industry that represents five percent of exports. Estonia needs to further promote sustainable forestry practices through better co-operation between relevant ministries and dissemination of knowledge among private forest owners."  

However, there are those who also consider logging of Estonian forests to be sustaiable. Henrik Välja, managing director of the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, a non-profit which aims to promote Estonia’s forests industry abroad and boost productivity, believes the industry is in good health. 

He says: “Forests and wood products play a huge role in the Estonian economy, accounting for five percent GDP and six per cent of employment.” 

Continued debate

He notes that 80 per cent of jobs in the forest industries are located in rural areas, those less likely to have reaped the economic benefits of Estonia’s emergence as a tech hub, often dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe. 

“I personally believe in the multifunctionality of forests. We need to ensure that the different roles of forests are in good health: biodiversity, recreational [uses] and providing raw materials… we should aim to fill the different roles in the same forest. 

“For that we need to seek a balance between regulations, restrictions and forest owners’ right to use his/hers land to earn a living and provide the society raw material for adding value. I also believe this will be an endless process as the expectations of society change over time but in my opinion, Estonian forests are well maintained.”

With pressures coming from numerous sides (domestic workers in need of livelihoods, international and local observers worried about the loss of forests for ecological, cultural and social reasons), it remains hard to pinpoint just how acute the issue the felling of forests in Estonia is. 

However, with a €1bn paper mill set to open in Tartu, it seems likely pressure on the country’s forest areas is set to be ramped up yet further, leading to continued debate as to whether use of the country’s natural resource is sustainable on a long term basis, and what harm that may have on an ecological level. 

This Author

Ronan J O'Shea is a freelance journalist who has written for The Independent, New York Post, Lad Bible, Escapism, Foodism and National Geographic Traveller.