On the 26th of January 2021, in the heart of Soomaa National Park, locals noticed signs of large-scale forest logging. The logging area belongs to Natura 2000 network and is dangerously close to one of the largest pristine boglands of EU Soomaa Wilderness. It appears that the State Forest Management Center (RMK) plans to cut 2 357 cubic meters on 38 hectares. However, the felling area is in the middle of Soomaa National Park, Natura 2000 forest. Even though RMK actions might be legal, this does not mean that they are right.
Conflict between RMK and locals
The rules of the Soomaa National Park divide it into a reserve, 29 special protection zones and one restricted zone. RMK representatives confirmed that they carried out felling only in the area where it is allowed. However, the felling took place in a restricted zone which remains within the Natura 2000 site of the trans-European network of protected areas. The explanations of the Environmental Board and the RMK did not satisfy the nature activists and locals and so they took the case to court. Although the logging had already begun, the locals hoped that further damage would be prevented in the restricted zone. They claim that such thinning does not comply with the goals of nature protection in the National Park. The Tallinn Administrative Court prohibited felling in the protected Natura 2000 forest of Soomaa National Park under preliminary legal protection until the end of February.
Same story six years ago
Similar disagreement happened six years ago. RMK started cutting trees in protected area, which caused local protests. Then Ministry of the Environment asked RMK to stop felling until the environmental specialist had updated the list of natural values in the area. That time, RMK stopped the felling. Moreover, the protection rules were changed and the restricted zone was replaced by a special protection zone. The restricted zone generally acts as a buffer for the special protection zone with a strict protection regime. However, restricted zone allows timber harvesting, albeit with greater restrictions compared to conventional forestry.
It is legal, but is it right?
Nature conservationists condemn decisions to cut tress in protected areas. We should consider not only economic, but also biological benefits when planning forest cutting. “In the protected forest, an impact assessment must be made and then a decision must be made on felling permits,” claims Aivar Ruukel, a nature guide in Soomaa area. Loggers should consult mycologists, entomologists, ornithologists, botanists and many other nature experts. We should also take into account the objectives of the Natura 2000 network and of natural bird breeding areas. Ruukel adds that tree cutting does not improve habitats of protected species. Thinning might only benefit commercially used tree species.
According to Asko Lõhmus, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Tartu, the most common problem with the restricted zones of protected areas in Estonia is that general timber harvesting law is not prohibited there. So, timber harvesting is possible on a vague condition that the protected area must meet its protection objectives. Since the importance of each locality for these general objectives can be debated and local nature values are not surveyed before harvest, a precautionary attitude before allowing any harvests would seem reasonable. Otherwise there is no point in protecting the area. The Soomaa case is extremely delicate because it is not only a National Park, but also a Natura 2000 site, Wilderness area and one of the largest pristine boglands in Europe.
There is no point in dwelling on the idea that the forest cannot be cut down. It is always a question of something other than just a principle, such as where to cut, what to cut, how much to cut, how to cut, why to cut… The cutter should have good answers and justifications for all these questions.
The 11 530 ha Soomaa Wilderness is embedded into the Soomaa National Park, located in the south-eastern corner of Estonia. The Soomaa National Park, situated in Transitional Estonia, was created to protect large pristine raised bogs, flood plain grasslands, wet forests and meandering rivers. Soomaa Wilderness consist of four large peat bogs: Kuresoo, Valgeraba, Ordi and Kikerpera. The Pärnu, Halliste, Navesti, Raudna, Lemmjõgi, and Kõpu rivers separate the bogs from each other. Alongside these rivers, floodplain meadows and floodplain forests occur.
Soomaa Wilderness is the most valuable part of the remaining extensive peat bog Wilderness in south-west Estonia. Kuresoo Bog is one of the two best surviving large bogs in Estonia with high species diversity. The Soomaa Wilderness is a Ramsar site of protected wetland.
The zoning of Wilderness includes three zones: The Wilderness zone, the Restoration zone and the Transition zone. Minimal human interventions are allowed in the Restoration zone. However, human intervention should be planned to be phased out. The Transition zone functions as a buffer around the Wilderness and Restoration zone. Tree felling is only allowed in economic zones, not in the zones that are protected. If the logging proceeds, further investigations should be carried out to see how it impacts the Wilderness. Additional audit might be needed, to evaluate if Soomaa Wilderness still qualifies for Platinum Wilderness Quality Standard.
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