Increased clearcutting in Lithuania’s Natura 2000 sites demands a rapid response
A fight is heating up in Lithuania over government-authorised clearcutting in national and regional parks, many of which are also protected under the Natura 2000 network.
The conflict began more than a year ago: the Seimas, Lithuania’s parliament, approved a highly controversial forestry reform in July 2017, centralising forest governance to facilitate the sell-off of large areas of forest, and attracting private investors (notably Ikea, which became the country’s largest private forest owner in November 2018).
In 2017, more than 15,000 permits to clear-cut were issued, many in parks and Natura 2000 sites. Even so, the Ministry of Environment viewed environmental impact assessments as unnecessary. The Vice-Minister argued that the increased felling was needed for biofuels to keep energy prices low; in reality, only a small amount is intended for biofuel, the rest is intended for wood product manufacturing. Local fauna and flora have already been seriously damaged as logging in protected areas has proceeded.
Lithuania’s rules were amended on 8 August 2018 – during the summer holidays – to increase felling by six per cent in areas protected under national rules; Natura 2000 sites represent almost 18 per cent of these protected areas. Neither the public nor civil society organisations were informed or consulted; when this lack of participation was raised, the government claimed that no suggestions had been received.
Civil society quickly organised themselves, and significant public opposition made authorities pause tree-felling for one month in Labanoras Regional Park, most of which is protected under Natura 2000, but it has since resumed at a greater pace.
Tensions are rising. A protest march in Vilnius, 1 December 2018, attracted some 1,500 celebrities, activists and citizens who demanded an end to clearcutting. On 3 December, a lawsuit was filed in Vilniaus Apygardos Teismas, (Vilnius Regional Court); on the same date, Environment Minister Kęstutis Navickas was fired. The Seimas was to debate the issue on 4 December, but no action was taken.
For now, large-scale clearcutting continues.
The European Commission has been informed of the situation but has not yet received a complaint. This is despite possible infringements to EU Directives on: the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment (85/337); on freedom of access to information on the environment (90/313); as well as of Natura 2000 sites. With regards to the Birds and Habitats Directives, the Commission sent a letter of formal notice on 17 May 2018 regarding Lithuania’s failure to designate sufficient nature protection areas. The sites proposed by Lithuania do not adequately represent the habitats and species present.
Any delay in action to suspend logging while legal proceedings play out works against the climate, biodiversity and Lithuania’s citizens. A rapid response is required.