A trail running on the floor of a protected old forest in Jämsä, Central Finland, on 21 July 2023. The Finnish government is moving toward defining old forests in a way that hardly any forests in southern parts of the country would qualify for protection, report YLE and Helsingin Sanomat. (Heikki Saukkomaa – Lehtikuva)

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THE GOVERNMENT of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo (NCP) is set to adopt such a strict definition for old forests that no forests would qualify for protection in Southern Finland, report YLE and Helsingin Sanomat.

Helsingin Sanomat on Wednesday highlighted that Southern Finland is specifically where the need for protected forests is great given that most protected forests are found in Northern Finland.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Ministry of the Environment propose in a non-unanimous draft report that an old forest be defined as an over 140-year-old spruce forest with at least 50 cubic metres of decayed wood per hectare or an over 140-year-old pine forest with a minimum of 40 cubic metres of decayed wood per hectare.

The draft report was finalised and presented to relevant cabinet members in March.

“You don’t find those kinds of forests outside protected areas. Forests like that are rare even in protected areas,” Lauri Puhakainen, a biologist at the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY Centre) for South Savonia, told Helsingin Sanomat.

“You won’t find anything to protect in Southern Finland,” Panu Halme, a lecturer of ecology at the University of Jyväskylä, stated to YLE on Monday.

Halme highlighted that also the draft report recognises that forests that satisfy the strict criteria are found mostly in Lapland. Forests in Finland have an average of roughly six cubic metres of decayed wood per hectare – an average that is raised by the amount of decayed wood in protected forests.

The Finnish government is defining old forests to meet its commitments under the biodiversity strategy of the EU. Also Orpo promised before the parliamentary elections last year that his government would protect old forests on state-owned lands, a promise that is enshrined also in the government programme.

Finland has set out to meet its commitments by protecting state-owned forests. Protection in private forests is voluntary.

The EU requires that its member states take action to identify and protect their remaining old forests and primary forests by 2029. While the UN has provided a definition for primary forests, member states themselves have to come up with a science-based definition for old forests, which were to be finalised by the end of last year.

The process has generated disagreement in Finland. The draft report reveals a number of differences of opinion between the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Ministry of the Environment.

The latter proposed that coniferous forests in southern and central parts of the country be defined as old if the average age of trees is at least 120 years and in northern parts of the country if the average age is 140–160 years. The former, by contrast, would set the age limit at 140–160 years in southern and central parts and at 160–200 years in northern parts of Finland.

The Ministry of the Environment proposed that the requirement for decayed wood be set at 10 per cent of all trees or 20 cubic metres per hectare. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry would set the requirement at 50 cubic metres per hectare for spruce and deciduous tree forests, at 40 cubic metres for pine forests and at 20 cubic metres for forests in northernmost parts of Lapland.

“Protecting old forests ultimately turned into a cabinet wrangle. The two ministries have lobbied for themselves each step of the way,” Halme lamented to YLE on Monday.

Both ministries are nonetheless proposing criteria that are so strict that only a few dozens of hectares of forests would qualify as old forests in Southern Finland, according to Halme.

He also questioned the decision to adopt average tree age as a criterion, arguing that a few over 150-year-old trees can be a sign of an old forest. There are forests, he added, where the oldest trees are about 300 years old but where the average age of trees falls between the 200-year requirement forwarded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

“The criteria wouldn’t be satisfied by very old pine forests especially in Northern Finland. A 300-year-old forests not touched by an axe could not qualify for protection,” he said to the public broadcaster.

Puhakainen, who over the past 17 years has assessed about 5,000 hectares of forests submitted to the forest biodiversity programme for Southern Finland, Metso, interpreted the proposed criteria as an indication of political willingness to identify forests that warrant protection.

“Of course this is only a non-unanimous proposal from the ministries, but it does tell that the criteria are very strict in the preparatory work,” he said to Helsingin Sanomat on Wednesday.

“Either they want to test whether these will cause a ruckus or they’ve already decided that there’ll be no protection on state-owned lands. This harshly contradicts the guidelines from the EU,” added Ari Aalto, a business owner who has participated in assessing state-owned forests for the past 20 years.

While Aalto and other volunteers have found 70,000 hectares of forests worthy of protection in Southern Finland, none of it satisfies the criteria proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

“We haven’t come across a single forest like that. The age requirement alone is very strict, the same goes for the requirement for decayed wood. When you put the two together, you won’t find spruce forests like that in Southern Finland. They’re forests from fairy tales.”

He also drew attention to the chasm between the proposal and the criteria adopted by Metso, which requires that a protected forest has an average of at least 10 cubic metres of decayed wood per hectare.

“Here you’re requiring 4–5 times more. It feels odd,” Aalto said to Helsingin Sanomat.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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