Minister of the Environment and Climate Kai Mykkänen (NCP) and Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Sari Essayah (CD) on Tuesday presented the government’s proposal for defining old forests at a news conference in Helsinki on Tuesday, 11 June 2024. The proposal drew scathing criticism from environmental organisations and opposition lawmakers for precluding virtually all southern forests from protection. (Markku Ulander – Lehtikuva)

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THE GOVERNMENT of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo (NCP) on Tuesday confirmed it intends to adopt markedly strict criteria for defining old forests as part of its effort to comply with the biodiversity strategy of the European Union.

The criteria are based primarily on the average age of trees and amount of decayed wood in the forest.

Under the proposal unveiled on Tuesday, the age criterion will be set to 140 years for coniferous forests and 100 years for deciduous forests in the southern and middle boreal zones, and to 160–200 years for coniferous forests and 140 years for deciduous forests in the northern boreal zone.

Forests dominated by spruces or deciduous trees in the southern boreal zone will also be required to have 50 cubic metres of decayed wood per hectare to qualify for protection as old forests. The requirement drops to 40 cubic metres in the middle boreal zone and to 20–30 cubic metres in the northern boreal zone.

Pine forests in the southern boreal zone, in turn, will also be required to have 40 cubic metres of decayed wood per hectare to qualify, with the requirement dropping to 30 cubic metres in the middle boreal zone and to 10–20 cubic metres in the northern boreal zone.

The public comment period for the proposal will end on 24 July.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy obligates member states to protect their old and natural forests but provides them with substantial leeway in defining old forests.

The Finnish government chose between two sets of criteria, one devised by the Ministry of the Environment and one by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The former was founded more firmly on the recommendations of scientists and would have defined more forests as old forests, whereas the latter laid out extremely strict criteria for the average age and amount of decayed wood.

It chose the latter.

Minister of the Environment and Climate Kai Mykkänen (NCP) on Tuesday justified the decision by pointing out that the criteria will apply not only to state-owned forests, but also to privately owned forests.

“The criteria will apply to 600,000 forest owners. We’re talking about property protection,” he said at a news conference.

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Sari Essayah (CD) cited concerns about so-called gray protection – namely, situations where forest owners would be unable to sell forests that possibly meet the criteria. She admitted, though, that no estimates have been compiled of the amount of such privately owned forests.

“Of course we haven’t done impact assessments because we haven’t even had the criteria. That’s why this inventory is now being produced,” she retorted.

Opposition lawmakers and environmental organisations levelled scathing criticism at the decision, highlighting that it will preclude from protection effectively all forests south of Lapland.

“Unless the proposal is amended, the government’s protection efforts will be nothing but a scam,” Touko Sipiläinen, programme manager at Greenpeace Nordic in Finland, slammed in a statement signed also by WWF Finland and the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (SLL).

The environmental organisations argued that the proposal will result in the continuing decline of natural forests in Finland.

“What’s historical [about the government’s decision] is how it skirts responsibility,” said Hanna Halmenpää, the chairperson of SLL.

Jenni Pitko (Greens), the chairperson of the Parliament’s Environment Committee, stated to YLE on Tuesday that the proposal is as bad as feared, with no basis whatsoever on science.

“It’s looking like we aren’t getting the kind of science-based criteria that’d guarantee that all our remaining natural forests are protected,” she lamented in an interview with the public broadcasting company.

“Biodiversity loss will continue,” echoed Janne Kotiaho, the chairperson of the Finnish Nature Panel. “This decision doesn’t deliver anything for nature. It won’t put a stop to the degradation of nature.”

Maria Ohisalo and Krista Mikkonen of the Green League, both predecessors of Mykkänen, viewed that the government ignored science with its decision.

“The government should’ve put together genuinely science-based criteria, but that isn’t what they did,” Ohisalo said to Helsingin Sanomat on Tuesday. “These [criteria] aren’t based on ecological data, but priority was placed on other considerations,” added Mikkonen.

Mai Kivelä (LA), a member of the Parliament’s Environment Committee, accused Mykkänen for failing to stand up for nature in a way that is required from the minister of the environment.

The proposal for nature conservation measures unveiled yesterday by the government consists of the criteria for defining old forests and supplementary protection of state-owned forests. Pinja Perholehto (SDP) stated to Helsingin Sanomat that she is disappointed with both elements of the proposal, but especially with the supplementary protection.

“This section on supplementary protection in old state-owned forests may be an even bigger flop than these criteria,” she said.

Although the government assigned 31,000 hectares of state-owned forests for protection, 1,000 hectares more than its predecessor, the decision was met with dismay by opposition lawmakers for two reasons: First, the forests are located nearly exclusively in Northern Finland and Lapland, despite the greatest need for protection being in Southern Finland. Second, the forests are mostly located within the ecological network of Metsähallitus, meaning commercial their use is already prohibited.

“The protection decisions are now focused on Northern Finland, not to mention primarily in areas that are already outside commercial use or that are scrublands or wastelands. This decision won’t stop biodiversity loss in forests,” said Mikkonen.

The environmental organisations estimated in their joint statement that the supplementary protection decision does not necessarily result in any increase in protected land area.

Minister of the Environment and Climate Mykkänen on Tuesday reminded that protecting state-owned forests has proven difficult for all governments, including the one led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP).

Ohisalo and Mikkonen responded to the observation by drawing attention to other protection efforts by the previous government, such as raising funding for Metso Programme and launching Helmi Habitats Programme and My Nature Gift.

Perholehto admitted that also the previous government failed to put a stop to biodiversity loss in forests.

“It’s fair to say we didn’t do everything we should’ve done. Protection efforts have to continue this electoral term and in the next electoral term,” she underscored.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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