SFMC felling state forests with no view to future

Toomas Mattson | 9/14/2010 | 2:40 PM

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TALLINN, 14 September 2010 - The National Audit Office has found in its audit that the State Forest Management Centre (SFMC) is carrying out felling on prime state forests – old trees on fertile soils – at a rate faster than such forest can regenerate, i.e. reach a similar age of felling maturity. This reduces the chance of future generations being able to manage state forests as profitably as is currently being done, since the best trees at the right age for felling will, at some point, simply run out.

The majority of the revenue from the management of state forest is raised from clear cutting carried out in good forests, i.e. fertile forest types – mesotrophic, mesoeutrophic and nemoral forests. The audit conducted by the National Audit Office revealed that the area of old forests in these good forest types has decreased sharply over the last decade, since the extent of clear cutting in fertile forest types is greater than the rate at which middle-aged forests can reach old age.

In the fertile forest types of forests outside of protected areas, old spruce stands (90+ years old) and old aspen stands (40+ years old) will disappear at the current rate of felling within the next 20 years. Old birch stands (70+ years old) will be depleted within the next 30 years. The situation is less critical with old pine stands (100+ years old), but they too will run out within the next 50 years.

The permitted ages of trees for clear cutting have been repeatedly lowered, and younger and thinner forests are being felled all the time.

Tarmo Olgo, Audit Director of the Performance Audit Department of the National Audit Office, notes that while the state deems it necessary, given the prevailing economic conditions, to maintain employment levels within forestry and to generate as much revenue as possible from the sector, it must be made to understand that it will not be able to continue to manage its forests in this manner for much longer. “If the current rate of felling continues, it would make sense to slow it down considerably in three or four years’ time, once the recession is behind us,” Olgo recommended. “However, in doing so the drop-off in revenue from state forests would likely be much sharper than if we were to start slowing things down now, at a more gradual pace. Either way, our forests need to be given time to re-grow. Felling volumes could be increased again, keeping a careful eye on them and maintaining balance within forest types, but only in the longer term – which is to say decades down the track.”

The National Audit Office considers it a significant problem that the state currently publishes its felling volumes as a consolidated figure for all state forests, including better and poorer alike. And as long as better forest remains to be felled, it will be taken where it is easiest and most profitable to do so.

As a result of the audit, the National Audit Office is of the opinion that, taking into account the division of state forests by species and age, and in order to alleviate the excessive felling of previous years, the extent of annual clear cutting in mesotrophic, mesoeutrophic and nemoral forests must be considerably reduced: compared to the volumes planned for 2010, by ca 30% in majority pine forests; by 40–50% in majority spruce forests; by ca 50% in majority birch forests; and by ca 70% in majority aspen forests.

The audit conducted by the National Audit Office also showed that it would be impossible to sustain the forest ecosystem, which is currently in good condition, if the present rate of felling continues. The decrease in the area of old forests and the felling of younger and younger forests reduces the natural value of forests as a whole, since older forests display greater biological diversity and form habitats for a larger number of different species.

The aging of protected forests cannot make up for the reduction in the area of fertile old stands in managed forests, regardless of the fact that the total area of strictly protected forest land increased markedly at the turn of the century and in the first half of the last decade.

At the same time, the area of old forests in worse forest types (paludified forests and forests subject to paludification) is increasing, since smaller trees and more difficult conditions mean that felling cannot be carried out or is financially impractical in such areas.

For example, over the next 50 years, the total area of old stands (100+ years old) in pine stands subject to paludification and bog moss forest pine stands in commercial forests will double; but modern forestry equipment, which is very heavy, cannot be used on wet or damp peat soils. Since different forests types have not been distinguished in analyses to date, the public has been given the impression that there remain plenty of old forests and that there is no reason to fear a decline in felling options.

The fact that not all parts of forests which are suitable for felling are equally accessible – since they are at different distances from roads with high load-bearing capacity and some stands may be completely inaccessible unless the ground is frozen over – should also be taken into consideration, as should the fact that clear cutting cannot immediately be carried out in order to reduce the risks of storm damage and paludification in areas adjacent to clear cut areas which have not been renewed.

As such, the reduction in the area of old forests will begin to affect the revenue of the SFMC before they disappear completely, and financial problems will arise earlier than the end of the periods mentioned above.

The National Audit Office proposes that the legal acts regulating forest management be amended in such a way that the planning of felling takes into account different forest types and the spatial placement of the forests to be felled. The amended forest management regulations must ensure that the area of old forests does not decrease by forest type and that the network of protected areas does not become less cohesive as a result of management.

The National Audit Office is of the opinion that since the revenue that the SFMC can earn from forests will decrease in the longer term, the government should start thinking now about potential models of state forest management and the revenue raised from it in twenty years’ time.

In analysing the causes of the problems, more attention needs to be turned to internal pressure stemming from the nature of the SFMC – as a commercial agency it is interested in making a profit and boosting its revenue.

The National Audit Office therefore recommended to the Ministry of the Environment that it analyse its methods of state forest management and identify the best solution for management, in conditions of reduced revenue, which will ensure the sustainable use of state forests, the preservation of state assets, ecological stability and the provision of public services.

The National Audit Office considers it regrettable that the Ministry of the Environment, as a body in charge of state assets, has failed to carefully analyse the management of state forests or create a legal framework which would ensure sustainable management.

In his response to the audit, the Minister of the Environment did not agree with any of the conclusions drawn by the National Audit Office, or with its recommendation, and is of the view that the management of state forests is sustainable.

In response to the recommendations made by the National Audit Office, the minister said that since implementing them would require long-term development plans to be amended and approved in the Riigikogu, the Ministry of the Environment saw no way that they could be implemented.

The National Audit Office expresses its regret at the attitude of the minister and his response to the audit, since as the head of the field in question the minister not only has the opportunity, but also the obligation, to offer expert advice to the parliament and to make proposals for the amendment of legal acts and development plans so as to guarantee the sustainable management of Estonia’s forests. The National Audit Office hopes that the minister reconsiders his position and advises the parliament wisely – all the more so since the drafting of a new forestry development plan has already begun within the ministry.

The aim of the audit was to assess whether the management of state forests, which form 37% of all Estonian forests, is being organised in a sustainable manner, i.e. whether state forests are being managed in such a way that future felling options will be as good and the ecological status of forests stable.

On the basis of SFMC felling data, the National Audit Office modelled potential future scenarios in terms of the division of state forest by age and forest type if the SFMC continues to fell such forests at the same rate as it is today.

In order to assess the sustainability of the management of state forests, the National Audit Office used SFMC data for clear cutting carried out from 2004 to 2008 and planned for 2009 and 2010.

In presenting its evaluation, the National Audit Office was guided by the criteria that the area of clear cutting in state forests is such as can be permanently preserved, and that clear cutting is planned and carried out in proportion to the frequency of forest types (i.e. felling is not concentrated in better forests).

The National Audit Office sought the opinions of experts from the University of Tartu and the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences from the Estonian University of Life Sciences in regard to the methods it used for the audit and the results it obtained. In addition to approving the methods used, the experts also made proposals to amend the current management of state forests so as to ensure the protection and sustainable management of forests. The views of the university experts are reflected in the audit report.

What has the SFMC itself said about felling volumes in different years?

SFMC in 2003 on the need to reduce felling volumes:

Given the structure of Estonia’s forests, it may be predicted that felling volumes in the country will decrease further in the coming years. The reason here lies in the age structure of the forests. In recent years it has only been possible to carry out more felling thanks to the large proportion of mature stands in our forests. Now, however, there is less and less forest suitable for felling, and it will be decades before felling volumes can be increased again.


SFMC in 2010 on further increases to felling volumes:

“The need for an additional budget in 2010 arose in relation to the activity of the timber market and the opportunity it created to make more use of resources,” said Mati Polli, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the SFMC. “What’s also important is that we can continue to give hundreds of people work and put bread on their tables with the economy the way it is today.” This year the SFMC plans to increase state forest felling and sales volumes to a record 2.8 million cubic metres. 2.36 million cubic metres of timber were sold in 2009.


Toomas Mattson
Head of the Communication Service of the National Audit Office
+372 640 0777
+372 51 34 900
[email protected]

  • Posted: 9/14/2010 2:40 PM
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