The 49 million hectares of forest managed by the members of the European State Forest Association lend weight to the words of Eustafor’s new President Juha S. Niemelä.
’As President, I am backed by all state-owned forests in Europe. That’s quite a number of hectares lending their weight,’ says Juha S. Niemelä, Doctor of Agriculture and Forestry and Director General of Metsähallitus, who was elected President of Eustafor in March.
The European State Forest Association Eustafor has 37 members from 26 European countries. All in all, the members manage 49 million hectares of forest, which is about 30 percent of Europe’s forests.
’There’s a lot going on in the EU as regards forests. As President I will have the opportunity to get close to the centre, in order to influence matters to the extent that an organization like this can influence decision-making in the EU,’ Niemelä says.
Eustafor’s Brussels office consists of three people.
’I consider it vital for us to have a direct line to the core of power in Brussels. Receiving signals at an early stage is important,’ Niemelä says.
Niemelä defines Eustafor’s task to be the monitoring and influencing issues and initiatives related to forests.
’You can present your own perspective if you’re visible in certain situations and attend certain events,’ Niemelä explains.
Pressures to protect state forests
Loss of biodiversity and global warming have led to an increasing desire by the EU to regulate forest policy.
’The EU biodiversity strategy exerts pressure to protect state forests throughout Europe. Many EU initiatives, sometimes quite unexpected ones, can mention, for example, that clear fellings should be banned completely. I would like to see decisions based on accurate information and an understanding of their financial impact,’ Niemelä says.
Eustafor’s values include the multiple use of forests, which takes into account economy, nature and recreational values. According to Niemelä, when formulating statements, Eustafor collaborates with European forest owners, organisations of forest industry, co-operative organisations and the sawmill industry, among others.
How people image things to be is a very strong factor in Brussels. Many decision-makers have a completely erroneous image of Finnish forestry, whereas I don’t hesitate to say that we are among the best in Europe as regards forest management.
Niemelä finds that the fundamentals of sustainable forest management are not sufficiently well known in Brussels.
’Public debate is sometimes based on erroneous information about forests and forest management. The participants should understand the scale of forest-based industries and businesses,’ Niemelä says.
In his opinion, EU decision-makers continually receive messages with a varying content.
’How people image things to be is a very strong factor in Brussels. Many decision-makers have a completely erroneous image of Finnish forestry, whereas I don’t hesitate to say that we are among the best in Europe as regards forest management. And I don’t mean just state forests, but private forests as well,’ Niemelä points out.
What erroneous images do people in Brussels have?
’I personally haven’t come across anything erroneous. Lately, due to the pandemic, I’ve not been to Brussels that much, but you do hear stories at Eustafor meetings that at the meetings of some other groups Finland and Sweden are regarded as bad examples of forest management. What some people think of the sustainability of our forest management appears to be based on erroneous conceptions. This proves that open interaction is needed,’ Niemelä says.
In Finland, Metsähallitus has regular discussions with NGOs and other stakeholder groups. These form part of the regional natural resources planning.
’On the European level, there are fewer natural opportunities for this type of dialogue, and this may be one reason why erroneous conceptions take root,’ Niemelä says.
Increasing carbon sink in state forests
Sixty percent of Finnish forest land is in private ownership. In discussions on the EU’s environmental goals, people turn to look at ’the common property of all Finns’, the state forests, which make up one third of all Finnish forests. According to Niemelä, state-owned forests do play a significant part in both timber procurement and multidimensional management.
’As regards Metsähallitus, the carbon sink in state forests is increasing. It is our clear goal to increase it by ten percent by 2035,’ Niemelä says.
Damage by bark beetle, for example, has made it necessary to interfere with carbon sinks more than had been planned. Forest damage must be dealt with.
Elsewhere in Europe, the situation varies from one country to the next.
’Damage by bark beetle, for example, has made it necessary to interfere with carbon sinks more than had been planned. Forest damage must be dealt with,’ Niemelä says.
Niemelä predicts that because of global warming, forest damage is also likely to be seen in Finland, and not just in state forests.
’Forest damage can occur to any forest owner. By now, it is a big issue in Europe,’ Niemelä says.
Polarised forest debate in Finland
In the run-up to the parliamentary election in April, forest use in Finland is giving rise to even more expectations, pressures and conflicts than usual.
’Judging by what I’ve heard from colleagues, I’d say that debate in other countries is less polarised than in Finland. My colleague from Bavaria, for example, tells me that his minister defends the use of forests very strongly,’ Niemelä says.
According to Niemelä, his European colleagues are rarely required to talk about the size of carbon sinks.
’The debate in Finland is incredibly intense. Of course, forests and the export revenue based on them are crucial for our welfare. Maybe that’s why the debate gets so emotional,’ Niemelä says.
Niemelä calls for a more constructive debate on forests.
’I don’t know what we could do about the debate in Finland to make sure we speak of the same thing and avoid distorting things. I’m sure that all who participate in the debate understand that the significance of forests as the mainstay of Finnish society is crucial, or you could even say critical. I do think everyone understands this, but even so, the debate is strongly polarised,’ Niemelä ponders.