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Future forecast for the forests remains bright

An interview of “Verslas ir politika” with the head of the Forestry Department under the Ministry of Environment, Valdas VAIČIŪNAS

Gintautas KNIUKŠTA
Business and politics Nr. 12(37)

Valdas Vaičiūnas, the head of the Forestry department under the Ministry of Environment, says that the future of national forests is very bright. In the future, forest coverage in Lithuania should increase, but perhaps not as rapidly as in the recent years.
This interview reveals what are the necessary changes required by today’s timber resource situation, a heavy tax burden, what are the effects of the land reform on forests, and how many big hopes the program of National Forest Sector Development provides.

Why the issue of forest cuttings is controversial, and why it is sometimes so difficult to find a consensus?
Because a forest is a place, where a lot of functions intertwine, and we cannot talk only about economy, i.e. about income and rational use of forest resources, only economic benefits. Environment protection function, biological diversity is also important, and the most important thing is forest’s social functions, human recreation. Cuttings are the aspect of forest maintenance, which somehow intertwines with all three mentioned functions.
When we, foresters, discuss with each other, there is a lot of rational approach. In those forests, which are grown for timber, i.e. timber, which is overgrown in the fourth group forests should be cut down, rationally used, and sent to our timber processing companies; it should be processed, create jobs, and so on.
On the other hand, when we set environmental protection requirements for the forests, preservation issues of biological diversity, when we talk about the establishment of protected territory, which has European importance, forest use is a secondary task.
Forests can be used as long as it does not affect forest functions, which are related to biological diversity in a broad sense, and with the functions of environmental protection. Also, the main function of recreational, suburban, urban, coastal forests is relaxation.
When we put all three characteristics, there are discussions, disputes, and sometimes they are quite sharp. You probably know society’s opinion on cuttings. Unfortunately, it is very negative. Although, we all want to sit on a wooden chair, at a wooden table, and have wooden furniture...
Lithuania is not an exception; discussions are present around the world: with the social partners, among various interest groups.
If we talk objectively about what is allowed by quantitative parameters of our forests, it is a quantity of matured forests, which is slowly increasing, the structure of age classes. It encourages us to made certain assumptions and estimate. As we evaluate it objectively, the cuttings potentially will slightly increase. But this increase is not drastic.
We talk about 5-10 percent increase of cuttings volume in the coming years. But there is one condition: together with the new Government, there will be an old and painful problem of the foresters solved, i.e. restitution of reserved property rights – the issue of national forests status. We still have around 12 percent of such forests, which seems will be not returned to the owners, but on the other hand, there are for fully owned by the forest stewardships.
It is not rational that forest stewardships manage those forests, which are far away, small, scattered, and interspersed among the private forests. Our proposal was expressed in the previous forest policy, its implementation strategy, which was used for ten years. It is also included in the program of National Forestry Sector’s Development.
This issue should be solved as soon as possible, and the most rational solution would be to transfer those forests to the forest stewardships, which economically and rationally could be transferred to the forest stewardships, so that they would be restored for full farming. The remaining forests, which are located far away from the national forests, small, scattered, and interspersed among the private forests, should be sold.
In this way, these forests would have a real owner, who would perform normal forestry activities, and also it would give additional timber resources in the market. First of all, in the sector of timber processing industry and energy.

Why do you think this problem became inveterate problem? And why there is no unified policy?
According to the data of National Land Services, when we talk about almost 12 percent of remaining forests, there are no candidates, who would restore property rights. This problem is an inveterate problem, but it is only like grimacing of the previous land reform. Sometimes, we can say that there was a lack of determined political will in order to finish this problem; sometimes, we can blame the protracted land reform. We hope that the current Government will be sufficiently determined to complete this process.

There were a lot disputes over the increase of softwood cutting age. What was the intention?..
There were a lot of proposals. Some people suggest to increase the cuttings, some says to reduce, some – to forbid to cut in the spring, others says for a half a year, and some say to cut only in the winter. Proposals remain proposals, but decisions should be rational. As it is related to the cuttings, this matter is particularly sensitive.
Any suggestions and requirements have to be based on objective criteria. I think that in term of cutting age changes, it is necessary to measure scientific basis very carefully. Only then, we can discuss more seriously.
In Lithuania, the age of cuttings is stable and clear. Everyone knows everything very well, and it is comprehensible. If there are any changes of the cutting age in the future, it might be related to a certain differentiation by the type of trees and sites. However, it requires having scientific basis and detailed research.

 Let us conclude: does Lithuania cuts a lot or not? Could we cut more? Maybe then we would also have more jobs?
Lithuania cuts as much as it is objectively allowed by the quantitative and qualitative forest parameters. It is assessed by the international experts. The Ministers of European countries every four years gather to thematic conferences, evaluate how countries use their forests and what is the intensity of cuttings. Lithuania is among those countries, which use their forests rationally.
However, we should talk delicately about the increase of forests cuttings, while relating it with improving situation in the forests, forest age structure, increasing number of matured trees, and mostly, with addressed issue of reserved forests. If this issue is resolved, I think that it is possible that volume of cutting could increase by 10 percent.

Does the Department of Forestry cares about both national and private forests equally?
Certainly yes.

How would you describe the situation of national and private forests?
At the same time it is hard and easy. Objectively speaking, I admit that today, the most advanced forestry technologies are applied in national forests. If we talk about reforestation, quality of nurseries, investments of roads, forest infrastructure, the situation in national forests is better.
Although, we have some excellent examples in private forests, where forestry activities are very rational. I recently participated in the most advanced forest owners’ awards celebration in Trakai, which was organized by the Association of Lithuanian Forest Owners. Among those forest owners, there are a lot of those, who invest in new forests, nurseries, security measures without thinking about economic benefits.
I would say that out private forests are changing; a real and different owner of a forest is formed. The problem is that their domains are small. An average domain is 3.3 ha. The problems of the whole Eastern Europe are similar, because of similar land reform.

Does the tax burden is not too heavy for the forest stewardships?
The sector of national forests is working efficiently. Tax burden on the budget of the forest stewardships is heavy. Budget revenues are substantial. We talk about 15 percent income tax, which is paid directly to the state budget, from the income, which is obtained from selling raw wood and not truncated forest, if we compare countries by similar deductions, such taxes are in Lithuania and Estonia.
Nevertheless, the forest stewardships work profitably, and the average yield is around 5 percent. Also, there is an income tax paid to the state budget. It is a significant revenue.
Is the tax burden heavy or light, how does it affects a forest, those questions are constantly discussed. Due to national forests, the protector is mandatory reforestation and forest management norms, which are approved by the Minister of the Environment, taking into account the scope of works formed in the projects of the forest management.
It allows ensuring that the return to the forest and investments to the forest works, non-profit works, forest growth, maintenance, security, nurseries development, forest selection, seed production, recreation, environmental protection, would be sufficient.
We should not forget that those 15 percent appeared when the state was in difficult situation, when it was pressed by the financial crisis. However, the situation become stabile, economy started to grow, budget incomes increased, so I think that we should go back to the rationality of this tax and consider whether this 15 percent tax burden from incomes is rational, whether it could be a bit lighter. In respect to financial approach, the forest stewardships work very hard.

Your area of coordination includes the General Forest Stewardship and the National Forest Services. How do you succeed to interact harmoniously? How often do you have disagreements?
As I already mentioned, the activity of national forests is very effective. It depends not only on the forest stewardships, which directly develop their activity, but also on the institution, the General Forest Stewardship, which implements founder’s rights and duties.
The Department of Forestry, General Forest Stewardship, and National Forest Services – we all discuss together; sometimes we express different opinions on some forestry aspects. However, we always find a solution. There is a prepared and approved strategic document – the program of National Forest Sector’s Development.
I am very happy that it is not a politicized and political document. I would call it a universal instrument, which indicates the direction of the forests and forest management until 2020. I think that regardless of political forces in the government, they can still see the rationality of this program, and it can be perfectly implemented.
There were a lot of discussions with social partners, environmental protection organizations, Lithuanian Union of Foresters, Association of Forest Owners, which was several times discussed in the Forestry Consultative Council under the Ministry of Environment. This program was prepared by the specialists, and now they are preparing the plan of the program steps and means of implementation.
Things that are planned, in my opinion, perfectly complies with the program of the current Government and determined directions of the forest management.
An old forestry policy, its implementation strategy was approved in 2002. Firstly, a lot of factors and conditions have changed: we became the members of European Union and now there is European support. Secondly, European requirements, related to the environmental protection, protected areas, climate changes, increasing importance of a forest in the process of climate changes, influence on absorption of gas that causes greenhouse effect or carbon absorption.
The land reform is essentially over. A lot of things have changed. It was very relevant to have a new program. Therefore, it is very important to get along with interested parties and social partners, who have discussed, provided comments and suggestions.
The program complies with a time spirit, emphasizes topicality, and foresees their problems and solutions. On the other hand, as I said, it complies with the program of the current Government and determined directions of the forest management.

You say that this document lays the foundation no matter what kind of government there would be, but why with every parliamentary elections it is necessary to adopt resolutions that it is necessary to preserve the national forests? Why there are some people, who want to change the system of forest management?
It is perfectly normal that such discussions exist. If we look at the European Union or the nearest neighbors, we will see that they constantly discuss economic efficacy issues of forest management. Structures of forest management are constantly changing. But it is important that it would be convincing, based on rational economic calculations rather than with political prejudices.
We explain that processes, which were related to the famous “Visuomis”, attempts to corporate it together with the national forests and national forestry, were totally illogical and have no analogues anywhere in the European Union. It is good that politicians were rational and did not approve such decisions, because damage to the forests and forestry would be irreversible.
If we talk about rational decisions, discussions occur in both the Department of Forestry and General Forest Stewardships: how to improve the system of forest stewardship activities, how could we optimize the structure of stewardship management, how rationally organize the activity, and how we could reduce management costs. These questions are always in our agenda. Most importantly, that there would not be any radical, objectively unreasonable, disproportioned decisions, which are based only on the will of europolitics.

How do you imagine the future of Lithuanian forests? What is the percentage of forest coverage, which would be the most rational for us?
I see that the future is bright. I am convinced that in the sense of both farming and forest development the progress is clear. Today and in the coming decades this process will not decline. If we talk about forest areas, so they will definitely increase.
Perhaps there will not be a sudden jump as in the last few years, when since 1990, the coverage of the forests increased almost by 3 percent, because it is related to available lands and their selling, and use for new forests. It is obvious that while the demand of forestry production and cultivated land increases, there is less and less of such lands.
We do not know how much financial aid from the EU rural development fund we will get in order to establish new forests. Not only a new regulation in the European Union is considered, but also finances. As funding decreases, support also can decrease.
After evaluating these assumptions, we can conclude that the coverage of forests will increase in the future, but not at such a rapid pace.

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