As a reaction to the current energy crisis, the Hungarian government published a government decree[i] that opens protected areas including Natura 2000 sites for uncontrolled logging for firewood. This move jeopardises both forest biodiversity and the ability of Hungary to meet its climate target for carbon uptake in the land sector.
Hungary’s Government Decree 287/2022 (VIII.4) concerning specific rules to meet firewood demand suspends the ban on felling in state forests with high nature value. The decree sparked an unprecedented public outcry and prompted a demonstration in front of the Parliament on 12 August. According to the Ecological Research Centre, the decree clearly threatens the condition of the country’s most valuable forests and could result in extremely serious habitat loss.[ii] The environmental community with the leadership of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Hungary, Birdlife Hungary and WWF Hungary started a petition addressed to Viktor Orbán Prime Minister that calls on him to withdraw the decree. As of now, 73 organisations and over 16,000 people have signed the petition.[iii]
Under the decree, it will be possible to cut down the most valuable state forests. Logging can be carried out up to 20 years earlier than the cut-off date set in the forest plan, and can also take place during the nesting season of birds, putting protected and specially protected species at risk. Under the regulation, forests do not have to be restored with the care previously expected, logging roads can be built without a permit, and the Minister of Agriculture can decide without restriction that any forest can be cut outside the forest plan.
According to the civil society organisations, Ministry of Agriculture’s claim that the regulation does not endanger the condition of domestic forests is not justified. Although the area of land registered as forest under the provisions will not necessarily decrease, the age, species and condition of the trees on the land is highly relevant. The increase in logging is also a serious challenge to ensuring the sustainability of timber production, and the natural state of forests will certainly deteriorate in the long term.
Cutting and premature harvesting of our native forests could lead to unprecedented habitat loss in the country’s most valuable protected areas. Post-harvest clearcutting, as an option, results in the degradation or maintenance of an unfavourable state of nature, not only under nature conservation but also under forestry legislation.
In the face of the worsening effects of climate change, it is extremely irresponsible to destroy the naturalness of forests, and thus their self-sustaining capacity, when it would be possible to ensure the supply of firewood without such excesses. The fact that, with the Minister’s permission, virtually any forest can be felled beyond the possibilities of the forest plan is an unacceptable, unprecedented, unrestricted authorisation in a democratic state governed by the rule of law. It calls into question the survival of the country’s most valuable forest remnants.
Among other rollbacks, the decree abolishes the compulsory cutting age for oak and beech forests, as in the case of acacia forests. From now on, it is sufficient to regenerate oak forests after harvesting by succession. The natural forest cover does not have to be restored on the site of felled acacia and other non-native woods, even in protected areas. The felling does not need to take into account the growing season, which means that the forest can be felled in a deciduous state and even during the bird breeding season next spring. State forest holdings may build so-called access tracks in the forest for the delivery of timber without an official permit. The Minister may grant permission to harvest timber that deviates from the forest plan.
The lack of a residential energy efficiency programme, which should have been announced a long time ago, is now really coming to the fore, as we are effectively heating the street with a significant proportion of the surplus wood we harvest. In addition, freshly cut wood (with a typical moisture content of 45 – 50%) should not even be called firewood, as it requires less than 20% moisture content to burn efficiently, which can only be achieved by drying for 1-2 years. And heating with it will only exacerbate the poor air quality we experience during the heating season.
Hungary’s attack on forest protections should be taken seriously by the European Union as a whole. In fact, the new regime represents a violation of core EU regulations.
– no requirement to restore forest naturalness: thus this legislation goes against the EU Nature Restoration Law currently being drafted
– forest naturalness restoration is not required even within Natura 2000 sites: the conservation status of Natura 2000 sites in the EU, including Hungary, is low. Allowing further degradation of their status is contrary to the Habitats Directive
– no need to take account of the growing season: this is contrary to the provisions of the Birds Directive, because it will lead to the disturbance of birds dependent on forest ecosystems during the breeding season (and this should also be taken into account outside Natura 2000 areas, as protected birds often nest outside protected areas)
– without an official permit: similar to the above. This provision takes the conservation control off the system, thus contributing to disturbance of sites and degradation of forest habitats
– Logging period outside the forest management plan: the forest management plan for many Natura 2000 sites includes conservation management measures. Deviating from this can result in harvesting purely for economic interests rather than for nature conservation interests
– further loss of forest carbon stocks and the carbon sink: it’s now even more likely that Hungary will not be able to keep its carbon sequestration pledge in the land use sector.
These points shows that additional safeguards are required in the EU legislation. Policymakers can make a good start on discouraging other countries from following Hungary by removing primary woody biomass (“forest” biomass) from the Renewable Energy Directive as an eligible fuel. With exploitation of forests about to become even more rampant, it makes no sense to continue to pay companies billions in renewable energy subsidies to log and burn forests for fuel.