Environmental activists take to the streets of Vilnius. Photos: Marius Morkevičius

Woods? What Woods? Are Lithuania’s Forests in Jeopardy?

As the world seeks to slow the pace of climate change and preserve wildlife and, ultimately, humanity, trees appear to hold a significant part of the answer. Yet, deforestation continues, sacrificing the long-term benefits of mature standing trees for short-term gains. Of course, Lithuania’s tiny landmass is trivial compared to the world’s vast eco-systems, and its effect on rising global temperatures is probably negligible. Nonetheless, forest management in Lithuania has become a hot button issue. Draugas News correspondent in Lithuania Linas Jegelevičius endeavors to tackle two sides of the issue: Forests are profitable and provide a considerable amount of income to Lithuania, yet at what cost?

Linas Jegelevičius.

We are in the pine-scented woods, but a few steps from Basanavičius Street, the main artery of the resort town of Palanga. My companion, Stanislovas Jonaitis, a forest ranger, laments the current state of the woodlands bordering Lithuania’s popular seaside resort on the Baltic.

He notes that city officials repeatedly try to dissuade real estate developers from building on state-protected land, but their efforts often fall short. “There are just too many loopholes in territorial planning laws to make them effective.”

City officials repeatedly try to dissuade real estate developers from building on state-protected land, but their efforts often fall short.

As a case in point last August, the Lithuanian media reported that a 5,300 square foot home, valued at millions of euros, was being built on a restricted portion of the seacoast in a botanical park no less. The undisclosed buyer cited that a “grandfather” clause enabled him to build in that location because some crumbling showers were located there. The local functionaries failed to address complaints that improper influence allowed the construction of an expansive private home on environmentally protected lands. “Sure, it should have been a shower facility… It can still be used as such,” they said. Palanga residents and visitors, however, take a skeptical view —they have yet to see any freshly showered bathers leaving the building.

As an internationally recognized travel destination, Palanga garners media attention. This somewhat restrains the most flagrant violations of Palanga’s ecologically sensitive public lands. But what about the proximate woodlands off the beaten path? Andrejus Gaidamavičius, an outspoken Lithuanian environmentalist, observed, “What we saw in Palanga is just the tip of the iceberg. Palanga is visible year-round, but we have many more violations in rural areas, where the forests are being indiscriminately cut down in wide swaths. The replanting efforts can’t keep up with deforestation.” Gaidamavičius is spearheading a public movement aimed at halting the destruction of some of Lithuania’s major forests.

There are statistics, and there are statistics

Gaidamavičius asserts that no other sector in Lithuania’s economy is so marred by sloppy statistics as forestry. “You get new numbers every time you speak to somebody. I’m not exaggerating. Some statistical evaluations of forested areas include cleared forests or young forests, while others do not. We simply do not have a standardized uniform methodology,” Gaidamavičius said.

Andrejus Gaidamavičius is spearheading a public movement aimed at halting the destruction of some of Lithuania’s major forests. Photo Žygimantas Gedvila

On the surface, the official statistics, however, appear relatively positive. According to the Directorate General of State Forests (DRST) under the Ministry of Environment, forests account for 33.5% of Lithuania’s land use. The Chief of the Forest Service claims that the area of forested territories in Lithuania has steadily been growing from 20.7% in 1938 to 30.3% in 1998 and currently 33.5%.

Pine forests make up 716,000 square meters, up by 4.5 thousand since 2007. Fir forests are runners-up with 430,000 square meters, and birch woods account for 420,000 square meters. In comparison, woodlands in Latvia encompass a hefty 52% of the country’s territory, while Estonia has 49%. Wooded areas in Poland, however, stand at a mere 28%.

Environmentalists cast doubts

Danas Augutis, an environmental expert at the Lithuanian Fund for Nature, questions how the assessments were made. “The figures we have are not precise. The assessors have included cleared forest sites and young forests in the final number. It’s not just the square meters of forest lands that should be measured. Rather the age of the forested area and whether it falls in the category of state-protected territories that should control and determine the percentage,” said Augutis. The Lithuanian Fund for Nature, where Augutis works, is a partner of the World Wide Fund for Nature, known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US.

Lithuania’s National Forest Economy Sector Expansion Plan for 2012-2020 seeks to allocate 35% of Lithuania’s territory to forests by the end of 2020. Those involved in developing the strategy are now debating priorities and methodology, which would provide for maximum transparency.

It’s a profitable business

Punios Šilas Forest, located in the bend of the Nemunas River, is one of Europe’s most ancient forests, home to more than 100 endangered species.

Almost gleefully, the DRST announced that it has surpassed its projected earnings plan by 40% last year and supplemented the state coffers with 25.3 million euros. The question remains: “Where did the profit come from? From the mowing down of forests? Or from replanting?”

Directorate General of State Forests conceded that most of the revenue was generated from the sale of unprocessed timber.

The Environment Minister, Kęstutis Mažeika, praised the Forest Service as one of the state’s most profit-making state agencies.

DRST claims that annually about 22,250 acres of woods are cut down. Meanwhile, it reports that some 22,000 to 24,000 thousand acres are planted with new saplings. State forests comprise roughly 60 percent (2,723,100 acres); the private sector owns the remainder.

Precious commodity

Lithuanian timber is a sought-after commodity not only by Lithuanian businesses but by Latvian and Scandinavian ones as well. According to the online news portal, delfi.lt, Sweden’s furniture powerhouse IKEA, Finland’s Dasos Capital, and Lithuania’s privately held “Dzūkijos Miškas” (Dzūkija Forest) are the major forest owners in Lithuania. IKEA reportedly has increased its forest holdings to 66,700 acres, through its subsidiary IRI Investments Lietuva. Dasos Capital comes in second after acquiring a 37,000-acre forest portfolio from Sweden’s Euroforest last year. The General Director of Dzūkijos Miškas, Romualdas Lavrenovas, says his company owns about 25,000 acres of forest, mainly in the Dzūkija region. Coming in fourth is entrepreneur Gintautas Zinkevičius, who, together with his family members and other privately-held entities, owns some 17,300-18,500 acres of woods. There are some 58 owners, each of whom owns over 1,200 acres.

No common ground

Environmentalists, NGOs, and green activists are presently challenging Lithuania’s Environment Ministry and Directorate General of State Forests regarding the new Forest Strategy, which will determine the future of Lithuania’s forests for years to come.

“What we want is that ‘clear-cutting’ in state-protected areas be regulated by a separate law. That is how it is done in the West. We’ve been pushing for this amendment in Lithuania’s Parliament for the last three years but with no success,” Gaidamavičius lamented.

Andrejus Gaidamavičius.

Clear-cutting is a method of harvesting trees in which all trees are cleared from a site, and a new stand of timber is planted. This method is controversial. Many conservation groups object to clear-cutting any forest, citing soil and water degradation, unsightly landscapes, and other environmental damage. Some forestry representatives claim that the practice is sound if properly done.

Gaidamavičius concedes that it is an uneven struggle.

“The lobbyists, most of whom are private forest owners, are represented united by two associations, and are difficult to combat,” he said.

He further believes that the state ought to be entitled to buy up forests from private owners in protected territories. These amendments have been championed by the sole Green Party member in Lithuania’s Parliament — Linas Balsys.

Gaidamavičius continued, “Parliament took up the proposed issues only after a thousand protesters gathered in Vilnius last fall and marched down Gediminas Avenue to the Parliament building. However, we are still awaiting a decision. As a result, we are witnessing rapid deforestation in our woodlands. This is truly disturbing,” he said.

Private forest owners are not obliged to comply with any specific restrictions when it comes to forest clear-cutting. Private forest owners approached by your correspondent refused to comment.

Alarm bells rang in time

In another case, an amendment to the Forestry Law envisioned that cleared forest space and burnt forest be exempted from the law. Should that happen, thousands of acres of woodlands would be sacrificed, green activists warn.

However, Lithuania’s Special Investigation Service red-flagged the amendment.

According to Marius Ivanauskas, head of Forest Protection Department at DRST, around 250 acres of forest are destroyed by wildfires, and about 600 acres are lost due to disease.

Many legislative loopholes

Gaidamavičius says some smaller firms take advantage of a loophole in the present forestry law, which enables them to buy forests in large swaths from private persons, especially the elderly.

“They cannot be reined in under our current laws. They are aggressive and care little about forests. Large forest owners, like Swedish IKEA, are of lesser concern for us,” noted Gaidamavičius, who is a member of the ruling Farmers and Greens Union.

He also addresses the woodland sales in the so-called socially-sensitive forests.

“Under the definition, Labanoras Forest falls in the category, as well. Large timber market players, like the afore-mentioned IKEA, pay only 50 percent of the market value in such forests, most of which lie in state-protected territories,” he noted. According to him, the much lower price is due to risks that this type of forests entail – a possible disruption of the business due to the public’s protests is, among other things, what they take into account.

Lithuania should follow the West

Monika Peldavičiūtė, head of Gyvas Miškas (Living Forest), a public organization set up to defend Lithuanian nature, noted that legislative loopholes have led to a high degree of deforestation not only in unprotected state territories but in those under the state’s protection, including national parks.

“Disagreements on forest-related statistics, legislative loopholes, and the failure to speak in a single voice when it comes to the protection of nature are some of the current challenges which we face today in Lithuania,” she said.

Both Peldavičiūtė and Gaidamavičius would prefer that Lithuania utilize forests not so much for economic benefit, but rather for recreation.

“This is what the Western countries are doing. Recreational activities generate greater income than from cutting down trees,” they noted.

Environmental consciousness is rising

Lithuania does not have its Greta Thunberg – the Swedish teenage environmental activist on climate change whose campaign has gained international attention. Nevertheless, “Green” consciousness is also rising in Lithuania as well, claimed Gaidamavičius.

“We, Lithuanians, are slow reacting to major green movements, but when we wake up – look out! I was stunned to see a thousand and a half participants show up to defend our Labanoras Forest last year. We were expecting a small number of participants but were impressed by the unexpectedly large turnout. I hope that in the future we will see more such collective efforts coming to the defense of our forests and nature itself,” he said.

Environmental activists.

“Woodland creatures” stopped traffic in Vilnius

Citizens groups and artists call to end destruction of Lithuania’s old wood forests

Bears, deer, moose, foxes, wolves took to the streets of Vilnius on October 25. Jurgis Did (Didžiulis), Lithuania’s famous Columbia-born singer-activist and inspirational speaker, led the protest march of Lithuanian citizens dressed as their favorite animals down Gediminas Avenue in Vilnius. Among their list of demands, was that the government halt clear-cutting in Punios Šilas Forest. Clear-cutting is a method of logging whereby every single marketable tree in a selected area is cut down. It leaves vast swaths devoid of trees, and ripe for development.  Punios Šilas Forest, located in the bend of the Nemunas River, is one of Europe’s most ancient forests, home to more than 100 endangered species.

Jurgis Did (Didžiulis) leading a protest march.

An ever-growing cadre of environmental groups supported the march, including the Šimonių Forest Initiative Group, Baltic Environmental Forum of Lithuania, the Labanoras Club, Anykščiai Forest Festival, Lithuanian Environmental NGO Coalition, Fridays For Future Vilnius, and Protect the Trees of Šiauliai. They all have active Facebook pages and draw protesters from around Lithuanian to document deforestation.

In October, protestors again dressed as woodland animals and took to the Šimonių Forest in Anykščiai in north-east Lithuania. Violinist Martynas Švėgžda von Bekker, a member of the Šimonių Forest Initiative Group, says that trees are being cut at a greater rate than before. “Over the last ten years, we have seen an annihilation of this forest. There’s an unrestricted removal of trees; the trucks go day and night.” He continued, “If you fly a drone, you’ll see that the forest looks like a sieve from above. Soon there will be no forest to speak of.”

Art critic Agnė Narušytė says that there is a lack of confidence in those who assess how many trees are allowed to be cut down by law. “Logging rates are increasing, even in those forests that should be protected. When you see that it doesn’t stop, you can’t wait, you have to protest,” Narušytė spoke on LRT TV. “We’ve become like partisans. Some artists are even buying parcels of forest land just to preserve it.”

Activists dressed as moose and other woodland creatures. Photo: Marius Morkevičius