Finland enacts legislation allowing landowners to fell trees on peatland without replanting obligations; rules in country's new Forest Act aim to return 550,000 hectares of peatlands to near-natural state

HELSINKI , January 24, 2014 (press release) – Trees growing on low-yield, ditched peatlands can be felled and the area left to return to its natural state. In some cases this can be deemed as forest destruction.

When you fell a forest, the law requires you to ensure that a new one is created in its place. Since the beginning of 2014 and thanks to the new Forest Act, this no longer applies to ditched, low-yield peatlands. From now on, you can just fell the trees in these areas.

The purpose of this legislative change is to correct decades-old mistakes made when ditching peatlands and to increase the area of peatlands developing towards a near-natural state. According to the most recent forest inventory, this change in legislation applies to 550,000 hectares of ditched peatlands.

From the viewpoint of society, this decision is extremely cost-efficient. The landowner gets the money from the timber, and the profitability of the felling increases since they need not pay for seedlings or soil preparation and water protection activities.

Removing the trees accelerates the return to a near-natural state: the trees, which evaporate water, are gone and the water table can rise. The process of paludification can start again. In many places there is no need to block the old ditches, as they have become partly blocked spontaneously over time.

Action can be deemed as forest destruction
Removing the trees and starting the process of returning peatland to its original state is good for the peatland ecosystems. In terms of international climate statistics, this is also a problem.

If the peatland has enough trees to fulfil the FAO definition of forest, the final removal of trees can be deemed as forest destruction. This is of financial significance in the calculation of Finland's carbon balance and the change on forest area, which are reported on annually.

Of the 550,000 hectares affected by the legislative change, around 355,000 hectares fulfil the FAO definition for forest.

”Every time the land use class of the forest area changes, it is classified as forest destruction. Even if the idea is to bring the land closer to its natural state,” says Raija Laiho, Professor of Peatland Forestry at the Finnish Forest Research Institute.

Senior Inspector Matti Mäkelä from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says that the issue was not overlooked during the drafting of the new Act. The solution relies on the leeway provided by the FAO definition. An area that can develop into a forest can be classified as one.

The decree related to the Forest Act states that at least 20 trunks per hectare must be left on these low-yield, ditched forests during final fellings to ensure biodiversity. This also makes natural regeneration possible.

Mäkelä says that this must be taken into account in future inventories and these areas defined as forest as meant by FAO.

”The opinions received during the drafting process commended the legislative change for its positive impact on peatland ecosystem. They did not take up the potential for forest destruction,” Mäkelä says.

Important decision for southern peatlands
The change in legislation appears to be an important decision for peatland nature.

”In Southern Finland, over 75 percent of all peatlands have been ditched, so for this area it’s an important decision,” Laiho says. She estimates that the species benefiting most from he decision are certain butterflies and other insects.

”For the whole peatland ecosystem, the problem is that the areas concerned are all deficient in nutrients. We lack nutrient-rich peatlands in their natural state, and the Act does not resolve that problem,” Laiho says.

On the other hand, the location of a nutrient-deficient peatland area can increase its value. The areas adjacent to many protected peatlands are ditched, which affects their hydrology. Thus, restoring ditched, low-yield peatlands near protected areas would help valuable sites.

The removal of these 550,000 hectares from forestry does not have an effect on timber production. According to preliminary estimates, timber procurement might be financially viable on some 90,000 hectares.

It is thus probable that on a vast majority of the 550,000 hectares, no action whatsoever will be taken. Some landowners might find it profitable to gather firewood for their own use.

Stores and emits greenhouse gases
The state of peatlands is of significance for both biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. Whether a peatland area sequesters or emits greenhouse gases depends on its vegetation, nutrient level and water content, for example, Laiho says.

Ditching lowers the water level of peatland and improves tree growth. This means that the peat will also decay faster. This causes carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand, better growth allows a forest to bind more carbon dioxide. Even after ditching, the vegetation produces litter.

In wooded peatland with a fairly low nutrient level, the litter production of the vegetation can be greater than the amount of peat decayed. In this case, the peatland can be a net storage of carbon. In nutrient-rich peatlands the soil is usually a source of carbon.

Low-yield peatlands are usually carbon sources, as they have little healthy vegetation to produce litter, which would offset the decay of peat.

Carbon dioxide emissions of this type from low-yield peatlands are not significant, Laiho says. “Sure, there are emission, but relatively little, as the trees do not grow and the peat does not decay”, she simplifies.

Though it sounds a bit topsy-turvy, greenhouse gas emissions can increase temporarily if low-yield peatland is restored. On the other hand, peatlands in a natural state release methane, another greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

How fast peatland reacts to the rising water level, depends on the particular site. In unfertile peatlands the process is slow but, on the other hand, their recovery is aided by the fact that there are few species competing over growing area.

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