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Debate about the "bark beetle novella"

Just a "small" amendment to the Forest Act: This is how the Ministry of Agriculture called the text of the law that it sent for assessment in May. But one point in the change plans is at least noteworthy. “If, in times of threatened mass reproduction of forest pests, the safeguarding of sustainable forest management in a certain region is at risk”, wood processing companies should be obliged by ordinance to purchase “damaged wood from this region”. In other words: In certain cases, the state can prescribe paper or sawmills where they get - at least some - of their raw material.

Because Austria's forest owners have a problem: it is a few millimeters tall, colored brown-black, has six legs and is very hungry: the bark beetle has been a problem for local forestry for years. Especially in spruce forests, the pest spreads explosively in some areas. The only way to contain the spread is to get infested trees out of the forest as quickly as possible.

According to the logging report from the Ministry of Agriculture, the bark beetle was responsible for over four million cubic meters of damaged wood in the past year alone. That is more than a quarter of the total amount of damaged wood. This in turn rose from 2018 to 2019 by almost two million to over 11.7 million cubic meters. For the first time since the storm year 2008, damaged wood made up more than half of the wood felled in Austria. Last year, according to the ministry report, the strong increase was not due to storm damage, but primarily to “other abiotic” damage. These include excessive snow loads as well as drought damage.

"In an emergency, also oblige industry"

As the “Wiener Zeitung” reported on Tuesday, the large quantities of damaged wood not only resulted in a drop in the price of wood. In some cases, sawmills no longer took over the wood in the past or it took a long time to be picked up and processed. A further complicating factor for domestic forestry is that inexpensive spruce wood comes onto the market, especially from the Czech Republic. Because there, too, the forest companies are struggling with the bark beetle.

New forest law

A new forest law provides for the possibility of forcing the industry to buy local wood that had to be felled due to the climate crisis and bark beetles.

"Since we are very limited in terms of acceptance, it makes sense to also think about obliging the industry in extreme cases, in an emergency, to buy a certain amount of damaged wood here," said Agriculture Minister Elisabeth Köstinger on Monday in “Zeit im Bild”.

Rejection of WKÖ and ÖGB

It is hardly surprising that the industry itself is not very enthusiastic about such ideas. The criticism also came from Köstinger's own party ranks. The draft was “far from the market” and met with “complete incomprehension” in the economy, WKÖ general secretary Karlheinz Kopf (ÖVP) sent out on Tuesday afternoon.

According to Kopf, the purchase obligations for wood processing companies provided for in the amendment violate their fundamental rights of freedom of employment, freedom of property and the principle of equality. He pointed out that the wood industry had already promised an additional purchase of 200,000 solid meters of damaged wood in May. According to the WKÖ General Secretary, this has not even been half used up to now.

Criticism from the industry had already been formulated on the employee side. The draft submitted does not give any justification "why no more lenient means than the planned massive legal intervention is sought," writes the trade union federation (ÖGB) in its statement on the amendment.

Among other things, the union is opposed to the fact that, according to the draft law, the region from which companies have to buy damaged wood “can also include areas in neighboring countries”. It is "not clear why damaged wood from neighboring countries is mandatory to take over from wood processing companies (a certain region)," it says in the statement.

European law issues

The cross-border perspective is probably due to EU law reasons. Restricting the free movement of goods is a delicate matter within the EU. The lawyer Christian Schneider also drew attention to this in a statement on the draft. If the main aim of the measure is to protect domestic forestry from falling prices for damaged wood, it is likely to be "an impermissible restriction on the free movement of goods," writes Schneider. The lawyer also has constitutional concerns.

"European law and constitutional experts have been intensively involved in the draft," the ministry told ORF.at. The present draft is in any case "from the point of view of the ministry in conformity with EU law and does not have to be notified". In the impact assessment of the amendment, the ministry also argues that “the authorization to issue ordinances itself” does not result in “any rights or obligations”. Thus "Union law is not yet directly affected".

Legal text saves on details

The authorization to issue ordinances is accordingly vaguely formulated - a point that of course also met with criticism in the assessment. For example, the Austrian Forest Association praises the intention of the amendment in its statement, but the umbrella association of the state forest associations would like a more precise definition “with which radius the 'region' around the wood processing company is defined or what is meant by a time-limited purchase obligation is ".

Only a “pure ÖVP PR show” was located in a broadcast by FPÖ agricultural spokesman Reinhard Teufel. "If you look at the meaningless phrases from Köstinger, you immediately know that the forest farmers will continue to sit on their damaged wood in the future," said Teufel, who called for an immediate ban on imports of cheap wood from the east.

Environment umbrella organization "disappointed"

In terms of content, however, the criticism of the environmental umbrella organization was quite different. In the “disappointing” draft law, “only kindling is shredded”, according to the accusation. The non-partisan platform made up of environmental and nature conservation organizations and alpine associations is missing out on the new rules on liability for forest owners. Since these are also responsible for the condition of the forest around paths and roads, old trees worthy of protection would be felled along hiking trails as a precaution. "Here, in addition to changes in the General Civil Code (ABGB) and in water law, future-oriented solutions must also be anchored in the Forest Act," said the President of the umbrella association, Franz Maier.

The organization also advocates the implementation of the Aarhus Convention in the Forest Act. This regulates public participation in decision-making processes and access to justice in environmental matters. On Tuesday, the environmental umbrella organization announced that it would “deliver its opinion on this disappointing draft on time”.

Ministry: wait for the end of the review period

By Wednesday evening, the parliamentary side had six statements from organizations and individuals. The ministry left it open to what extent the concerns and suggestions raised there will still be included in the amendment: “The draft is currently being assessed, comments are still possible. Whether there are any changes can only be answered after the review period has expired. ”When asked by ORF.at, the ministry did not want to comment on a possible schedule. "We would like the amendment to come into force as soon as possible," it said briefly.

Fight symptoms only

Measures such as those provided for in the amendment are always only combating symptoms. They do nothing against the causes. The fact that the bark beetle has been driving forest operations in Austria to despair for years is also due to man-made climate change. Because the spruce that is most affected by the pest likes it relatively cool. Rising temperatures combined with longer periods of drought are causing problems for the softwood known as the “bread tree of forestry”. Weakened trees, on the other hand, offer the bark beetle an ideal gateway. Mild winters do the rest to accelerate the propagation of the pest.

Local forest owners are therefore forced to look for alternatives to the conifer. "Above all, firs and larches, as an alternative to spruce, but also oaks in lower elevations will return more to our forests," said the Austrian Federal Forests just a few days ago. The spruce is still by far the most widespread tree species in this country and will remain so for years. And with it the bark beetle remains - and the problem of damaged wood.