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Placing numbers 18 and 19, respectively, out of 20 countries evaluated in the World Wildlife Fund report, Latvia and Estonia appear to have serious problems in forest management and practices. Lithuania isn't much better off, scoring 51 points out of 100.
In fact, WWF said that no European country treats its forests particularly well and called on each country to commit themselves to improve the quality of forests on the continent.
"European countries are neglecting their forests," said Per Rosenberg, head of WWF's European Forest Program in a statement. "Forests are a unique and precious natural resource. But Europe is not caring for its forests wisely."
The European Forest Scorecards are based on international and regional agreements signed by European nations. They evaluate countries on a wide range of issues including timber and other forest product production, environmental care and quality, social and cultural aspects of forest care, protected areas and pollution. This is the first year that eastern European forests have been included in the mix.
The overall scores are tallied up with respect to all criteria, so even a low final score does not necessarily mean a country treats its forests poorly across the board. For example, although Austria scores a total score of 57, it fares much better with 69 points in its social and cultural care of forests which includes recreation, historical remains and safety. A high score, in effect, also does not signify a country is out of the woods in problem areas.
"Even the highest scoring country, Switzerland, only achieves 62 out of 100. The average is 51. This is far too low. All countries have serious improvements to make in many areas of forest care," Rosenberg said.
Lack of data in certain categories can also lower a country's score, a main reason, say environmentalists, for the low scores in the Baltics.
"When there is no data you automatically have a low score for that subject," said Ugis Rotbergs, WWF country representative in Latvia.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all suffer limited amounts of data in areas such as harvesting levels, non-wood goods and utilization of forest soils. As data quality is rated in every category, lack of data severely affects a country's final score, thereby often producing misleading results.
"These scores don't say that the forest is bad, the scorecards are done so that people get an understanding that there are many other issues than timber and conservation," Rotbergs said.
Robert Oetjen, of the Estonian Fund for Nature, agreed that the latest survey doesn't tell the whole truth about the state of the Estonian forests.
"It is a question of methodology and the scoring system," he said. "Estonian forests aren't anywhere near where they show up in the results. In fact, Estonia has good forests in the biological sense."
Looking deeper into the results of the individual categories it is clear where Estonia's strong points lie in biodiversity, and it weak points in air pollution and data keeping. In the section evaluating the diversity of trees in Estonian forests, the country scores four out of five points, for example.
Rotbergs explained that no country in eastern or western Europe scores high, because most people do not think of forest management as encompassing a wide range of topics. Basically people either cut down trees or try to save them.
"People pick up on timber exports and conservation but there are other things such as management policy, organizational structure, non timber goods, recreation, etc. There are hundreds of criteria," he said. "We wanted to show the public the wider range of forest policy issues."
Beyond criticizing the methodology of the scorecards, the environmentalists do admit to certain short-comings in the Baltic countries' forest management practices and policies. All three countries are dealing with the effects of land privatization after regaining independence from the Soviet Union nine years ago.
"We cut twice as many now as during Soviet times," said Darius Stoncius, manager at the Lithuanian Fund for Nature. "The needs then were compensated by cheap wood from Siberia, we are now filling the gap with our own wood. The problem is that people with their own land are cutting intensely for quick profits."
Another issue, also a by-product of Soviet times, is air pollution caused by the oil shale industry in northeastern Estonia, for example, or old factories in the other Baltic states.
"If the issue of air pollution levels wasn't taken into consideration, Estonia would've fared well in the report," Oetjen said.