At the nature conservation conference in Estonia, it was recognised: the best keeper of nature is the private forest owner themself!

Approximately a hundred forest owners and individuals connected to forestry convened at a conference arranged by the Estonian Private Forestry Union (EEML) in Estonia in November 2023. Their central query revolved around the optimal approach to nature conservation: should it remain under strict governmental regulations and mandates, or could it be more effectively managed by private entities? Ando Eelmaa, the Private Land Conservation Ambassador (LIFE ENPLC) and Chair of the Nature Conservation Foundation, emphasised the significance of private nature conservation. He highlighted that nearly half of Estonia’s forests belong to private owners, stressing, “Preserving the rare and valuable elements of our nature is unfeasible without the collaboration of private landowners. Nature conservation efforts on private land should hold equal importance as national conservation initiatives moving forward.” Eelmaa lamented the current scenario where conscientious forest and land stewards face punitive measures from the state. Often, environmental authorities designate these well-managed forests as highly valuable, imposing stringent protection, thereby depriving the owner of any utilisation rights. Eelmaa advocated acknowledging that nature evolves over time, emphasising that attempting to revert to past conditions might not be feasible. He argued that humans are integral to nature, and many of these cherished forests are a product of human care and management spanning centuries. Eelmaa identified themself as an undercover private conservationist.
The keynote speaker, Jim Cox, a private landowner and ardent nature conservationist from the United States, shared his experiences at the conference. Cox, recognised with several awards for his conservation efforts, primarily focuses on exploring ways to effectively integrate nature conservation with sustainable management. He introduced the concept of “Safe Harbor,” a contractual conservation model successfully operational in the US since the late 20th century. Under this agreement, forest owners voluntarily commit to maintaining their forests as vital habitats for protected species. In return, they retain the right to manage their forests. Cox cited over 400 landowners across eight US states participating in Safe Harbor agreements, encompassing 0.9 million hectares of land and safeguarding 250 distinct species. He stressed that fostering goodwill and motivation within owners is more effective in preserving nature than imposing rigid restrictions.
Legal expert Allar Jõks categorically refuted the notion that nature conservation measures could infringe upon private property rights. Jõks elucidated legal sections and practices pertaining to conservation restrictions, assuring that under current Estonian law, private property remains inviolable, despite instances where the state encroaches upon these rights.
Adam Holub, a political advisor with the European Landowners’ Organization (ELO), deliberated on the present and future of nature conservation in Europe. Holub delineated ELO’s initiatives across various critical European concerns, highlighting the need for greater involvement of voluntary private landowners. He stressed the necessity of programs and awareness to encourage landowners’ participation in conservation efforts. His presentation focused also on privately protected areas (PPAs).
Taimo Aasma, Head of the Biodiversity Protection Department at the Ministry of Climate, presented Estonian nature conservation statistics, indicating the overall favorable state of Estonian nature. However, he prompted contemplation on whether adjustments in conservation strategies were needed to meet the EU’s biodiversity targets for 2030.
In a panel discussion moderated by Urmas Vaino, stakeholders including Antti Tooming, Ando Eelmaa, attorney Mirjam Vili, and Mait Klaassen from the Estonian Parliament’s Environmental Committee deliberated on various conservation topics. They explored better collaboration strategies with forest owners, fair compensation models, and the potential legalisation of land exchanges for conservation purposes as a means of mitigating limitations. Klaassen emphasised the importance of thoroughly understanding the reasons behind altering laws or protected areas before implementing any changes.


The news items collected on this blog have been written by project partners of the LIFE ENPLC project.