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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Forest Code Prompts Confusion, Ire

MTEnvironmentalists worry the bill may enable private ownership of forests.
A forest bill transferring oversight from federal to regional officials and barring private ownership of forests sailed through a second reading Wednesday in the State Duma, outraging environmentalists and opposition leaders and leaving many confused about government policy.

The Forestry Code, which was drafted by officials from at least two federal ministries and enjoyed the support of the pro-Kremlin United Russia faction, passed 347-59, with no abstentions. Debate was minimal.

The code permits private tenants to lease forest plots for up to 49 years, either from regional authorities or through a middle man.

If tenants are found to be in compliance at the end of the 49-year period, they would be eligible for an extension.

The measure's backers, including Natalya Komarova, the Natural Resources Committee chair, insist the long-awaited bill would force businesses to compensate the government for damage done to forests.

But critics say the code does not ban logging in natural preserves, lacks clarity and makes tenants, with their long-term leases and power to block access to forests, "effective owners," as Communist Deputy Vladimir Kashin put it.

Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, whose ministry contributed to the bill, conceded that given its complexity, the bill would be impossible to enforce anytime soon. Still, he insisted that the measure would "help relations in the forestry sphere."

The Economic Development and Trade Ministry is also known to have contributed to the bill.

Trutnev, addressing Duma deputies, cautioned the parliament against ramming the bill through a third and final reading, saying 60 new regulations would be needed to insure smooth implementation of the code. That would take six months, he said.

The minister added that the state should adopt a new tax regime for the export of wood and wood products to discourage the export of timber to neighboring countries such as China and Finland and encourage wood processing in Russia.

"If wood processing is profitable in Finland and in China, then why should it not be profitable in Russia?" Trutnev said. "There should be an incremental but steady increase in taxation on exports of round timber."

Russia accounts for one-fourth of the world's forests, but it still has to import paper because most of the logged wood is exported without being processed first.

Preservationists decried the Forestry Code, arguing it would endanger forests across the country and lead to possible disaster.

"With just this law, there will be a very serious crisis in our country's forests by as soon as next year," warned Alexei Yaroshenko of Greenpeace Russia.

The environmental group WWF-Russia issued a statement Tuesday saying the bill threatened "uncontrolled activities in suburban forests and in forests of especially valuable natural preserves." What's more, the WWF-Russia statement contended, the measure offers "unlimited access" to foreign companies that export timber.

On top of this, environmentalists are worried about a possible loophole in the bill that would enable private ownership, they say, of forests.

The loophole, as they see it, is found in a controversial provision that distinguishes between "forests" and "forest plots."

While "forests" are off-limits to ownership, "forest plots" are not.

"If our president put on a pair of really strong glasses, he would see that the issue of property has not been spelled out," WWF-Russia's Vladimir Dmitriyev said.

Yaroshenko agreed. "This is one of the most unclear codes passed by the Duma in the last 10 years," he said. "In principle, there are good things, but most of it is incomprehensible."

The code is in keeping with President Vladimir Putin's wish to ban private ownership of forests.

It passed a first reading in April 2005.

Since then, some 1,800 amendments have been introduced -- many backed by nongovernmental organizations and opposition deputies -- but most have been rejected.

On Wednesday, senior Communist Party deputies held a news conference ahead of the evening session that included the second reading of the bill.

Kashin, the Communist deputy, called the measure complex and, like the environmentalists, bemoaned what he called the bill's lack of clear definitions.

Fellow Communist Deputy Sergei Sobko attacked the code for carving out exceptions for Moscow and St. Petersburg, which retain the right to manage surrounding forests.

Sobko said that by granting local oversight, the code would be effectively ensuring an explosion in new homes -- and the further degradation of forests -- in the mostly green beltways encircling the cities.

And Communist Deputy Nikolai Kondratenko, a former governor of the Krasnodarsky region who has repeatedly praised Josef Stalin's management of the Soviet Union's forests, said the bill lacked a certain toughness.

"Under Stalin," Kondratenko reminisced, somewhat enigmatically, "one would be executed and a thousand would understand."

Staff Writer Miriam Elder contributed to this report.