Natura 2000: EU Reserves Are Facing Development Pressures

An astonishing 18 percent of the European Union’s land area is protected under a network of preserves known as Natura 2000. Now, at the urging of business interests and farmers, the EU is examining whether regulations on development in these areas should be loosened.

Berlin’s world-famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, is only 9 miles away. But in the Tegeler Fliess area, a protected nature reserve on the northern outskirts of Germany’s capital, visitors seem far removed from the city’s bustle. River otters, rare throughout Germany, are active along the creek that runs through the wetlands. Eurasian cranes circle overhead, searching for food in its extensive meadows and wetlands. On summer nights, the monotonous song of the corncrake, a species of rail in decline in Germany, can be heard.

Rospuda Valley
The Natura 2000 network helped preserve the 29,000-acre Rospuda Valley in eastern Poland. ERIK DE HAAN/FLICKR

“The Tegeler Fliess is a biological treasure trove,” says Anja Sorges, managing director of the Berlin branch of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, Germany’s largest nature conservation organization, known as NABU. Sorges attributes the high diversity of the 1,144-acre reserve to its legally protected status as part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network, the world’s largest system of nature reserves. “There is so much pressure from the city to use areas like this for building or infrastructure,” says Sorges.

But how strong this protection will remain in coming years is unclear. Tegeler Fliess and all the areas that form the EU’s Natura 2000 network — which now covers 18 percent of the European Union’s land area — are facing growing political pressure to scale back some of the protections the reserves now enjoy. Triggered by a group of member states, especially Great Britain and the Netherlands, the European Commission is carrying out an in-depth review of its nature conservation directives, which some top EU officials, as well as business and agricultural interests, say are outdated and stifle farming and business development.

Natura 2000 represents an area equivalent in size to France, Germany, and Italy combined.

The Natura 2000 network is not made up of strictly protected parks or preserves, but rather encompasses lands harboring threatened or endangered landscapes and species. As a result, some commercial activity — including certain types of mining, business, and agriculture — is allowed in the network. (Traditional agricultural practices, for example, are seen as positive for biodiversity and are permissible in the reserves, whereas large-scale industrial agriculture is generally not.) Natura 2000 now protects mixed forests in Romania, heathlands in Germany, bogs in Sweden, and desert-like vegetation in Spain, among other landscapes and marine areas. Despite Germany’s high density of industry, farms, and cities, 15 percent of the country is included in the Natura 2000 network.

According to the EU commission, the network has grown from 47.5 million acres in the mid-1990s to seven times that size today, representing an area equivalent in size to France, Germany, and Italy combined. Nine percent of Natura 2000 reserves are larger than 25,000 acres, like the Sierra Norte reserve in southern Spain, which covers more than 700,000 acres. Other areas are only a few acres in size, owing to the fragmented nature of Europe’s landscape.

Any actions that endanger protected species or impact vegetation types negatively are generally outlawed. Before a building or infrastructure project is approved or farming operations can be extended, authorities ask for proof that protected species and habitats will not be damaged or that damage will be reversed through ecological restoration. In Germany, for example, an extra tunnel had to be built for a new motorway — at a cost of more 44 million euros ($48 million) — to protect newts.

The EU commission is calling the Natura 2000 review a “fitness check” and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU commission, has personally ordered the review. But Sorges and other European environmentalists are worried that it will lead to a rollback in protections. “We fear that this review process is an outright attack on our high legal standards,” says Sorges. More than 500,000 members of conservation groups like Friends of the Earth Europe and WWF have used an online consultation process, which ended in July, to express their concerns.

Critics say Natura 2000 rules are too strict and so vague that they delay investments and choke the economy.

As Europe struggles to emerge from its ongoing financial crisis, critics of Natura 2000 contend that the current rules are too strict and often so vague that they delay investments and choke the economy while ecological assessments are carried out. Along the German coast, for example, wharf owners fear limits for using large ships on rivers that are protected under Natura 2000. Farmers near the German city of Göttingen are expressing worries that protected areas will be steadily enlarged, limiting their operations. Forest owners are asking the EU to consider their incomes rather than focus solely on conservation targets.

“We feel that the main question should be how to strike the right balance between ensuring sustainability and nature conservation and being economically viable,” says Pekka Pesonen, secretary general of the farmer association Copa-Cogeca, who has criticized bureaucratic red tape that makes it hard for farmers to be profitable.

Business groups like CEEP, the European Center of Enterprises, and Euromines, the mining industry’s lobby group, see the fitness check as an opportunity to change the directives to make them more business-friendly. European business groups don’t attack nature conservation per se, because this would not go down well with their customers. No specific proposals have been made yet on changing the Natura 2000 directives, but officials say it is possible that protection status for species or habitat types may be loosened, that exemptions for commercial or agricultural activity may be increased, or that resources for implementing the current rules or overseeing enforcement may be reduced. Final decisions about a possible reform will take place in 2016.

The genesis of Natura 2000 goes back to 1979, when the EU passed a Birds Directive that granted protection to hundreds of species of birds. In 1992, the EU approved a Habitats Directive that gave special legal status to 1,000 additional species of mammals, insects, and plants, and to 230 specified vegetation types like mires and mountain meadows. The two directives oblige EU states to protect the species and habitat types in the reserves of the Natura 2000 network.

Conservationists and researchers say the current directives are a success story.

“The directives have saved millions of migratory birds from certain death and have helped to conserve numerous national treasures,” says Olaf Tschimpke, president of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. The group cites the example of the Rospuda Valley in eastern Poland, a 29,000-acre wetland that was threatened by a large-scale road-building project. “The directives prevented the destruction and actually helped to find a more suitable route,” says Konstantin Kreiser, head of NABU’s international biodiversity policy.

‘The directives have saved millions of migratory birds from certain death,’ says one expert.

Dirk Schmeller, a wildlife ecologist from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, says that studies conducted by his groups clearly document that the EU’s directives and the Natura 2000 network have helped to preserve and improve the biological diversity of Europe. “Some protected areas are too small to be effective and some groups of organisms like fish are poorly represented, but fundamentally the directives and Natura 2000 are a success story,” says Schmeller.

A recent scientific assessment for the EU commission, State of Nature in the EU, analyzed the performance of the birds and habitats directives from 2007 to 2012. The authors concluded that the status of more than half of all 450 wild bird species assessed (52 percent) was secure, while 17 percent of the species were still threatened and another 15 percent were near-threatened, declining, or depleted. (The status could not be determined for 16 percent.) The roseate tern and the eastern imperial eagle, for example, have recovered from earlier declines. A similar recovery is under way for some of the 300 protected plant species endemic to the EU, like the flower Senecio nevadensis from the Sierra Nevada range in southern Spain.

The report warns, however, that a majority of habitat types are under intense pressure from agriculture, development projects, and nitrogen pollution, and that positive effects from the protection efforts need more time to play out. Dominique Richard of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris says that Natura 2000 gives threatened species and habitats time and space to recover, thus contributing to the EU’s international commitment to halt the loss of its biodiversity by 2020.

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Karmenu Vella, the EU environment commissioner, has lauded the birds and habitat directives as an important contribution to “stemming the further decline of Europe’s most vulnerable species and habitat types, in spite of the ever-increasing demand for land and resources.” Vella’s predecessor estimated that the Natura 2000 network created economic benefits worth 200 to 300 billion euros per year through providing fresh water, carbon storage, pollinating insects, flood protection, and opportunities for tourism and recreation.

So far, the Tegeler Fliess protected area in Berlin is unaffected by the political controversy. Hundreds of visitors come to the area every day to relax and enjoy a taste of nature close to the city. They can observe rare birds like red-backed shrikes and whinchats, cycle through woods on marked paths, or relax in picnic areas along lakes. But Sorges of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union is worried that this idyllic scenery is in danger.

“If the EU’s conservation rules are loosened, we might have to defend the area against the current building boom in Berlin,” she says.