Nature Conservation Act approved after heated debate

The new Nature Conservation Act will enter into force on 1 June 2023

Parliament approved the new Nature Conservation Act on 13 December 2022. It will enter into force on 1 June 2023, replacing the old Nature Conservation Act (1096/1996) that has been in force since 1997.

The structure and contents of the new Act remain largely the same. The aims of the Act are modernised by including climate change adaptation as one of the objectives. Some major reforms include laying down the precautionary principle in the Act, adding provisions on voluntary ecological compensation (see our blog on ecological compensation) and strengthening the protection of threatened species. Under the new Act, Metsähallitus can no longer allow ore exploration in national parks and strict nature reserves. The Act also prohibits the weakening of the traditional Sámi livelihoods and culture.

Politically exceptional parliamentary debate

The process to reform the Nature Conservation Act has been politically quite exceptional, and the contents of the legislative proposal have changed significantly along the way. The draft proposal was first circulated for comments in July 2021. In its statement of 23 December 2021, the Finnish Council of Regulatory Impact Analysis deemed that one of the key flaws and areas of improvement of the draft proposal was that the scope of the impact on companies and landowners was not clear and that the effect of the precautionary principle needed to be described in more detail by providing examples. The government proposal HE 76/2022 vp, submitted in May 2022, included some specifications in this respect.

Despite the specifications, the government proposal became subject of a heated debate in the parliamentary proceedings. At the heart of the debate were two provisions concerning threatened habitat types, one of which contained statutory powers under which certain threatened habitat types could have been declared threatened with a government decree. The other provision included an obligation to take into account the habitat types in the decision-making process under other acts, for example in the permit assessment of the Environmental Protection Act (527/2014) and the Water Act (587/2011).

The committees’ remarks focused in particular on the assessment of the impact and foreseeability of the provisions concerning threatened habitat types. The Constitutional Law Committee deemed that the foreseeability of said regulation should be improved and that its impact should be concretised. The Commerce Committee, for its part, stated that the regulation should not be an obstacle to new renewable energy projects or the upkeep of existing facilities. The Agriculture and Forestry Committee held that the preparatory works did not sufficiently account for the direct and indirect impacts on the protection of property and the preconditions of industrial and commercial activities – it was deemed that the provisions concerning threatened habitat types would have significant indirect impacts on the legal position of landowners and their constitutionally safeguarded protection of property. Finally, the Environment Committee recommended the complete removal of the statutory powers and the obligation to take threatened habitat types into account in the decision-making process under other acts. In addition, the wording of the precautionary principle was changed to be less obligating, and fishes and crayfish were excluded from the scope of the chapter on the protection of species.

Behind these changes is an exceptional political situation in which the Centre, a governing party, ended up voting with the opposition. The voting itself did not happen without hiccups either – the inclusion of calcareous ponds, brooks and springs to the habitat types protected under the Water Act, included in the original government proposal, was accidentally voted out. However, Parliament did later approve a resolution obligating the Government to prepare an amendment for expanding the scope of the aquatic habitat types to correspond with the original proposal.

The actual impact remains to be seen

In the end, Parliament approved the government proposal as amended by the Environment Committee’s report. Based on the views presented by the Finnish Council of Regulatory Impact Analysis and the committees, the impact of the Act remains unclear. The changes approved by Parliament can perhaps be seen as a consequence of this. The practical impact of the new Nature Conservation Act on companies, for example, remains to be seen.

The new Nature Conservation Act has already given rise to questions on the practical meaning of the precautionary principle. The recent discussion surrounding the application procedure and acceptability of the precautionary principle has been active. We will also take part in the discussion by publishing a blog on the subject in the near future.