Supreme Administrative Court denies land use plan for wind farm on reindeer herding area – jeopardises wind power development in Northern Finland

The Supreme Administrative Court has, on 17 January 2022, issued a yearbook decision KHO:2022:12 whereby it rejected, through a final decision, the partial master plan of a wind power project on the basis that the conditions for reindeer husbandry in the area could not have been sufficiently secured if the plan had been approved. The decision constitutes a strong statement that the interests of reindeer husbandry prevail over those of wind power production and cannot be reconciliated if studies indicate that a wind power project would cause a harmful impact on reindeer.

The City Council of Kuusamo had approved a partial master plan allowing the construction of 54 wind turbines with a tip height of 250 metres in areas allocated for wind power. Most of the land areas covered by the partial master plan were located in an area that was also allocated for wind power in the regional plan. At the same time, however, the entire partial master plan was also located within a reindeer husbandry area, and the regional plan contained a provision according to which the operating and development conditions of reindeer husbandry and other natural livelihoods were to be secured within the reindeer husbandry area. The partial master plan decision was appealed by the local reindeer herding cooperative based on adverse impacts on reindeer herding.

The studies conducted in connection with the partial master plan process indicated that wind power construction would cause significant adverse effects on reindeer husbandry, even though the partial master plan area and, in particular, the area required for the structures of the wind power project overlapped with only a minor part of the total land area used for reindeer grazing by the local reindeer cooperative. According to the studies, the grazing areas that overlapped with the partial master plan area were of key importance for regional reindeer husbandry. Furthermore, implementing the plan was considered to have a negative impact on rotational grazing and other living conditions of reindeer and the adverse impacts could not be mitigated in a material sense when implementing the partial master plan.

The Supreme Administrative Court concluded that the partial master plan did not meet the requirements of the regional plan with regard to securing reindeer husbandry in the area, and the decision on the partial master plan made by the City Council was therefore considered to be unlawful.

Reindeer husbandry areas are established in the Reindeer Husbandry Act (848/1990), and they cover land areas north from the line between Kuivaniemi and Suomussalmi – in practice the whole of Northern Finland. The decision of the Supreme Administrative Court is significant as it implies a change in the established understanding of the legal status of reindeer husbandry areas. Reindeer husbandry areas have so far been considered to fall under strict protection only in cases where they have been situated within the Sami homeland (which covers a much more limited area in the northernmost part of Finland). In this case, however, the decision of the Supreme Administrative Court implies that even reindeer husbandry areas located outside the Sami homeland are subject to strict protection. We also note that the decision of the City Council to adopt the component master plan was finally and irrevocably rejected due to the perceived impossibility of reconciliating the two activities within the master plan area (i.e. the reason for rejecting the partial master plan was not the inadequacy of the studies, in which case the matter would have been returned to the City Council for re-processing).

The decision is a landmark ruling that could potentially hinder, or even prevent, the future planning and construction of wind farms in Northern Finland whenever a wind power project is considered to have a significant negative impact on reindeer husbandry. Whilst the risk is particularly material in large-scale wind power projects consisting of tens of wind turbine positions, the decision underlines the importance of conducting careful studies of the potential impacts of wind power production on reindeer husbandry even in smaller-scale wind power development projects. Maintaining a constant dialogue not only with the relevant municipalities, but also with the main reindeer herding cooperatives, of the planned project area as from the earliest development stages of a wind power project becomes increasingly important in order to anticipate and manage potential issues relative to reindeer husbandry.

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