The European Commission has put EU member Romania on notice for failing to tackle illegal logging and not doing enough to protect some of Europe’s largest unspoiled forests.
The February 12 move launches a sanctions procedure that could see Bucharest brought in front of a court and penalized.
Illegal logging is a major problem for Romania, where six forest rangers have been killed in recent years by timber thieves -- two of them last year, prompting thousands to march in Bucharest demanding government action.
Another 650 forest workers were beaten, attacked with axes or knives, or even shot at after catching illegal loggers in the act.
Under the infringement procedure, an EU member state can be taken to the Court of Justice and be hit with financial sanctions.
Bucharest was given one month to take steps to prevent timber firms from exporting illegally harvested wood to the European Union market.
"Inconsistencies in the national legislation do not allow Romanian authorities to check large amounts of illegally harvested timber," the commission said in a so-called letter of formal notice, the first step in the EU's infringement procedure.
Forests still cover some 7 million hectares, or almost one-third of Romania. More than 525,000 hectares are virgin primary forests -- more than any other EU country outside Scandinavia.
Such forests, as well as containing ancient and protected tree species, provide a habitat for wildlife including bears, wolves, and lynx.
Romania's timber industry, estimated to be worth more than 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion), is dominated by the Austrian company Holzindustrie Schweighofer, which has been accused by environmental and civic groups of buying large quantities of illegally chopped timber.
A forest inventory commissioned by the government and leaked to the media last year showed that 20 million cubic meters of wood are cut illegally from the forests every year, while 19 million cubic meters are cut legally.
According to the European Commission, Romanian authorities also "manage forests, including by authorizing logging, without evaluating beforehand the impacts on protected habitats" as required under EU rules.
The European Commission blamed Romanian authorities for "shortcomings in the access of the public to environmental information in the forest management plans."
Romanian Environment Minister Costel Alexe blamed the previous leftist government for the situation.
"The first letter from the commission came three years ago.... Previous governments endlessly postponed solutions that could have stopped illegal logging," Alexe said, pledging to act swiftly.