Swedish wildlife extinction threat as loggers clear-cut 'old growth' forests

A clear-cut in Norrbotten Country, northern Sweden © Frédéric Forsmark.

A clear-cut in Norrbotten Country, northern Sweden © Frédéric Forsmark.

A clear-cut in Norbotten Country, northern Sweden © Frédéric Forsmark.

Sweden's biodiverse ancient forests will be largely wiped out within two decades, writes Alec Forss - and along with it will go thousands of species that depend on mature forest ecosystems. But with powerful logging companies riding roughshod over the law, regulators, politicians and certifiers, who is to stop the destruction before it's too late?
The Swedish forestry model involves clear-cutting as the default method, soil scarification, systematic use of chemicals, plantation forestry and the use of non-native species.

A camera follows a peregrine falcon as it swoops low over an attractive, pristine river hugged by trees in remote northern Sweden.

It then soars higher, revealing that the river flows through a large area which has been clear-felled of forest.

Stripped bare, it is as if an atomic bomb has been detonated over the land.

Aimed at raising public awareness, the message of the video by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) (see below) is clear: Sweden no longer looks like what you think.

While Sweden's forest cover of 60% of the country's land area is one of the highest in Europe, it is calculated that more than half of Sweden's productive forests have been felled since the 1950s.

With paper, pulp, cardboard, and sawn timber comprising the main products of the forestry sector, much of it bound for European markets, the vast majority of the country's forest landscape has been affected by intense forestry methods.

Dominated by five large companies (the largest of which, state-owned Sveaskog, owns 14% of the country's forest) and a number of smaller landowners, the forestry sector has the rights to 96% of Sweden's productive forests - land deemed as suitable for forestry.

Logging vs. old growth and biodiversity

With much of Sweden's forest cover comprised of young forests not yet ready to be harvested, there is intense pressure to log Sweden's remaining mature, old-growth forests - 'natural' forests so far only minimally affected by modern forestry and typically of great importance for the ecosystem and biodiversity.

Sweden no longer looks as you think - from SSNC / Naturskyddsföreningen on Vimeo.

I sit down with a worried Malin Sahlin, the SSNC's boreal forest policy officer, in her office in Stockholm. "The country is going into the last stage of transformation in terms of forest ecology right now due to the fact we are clear-felling the last of our forests that have never been clear felled before ... and turning the forest landscape, through replanting, pretty much into a monoculture", she tells me.

The future for Sweden's forests looks bleak. According to Sahlin, "if we continue today business as usual, there might in 20 years from now only be 5% of natural-like forests left and the rest could be in production."

Sweden's forest cover comprises part of the vast boreal forest that stretches across the northern part of the globe. Its old-growth forests are an important carbon sink that helps to regulate the earth's temperature.

The Swedish forestry model involves clear-cutting as the default method, soil scarification, systematic use of chemicals, plantation forestry and the use of non-native species.

Not only this, but such forests typically contain a large amount of dead wood, which forms a crucial habitat for many species. A report by the WWF cites the severe lack of dead wood as constituting one of the main reasons for the loss of biodiversity in European forests.

Of over 20,000 species of flora and fauna assessed in Sweden according to IUCN criteria, around 20% are categorized as 'red-listed' (nearly half of which are threatened), with mature forests being especially important for many of those species.

Published every five years, the Swedish Species Information Centre in Uppsala is currently updating Sweden's Red List, which is due to be issued in 2015. While pointing out that extinction processes in forest ecosystems are long term, Artur Larrson of the Centre argues that the current situation is "bad with a constant decline in species."

Larsson further explains: "Typically more sedentary species like fungi, bryophytes and lichens are harmed most ... but even more mobile species like birds, mammals and flying insects can also suffer from the extensive landscape change that forestry causes, for example a lack of dead wood of the right quality, lack of old and slow growing trees, denser and darker forests, and so on."

Failures of regulation, protection and certification

In 1999 Sweden outlined 16 environmental objectives to be met by 2020 - one of which is sustainable forests. However, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency - the body tasked with monitoring the objectives - has deemed the objective as unreachable under current policy instruments.

With the forestry model based on the principle of 'freedom with responsibility', critics argue that the lack of clear and stringent legislation has led to this freedom being hijacked by irresponsible forestry practices.

As a report by the SSNC argues, "the Swedish forestry model involves clear-cutting as the default method, soil scarification, systematic use of chemicals, plantation forestry and the use of non-native species."

Failure is also laid at the door of the certification schemes of the Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification tasked with monitoring that forestry is conducted sustainably according to the criteria.

"We've been out in the field over many years and we have found that the big five forest companies are not following the criteria of the certification", says Malin Sahlin. "Furthermore, the certification bodies have not done their job properly in many of the cases of violations that we have reported."

The wider issue is also that there is not enough protected forest in Sweden. With only 4% of its productive forest under formal protection, Sweden lags far behind the recommendations of conservationists who argue that at least 20% of the country's productive forest land should be protected.

Furthermore, it is also clear that Sweden is not meeting the biodiversity objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which stipulates that at least 17% of the land surface area should be conserved by 2020. Artur Larsson points out that it is not only a question of protecting what remains, but also restoring already 'degraded' forest if biodiversity targets are to be met.

Jobs, profits, and biofuels

The powerful Swedish forest industry and its allies - former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson has been a chairperson of Sveaskog since 2008 - have branded the assessments of critics as "alarmist" and point to the importance of the industry for Sweden's economy.

According to the Swedish Forest Agency, exports of forestry and forest industry amounted to SEK 118 billion (over £10 billion) in 2013, contributing to 11% of the country's total export value. In terms of jobs, it is estimated that around 60,000 people directly depend on the industry whilst employing triple that number indirectly.

The industry is also keen to burnish its image in terms of the growing role of wood fuels as a renewable energy source. In fact, having eclipsed oil, bioenergy now accounts for one-third of Sweden's domestic energy use, with wood fuel accounting for nearly half of biomass sources.

Critics counter that while commercial forestry is indeed an important generator of jobs and revenue, it is only one consideration among many. Maintaining biodiversity, clean air and water, as well as eco-tourism - a boom industry in Sweden - all depend on healthy forests.

Looking to the future

In just two decades from now, Sweden faces the prospect of having lost much of its remaining old-growth forests with the rest (outside of protected areas) turned more or less into plantation forests lower in biodiversity, their original character and value having been degraded.

Many people agree that, in addition to the adoption of better practices and more effective regulation including formal protection, there needs to be an immediate stop or at least scaling back of the cutting down of natural-like forests to halt the current trend. Yet such a decision would be unpopular as it would cut into the profits and jobs of the big forestry companies.

With Sweden's forests at a critical juncture, it remains to be seen whether Sweden's new government, with the Green Party occupying key posts, will muster up the necessary political will to take the necessary steps.



Petition: 'Saving old growth forest in Sweden'.

Alec Forss is a freelance writer living in Sweden. He specializes in writing on the outdoors as well as social and environmental issues (www.alecforss.com).


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