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The Swedish forest industry in the ecocycle

G. Wohlfahrt

Göran Wohlfahrt is former vice-president of the Swedish Forest Industries Association. Stockholm.

Recent trends in the evolution of the Swedish forest industry towards more environment-friendly, conservation-oriented practices and policies and a harmonization of conservation and production goals.

Swedish law dictates that the biodiversity and genetic variation in a forest shall be secured

For the heads of companies in the major pulp and paper producing countries, the theme of this issue of Unasylva - the relationship between forest conservation and forest utilization - is not one of contrasting interests but rather one of reciprocal dependence and support. It is by reaping a harvest from forest land that the necessary resources are derived in order to maintain ecological values. The history of the forests in Europe is a sad story of successive waves of conversion into pasture and arable land; conservation was disregarded even though, very early on, there were warnings of the effects of continued depletion and attempts were made to regulate fellings and forest clearance. However, given the social structure of the nineteenth century, with a rapidly growing population to feed which was heavily dependent on forests for building materials, for charcoal, tar and fuelwood, it was not possible to halt the trend of forest conversion until fossil fuel replaced wood as the primary source of energy.

In Sweden, the barren tracts of land in the south of the country (the result of failed attempts at reforestation) and the exploitation of the large virgin forests in the north for export, following the abolition in the 1850s of the British duties imposed on sawnwood, prepared the public for the need for silviculture and reforestation, as was later codified in the 1903 act. Felling old stands for sawn timber created wealth, investment capital and industrialized the river mouths, thereby giving value to the forested inland. The emerging pulp industry, which was established to give added value to sawmill residues and small-sized wood, helped to pave the way for new forest management concepts.

As a result, forests once more cover 60 percent of Sweden's land area. The forest products industry is an important national source of employment and income and is the backbone of Sweden's foreign trade. Forest products represent one-fifth of the country's gross export value and are by far the greatest net currency earner. The modern, large-scale Swedish sawmilling and pulp and paper manufacturing industry is a world leader in technology. At the same time, the growing stock of the forests has almost doubled since the 1920s, and the annual growth rate is close to 83 million m³. Moreover, since only 65 to 70 percent of the annual increment is felled, forests constitute Sweden's largest hidden reserve, representing even greater potential income and employment.

With only 1 percent of the world's forests, Sweden is third in world trade in pulp and paper and second in exports of sawnwood. In fact, some 80 to 90 percent of the Swedish forest industry production is exported, the main markets being the Western European countries with 85 percent. Forecasts show a steadily rising need for forest products worldwide, with Western Europe, a wood-deficit region, accounting for one-fifth of world consumption. With half the forested area of Western Europe, the Nordic countries are expected to deliver more wood. Swedish companies, with their large forest holdings, have considerable experience in forest conservation which allows them to maintain steady growth in production.

Mill closures and restructuring, with heavy investments in joint research and new technology, have cleaned up the environment in areas surrounding the mills, raised productivity and kept them competitive on the international scene. Today, the main forces promoting environmentally sound practices in the forests and in the mills are new knowledge from research and the exacting requirements of customers and consumers. The producers of sawnwood and paper must be able to show that neither the raw material supply nor the manufacturing processes are impairing the environment; hence the demands for forest certification, ecolabelling and environmental auditing. The utilization of the forests is no longer only a matter of optimal growth, cheap logging and reforestation, but also one of ensuring the future for the plants, animals and people living there.

In the wake of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the environmental debate has branched out and begun to deal with the overriding system issues. The forest industry system is more than forest conservation and considerate utilization. It is an element in an ecocycle (see Figure) with renewable raw materials and with products that can be recycled both as products and as energy. As such, it is probably the only large-scale industrial system capable of realizing the sustainable development goals formulated by UNCED. This is how the Swedish industry views it and how it would like the world to act.

Sustainability in the ecocycle

Fundamental to the whole ecocycle concept is that forest utilization must be truly sustainable. This means not only a sustained harvest of the wood but also a balanced use of the forest ecosystem which impairs neither soil productivity nor biological diversity, This dual approach, developed over the last ten to 15 years by the Swedish forestry community, has been codified in the new forest policy act of May 1993. The act comprises one goal for the forest environment and one for production, the two goals having the same priority which means they should be given equal weight in the management of forest resources. Thus, timber production must always be combined with appropriate measures and resources for nature conservation.

To this effect, the law prescribes: "Forests and forest land shall be utilized efficiently aiming at a sustainable and valuable yield. The composition of forest production must be such that it has a potential to satisfy different human needs in the future." This is not a problem; it is a long -established principle.

The environmental goal reads: "The productivity of forest land shall be preserved. Biodiversity and genetic variation in the forest shall be secured. Forests must be managed so that plant and animal species which exist naturally in the forest ecosystems can survive under natural conditions and in viable populations. Endangered species and vegetation types shall be protected. The forest's cultural heritage, aesthetic and social values must be defended."

Preserving soil productivity was a much debated subject some 15 years ago. After the great strides in the 1960s and 1970s in the mechanization of logging and transport and the large tracts opened for clear-cutting with little consideration for local variations, there came a change in attitude in favour of biology, variation and adapted methods. Much of the reaction aimed at maintaining long-term fertility by avoiding exploitation and unintentional loss of the soil nutrient stores. The new wave was called "site-adapted forestry practices", implying that standard methods are adapted to the varying biological prerequisites of specific tracts of forest land. It proved positive both for production and the environment. It also required an increased level of knowledge and skill, particularly among individual foresters and forest workers, and was therefore backed by extensive education programmes and a new generation of advanced and lighter machines for more flexible, considerate and small-scale logging.

FIGURE - The forest industry system In Sweden Is part of an ecocycle

More worrying today is soil acidification by air pollutants - mainly in the southwestern part of the country which cause problems for soil fertility in the long term; about 90 percent of the acidifying substances are wind-blown from neighbouring and distant countries, beyond the control of Swedish measures, adding a negative element to our definition of sustainable forestry.

There can never be one global definition for sustainable conservation or forest resources because the basic vegetation conditions and solutions will always vary between regions and countries following different ecosystem types and land use history. In Sweden, for example, the experiences of successful restoration work over most of the forested area after centuries of intensive utilization and the indiscriminate exploitation of boreal virgin stands during the nineteenth century have emphasized the need to safeguard the biological diversity of the ecosystems; no more than 5 percent of untouched virgin or old growth forests remain.

Clear-cutting over extended areas has been replaced by site-adapted forestry In which selected trees and a more varied landscape are maintained

The strategy for conserving biological diversity is therefore built more on ecological restoration in combination with forestry than on the protection of large areas as nature reserves. This approach is totally different from regions where old growth virgin forest still dominates.

Flexible forestry is the best conservation policy

The enactment in 1903 of the world's first modern silvicultural law with the obligation of reforestation after cutting triggered the restoration of the Swedish forests - the first "green movement". The result has already been mentioned: growing timber stocks have almost reached 3 billion m³ and the annual growth rate is higher than ever before and still rising. Practically the whole forest landscape has been managed under law-enforced rules using the best knowledge available in order to increase both yield and stock.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that scientists, during the early 1980s, pointed out that part of the Swedish flora and fauna should be considered endangered or threatened, the reason being the historically long human use which has changed the composition and structure of the forest stands and landscapes. The area of old and large trees has declined significantly during this century as well as the number of standing dead trees. Species that depend on dying trees and decaying wood are suffering.

The development of commercial forestry has meant an effective reduction of the influence of fires. In the past, notably in boreal regions, the forest structure and the whole landscape has been formed by recurrent fire; some areas have been burnt several times per century, forests on humid land, hollows and broad-leaved forests only rarely. Animals and plant species have adapted to live and survive in a system which includes forest fire. The suppression of fires has had an effect on biological diversity by reducing the young successional stages dominated by hardwood trees and the mix-in of hardwood in older stands.

Key habitats, locations where endangered. vulnerable or care-demanding species exist, have been registered by field surveys conducted by the landowners and the forestry staff with the objective of preserving, inter alia, the surviving fire-influenced coniferous wood and maintaining the natural features that still exist in the cultural landscape. Management programmes describe multiple elements, including what measures may be used in sensitive forests; how natural regeneration can be used on rich, damp soils, by leaving seed-trees instead of expensive planting after clear-felling-, how generous border zones should be left around lakes, swamps and watercourses; how to preserve the remaining cultivation and wood pasture land; and how to apply less absolute measures in the clearing of felled areas, for example leaving fallen trunks and standing dead trees for the benefit of insects, lichens and birds, and leaving spruce swamps and unstable slopes.

Forest fire must be managed rather than eliminated

Ecological landscape planning

Ecological landscape planning is the way to mimic the functions of natural forests. Building a landscape - anything between 5000 and 25000 ha - starts with an inventory of the elements that still exist from the time of the natural forests. When possible, these are linked together in a network of corridors of forest lands which will never be clear-cut. Normally these corridors comprise forests in wet areas, along streams, lake shores, etc., which did not burn under natural conditions.

Over the rest of the area, production forestry is practised with the best available methods. The forest composition in age classes and the mix of forest management methods, and so on, are controlled at the landscape level by means of a geographical information system. Also included in forest management are some methods that are especially adapted for environmental purposes, such as controlled burning and selective cutting. Even if these methods are applied on small areas only, they are important for the maintenance of biological diversity.

Consensus building

To become generally accepted, the idea of sustainability must have the backing of the authorities and the consent of the public, landowners and politicians. Swedish experience shows that a combination of national legislation, imposing minimum silvicultural standards on all forest owner categories, and an effective extension service has proved most conducive to an understanding of silviculture as a goal in itself and how forest holdings can become a reliable source of income.

A key question for positive and responsible participation is the well-defined and guaranteed ownership of forest land. In Sweden, 88 percent of all forest land is privately owned by farmers, estates, small woodlot owners' cooperatives (50 percent) and by industry (38 percent,). Their willingness to invest and manage their forest land assets carefully is motivated by their expectations of future revenues. People's participation is more important than any legislation or administrative regulation.

The County Forestry Boards were instituted in 1905 with the task of promoting private forestry through law enforcement, but mainly through word and deed, advice and education. The foresters of the regional boards acquire good local contacts and are generally recognized by the forest owners as a resource and support system rather than as controllers or "police". But control of forestry practices on individual holdings has also proved indispensable. This is made possible through standwise inventories carried out by the county board or by the forest owners themselves through their associations. In addition, all final failings must be reported to the county boards, enabling them also to maintain a check on reforestation and nature conservation measures.

At the national level, since the 1920s the National Forest Inventory has been conducting repeated (now annual) nationwide surveys in order to follow the development of the forest area. standing volumes and growth by region. species, age class, dimension, owner category, etc. Calculations of potentially sustainable cutting levels are regularly carried out and compared with the forecast demand for wood as well as actual consumption.

Apart from extension services and dissemination of the results of biological and technical development and research and development, the county forestry boards also organize training courses to improve the skills of all personnel and of forest owners and entrepreneurs.

Industry is the driving force

The driving force behind the transition of Swedish forests from degradation to productive forest land has been the demand for roundwood and processed products. The wealth created by the industry has financed investments in silviculture thus opening the way for an expansion of the industry, etc. Since medieval times, and particularly during the past century, the Swedish forest products industry has been highly export-dependent.

The conditions on the world market have set the framework for its activities and expansion possibilities. On the whole, the state has refrained from intervening in the market for roundwood and derived products (contrary to what has been the case in agriculture). Buyers and sellers have been forced to work under externally determined economic conditions. These have at times been harsh. necessitating radical rationalization measures notably in logging, transport and marketing; however, the margins have been wide enough to allow resources to be ploughed back into reforestation as stipulated by law.

The first principle is that the price paid for wood by the industry must be high enough to cover the cost of silviculture and other requirements that are necessary for forest management. State subsidies are limited compared with those of other countries and have always played a minor role. Whereas in some countries forestry and forest industries are seen as antagonists, in Sweden they have lived in an increasingly close relationship, almost in symbiosis with one another. It is generally important that the market is "funding" the development of sustainable forest management, although the implementation of new programmes and developments may need some financial assistance.

In order to implement its own strategies, each country needs to create a minimum critical mass of research competence, of education and training and of public awareness of the need for sustained management of land and resources. Regional and international cooperation could be instrumental in bringing about an assessment of problems and opportunities and the need for financial and technical resources. research policies, etc.

Recycling - An element in the ecocycle

Since the 1960s, public attention in Sweden (and in other countries) has been focused on the effects that increasingly bigger pulp and paper plants have on water quality and fish life downstream. Air pollution, unpleasant odours and noise contributed to a widespread image of an environment-unfriendly industry. In a declaration of intent in 1988, the forest industries in Sweden committed themselves to reducing emissions to ecologically acceptable levels and to overcoming any remaining environmental problems. It was also stated that environmental measures are possible only if the industry is profitable and that international harmonization of environmental standards should be sought.

Today, the situation has changed drastically. In Sweden, as well as in most industrialized countries, the focus in the public debate is now on issues of forestry, on waste management and, not least, on recycling. Emissions are no longer front-page news. The industry's achievements are even officially recognized and pulp and paper is occasionally cited as a pattern for other industry sectors.

In 1994, out of the total consumption of fibres of 270 million tonnes by the paper industry worldwide, some 40 percent are recycled fibres and this percentage is rising. By the year 2000, some two-thirds of the increased demand for fibres will be met by recycled paper. All industrialized countries with insufficient forest resources have stepped up paper collection, and improved de-inking and dissolving techniques have increased the paper companies' interest in using cheaper, sorted recycled fibre from the "urban forest" resources. In a handful of countries more than one-half of consumption is recovered; in Germany, the share of recycled fibre in paper products is almost 60 percent. In 1994, the average collection rate for European Union (EU) countries was 42 percent.

In Sweden, more than six out of ten newspapers and 70 percent of corrugated cardboard are recycled; in total, over 50 percent of all paper products are recovered. If paper products burnt for energy generation (20 percent) are included, total paper recovery is over 70 percent; the remainder ends up in libraries, as building materials, in landfill and in sewage.

In most EU countries the share of landfill is still high, while incineration with heat generation is just gaining acceptance, although it is growing in importance.

Waste paper, newspapers and used packaging are not substitutes for fresh forest raw material. Paper cannot be recycled an indefinite number of times. Every circuit of a recovery cycle weakens the fibre and a part is destroyed. Therefore, waste paper is not a sustainable raw material base; recycled fibres and virgin fibres serve as two elements of the same sustainable cycle. New. virgin wood fibre is constantly needed to "top up" the system, to maintain the performance and the quality of products made mainly from recycled fibres. When strength, stiffness, durability and purity are important, then virgin fibre is the best and often the only choice. The Nordic forests' role is to supply the European paper system with the virgin fibres needed to maintain quality.

It is a misconception that paper products should be made from recycled fibre to "save the forest". Trees are not grown to be saved. Wisely managed and utilized forests are not in conflict with ecological considerations. The point at issue is not whether the fibres have been used several times but whether the original raw material comes from forests that are managed according to environmentally sustainable principles and the production process meets today's emission standards.

Moreover, collecting paper is not an end in itself and must be environmentally justified and economically viable: to truck small volumes of recyclable paper long distances is negative to the environment and raises the cost of the fibre.

Finding the best combination of the recovery of materials and of energy is the key issue when the forest industry adapts to the ecocyclic society of the future.

Closing the cycle

In the end, the relationship between forest conservation and forest utilization is not one of diametrically opposed extremes - of absolute protectionism on the one hand versus mining utilization on the other. The solution lies in utilizing forests in a sustainable manner, thereby ensuring their continued productivity and conservation. Although no country can or should ever believe that it has reached a maximum level in this quest, the efforts and results of the Swedish forest industry indicate that, with long-term effort and political commitment, significant progress in the right direction can be achieved.

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