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Sweden: Using the forest as a renewable resource

B. Hägglund

Björn Hägglund, former director-general of Skogsstyrelsen, the Swedish National Board of Forestry, is now managing director of Stora, the largest private forestry corporation in Sweden.

This article documents the possibility of combining conservation of forest resources with extensive utilization. The example is taken from Sweden but could in many respects be representative of Finland, Norway and other northern European countries.

With less than 1 percent of the world's closed forests, Sweden accounts for 6 percent of global sawnwood production and 4 percent of world paper production. In the national economy, forest products give a big positive trade net, thus "paying" for Swedish imports of oil, food, chemicals, clothes, etc: The welfare of the Swedes is to a large extent founded on their forests.

The economic development of the Swedish forest sector has been accompanied by a steady increase of the forest resource. Since the first National Forest Survey (1923-1929), its standing volume has increased from 1 800 to 2 800 million m³.

FIGURE 1. Forest bad as a percentage of total tend area


Source: Riksskogstaxeringen 1986-90

The current total harvest is about 65 million m³ per year; the allowable cut, i.e. the volume which could be harvested on a sustainable basis, is at least 75 million m³ and is increasing.

How has this come about? Certainly, situated between latitudes 55 and 69°N, Sweden cannot be considered a country with exceptionally favourable biological or ecological conditions for forestry. To a considerable extent the answer is to be found in the social and industrial development of the country, in combination with its close location to the Western European market and relatively large per caput forest area - about 3 ha.

Old times

Ever since humans arrived in Sweden there has been some interaction between forests and people. Forests were initially used for hunting, to provide fuel for cooking and as a source of raw materials for dwellings and other constructions. This "hunting and gathering" stage meant a rather harmonic symbiosis between people and forests. But when human societies learnt to domesticate and grow crops, forests often became an obstacle and were burnt down. Shifting cultivation - burning the forests and planting a few crops in the ashes - came to be used extensively as an agricultural method in the less fertile parts of Sweden. Furthermore, cattle were grazed in the forests, thus hindering their natural regeneration.

As the population grew and agriculture expanded, local conflicts occurred - for example, between agriculture and the need for timber in construction. Very early, valuable trees such as oaks for shipbuilding were legally protected. In the seventeenth century, there existed rather detailed legislation concerning the cutting of trees. However, these laws were not very effectively supervised nor did they comprise any rules regarding the regeneration of forests after cutting. Most important of all, no law can stop a starving population from cutting trees for food, fuel and housing if there are no alternative ways of getting these prerequisites for life.


The nineteenth century brought dramatic changes to Swedish society. The population increased faster than the productivity of agriculture and this led to extensive emigration, mainly to the United States, during the second half of the century. In fact, about one-third of the Swedish population emigrated in that period. A lack of food also increased the pressure upon the forests, which were devastated in many parts of southern Sweden. Although there was never a lack of wood or forests on a national scale, difficulties in transportation created serious local wood shortages.

FIGURE 2. Primary uses of wood in Sweden over the peal 100 years

The nineteenth century witnessed the advent of European industrialization. The demand for lumber increased and when trade regulations were liberalized around 1850, the market was opened for Nordic lumber. This led to a rapid expansion in the exploitation of northern Sweden's virgin softwood forests. Sawmill companies bought or leased forests, often at unfairly low prices from farmers who were uninformed about the true value of their resources. In just a few decades, the sawmill companies bought about 25 percent of Sweden's forest lands. This created major social problems in terms of landless farmers who were forced to leave their homes and search for new jobs in the, growing industries. It was a rough but necessary restructuring of Swedish economic life that took place, during which poor people paid the price of industrialization and better welfare for later generations.

Two key political issues arose in conjunction with this process. One concerned the right of the companies to buy land from farmers; the other was the question of compulsory regeneration after clear-cutting. The latter issue was debated for at least 50 years in the Swedish Parliament before a solution was found - which brings us to the twentieth century.


New technology has made mechanized thinning economically viable and ecologically sound

A silviculture act prescribing compulsory regeneration after clear-cutting was at last passed by the Swedish Parliament in 1903, followed in 1906 by a second law banning further acquisition of forest land by the sawmills. To some extent, the passing of these laws was the result of a political trade-off - the politically strong farmers who still owned about one-half of Swedish forest area accepted the silviculture act as the "price" for permanent control of their land. Thus die cornerstones of modern Swedish land-use policy were set, with one law concerning who could buy land and another setting the owner's responsibilities regarding use of that land.

An industrial forest nursery.

Note the automatic watering and fertilizing equipment in the background

Legislation does not work without supervision. Consequently, the administration necessary for supervising the silviculture act, the County Boards of Forestry, was set up in 1905. From the beginning these boards were completely separate from the management of the state-owned forests. Their main instruments were extension and service activities through which they promoted the voluntary silviculture and afforestation initiatives which laid the foundation for the rebuilding of Sweden's forest resources.

Initial progress was intimately linked to two key factors:

Increased efficiency in agriculture. Food was produced in sufficient quantities; former agricultural land became available for forestry and the grazing of cattle in the forests diminished. This was of immense importance for further development.

The development of the pulp and paper industry. A market for smaller trees was created. This set economic incentives for thinning and, more generally, provided the financial basis for improved silviculture. It also permitted the establishment of a shorter rotation period.

Progress was recorded by means of a National Forest Survey, a nationwide sampling of the forest based on sound statistical principles. The first survey started in 1923. The same year the silviculture act was complemented by a rule prohibiting the final cutting of young stands. Both the public and industry promoted afforestation and silviculture as national tasks of utmost importance. This was manifest, for example, in the establishment of non-governmental organizations for afforestation and silviculture.

But not all developments could be considered progress. Silvicultural methods were the subject of intense debate at the beginning of the century. The concept of selective cutting instead of clear-cutting was introduced and became rather popular. Although research showed that clear-cutting was needed to activate microbial activity and thus create the nutrient flow necessary for successful regeneration of poor soils in a cold climate, practical forestry expanded selective cutting on a large scale. One important factor behind this unfortunate development were the low wood prices during the 1930s. The result was that only a small area of new, young forests was established during the selective cutting period. This had long-lasting effects including the existence of small areas of middle-aged forests today and the lack of forests ready for final cutting in the future.

Reforestation of a clear-cut forest in central Sweden using rooted cuttings and a planting tube

This so-called "age decline" has strongly affected modern Swedish silviculture.

A positive force behind the development of forestry in the 1930s was the progressive increase in the number of forest owners' associations. The aim of these associations was to rationalize operations in forestry, improve the knowledge of the forest owners and strengthen the owners' position in wood price negotiations. In southern Sweden, the associations established their own processing industries, the primary idea of which was to increase the demand for wood and thus increase the value of the forests.

1945 - TODAY

A new forestry act was established in 1948, incorporating the rationing of old forests with the earlier rules concerning the regeneration and cutting of immature stands. The reason for rationing was to ensure that the supply of wood and jobs was spread reasonably evenly over the forest area.

The disadvantages of selective cutting became evident after 1945 and clear-cutting returned as the most widely practiced method in forestry. Starting in the early 1950s, big restoration campaigns were launched in northern Sweden. Huge areas of residual stands were clear-cut (and often sprayed with herbicides), scarified and planted.

This restoration gave good results from a silvicultural point of view but it created disputes with people outside forestry, especially with regard to the relatively new and often ecologically questionable mechanized logging methods. Over time, these disputes escalated into serious conflicts, culminating in the mid-1970s when the use of herbicides in forestry became a key political question. Herbicides were banned in forestry in 1976. Furthermore, in 1975, rules concerning nature conservation were added to the silviculture act. A new act was adapted by parliament in 1979, introducing new rules for pre-commercial thinning and the use of different genetic sources, etc. The new act was also more specific and concrete compared with the earlier ones. For example, the requirements for regeneration were formulated as a minimum number of good plants per hectare at a given number of years after regeneration. The legislation was combined with extensive forest inventory operations, aiming, inter alia, to identify stands where conditions were not in compliance with the new rules. This combination of legislation and inventory formed a very efficient tool for the forest authorities and, consequently, the silvicultural state of the forests improved significantly during the 1980s.

The National Forest Survey has been developed constantly and has played a very important role in forming the basis for a forest "balance sheet". It has been possible to check continuously, on a national and regional level, that the forests are not overcut and that proper silvicultural practices are performed, etc. The information is very precise and up to date. The survey has also provided information needed to forecast the development of the forests under different management regimes, as the effects of different silvicultural programmes can be studied and important conclusions concerning forest policy drawn.

The survey and its results are thus used extensively in the determination of forest policy. As such, they more or less constitute a guarantee for the sustainability of forestry, making it possible to harmonize the dimensions of the Swedish forest industry with existing and forecasted levels of sustainable yield.

Mechanized clear-cutting with automatic debranching and cross-cutting

Overall, the present state of the Swedish forests is good. Growth exceeds cut by about 30 percent; the regenerations are in good shape and most of the young and middle-aged stands are properly cleaned and thinned. But of course there are problems. The most serious one is the acidification and pollution of forest soils caused by airborne pollutants. Increasingly, sulphur and nitrogen oxides and acids are seriously affecting soils and trees. This is a difficult problem because the most important source of these pollutants are industries in other countries and yet extensive countermeasures such as liming must be performed on large areas in southwest Sweden.

Another significant problem is that relations between environmentalists and the forestry sector are still not the best, despite the fact that forestry has come to give a lot more consideration to conservation aspects. The changes in attitude and knowledge of forestry people have not been fully acknowledged outside the forestry sector.

Today, the interest in nature conservation is focused upon the sustainability of the biological diversity in forests, especially the survival of plant and animal populations which are in danger of extinction. These threatened species are often associated with old forests or biotypes created by agricultural methods which are now being abandoned. In general, two methods are used to protect them. One is the creation of nature reserves, the other is to give appropriate consideration to small and critical biotypes in regular forestry. The latter aspect has, as mentioned above, become a part of the 1979 Forestry Act of Sweden. Recently, a very big education campaign was started for forest owners and workers in order to improve knowledge of and increase interest in nature conservation. The campaign, "A richer forest", started in 1990 and already more than 30 000 people have bought the published materials in spite of their high price. At the moment there seems to be a solid agreement among politicians, environmentalists and foresters that education is the main road to a better understanding of nature in practical forestry. This agreement holds as long as we are discussing more conservative, normal methods of forestry. Ditching, heavy scarification, the use of new species and genetically improved trees, etc., are methods which environmentalists are now questioning and for which environmental impact statements are increasingly called for.

FIGURE 3. Forest growth compared with felling in Sweden

The question of nature reserves, i.e. larger areas set aside from forestry for nature conservation purposes, is rather complicated. There have been obvious difficulties in finding a national strategy for nature reserves, including the establishment of a goal for their total area. At present, about 9 percent of Sweden's land area consists of nature reserves or national parks. The major part of the reserves on forest land are situated at high altitudes. Environmentalists argue for a considerably increased protected area while forestry, at least in northern Sweden, feels that the large, existing reserves, especially in the mountain forests, are already serious obstacles to productive forestry and should not be increased. This debate, the quality of which is hampered by a significant lack of knowledge about the environmental requirements of different species, will go on for a long time with varying intensity.

Mechanized thinning in a young forest plantation

And then?

What about the future for Swedish forestry? Of course, to a large extent, the future will depend on the commercial terms of forestry and forest products in a global perspective. Swedish forestry produces high-quality wood at generally high costs and its customer is almost 100 percent high-tech forest industry. The main strategy for the future, therefore, must be to use good wood in products which are expensive enough to be able to bear a high price. Today Sweden's industry is fairly optimistic about the possibilities of identifying and producing these products on a continuing basis. But, of course, one prerequisite is that it continue to improve the efficiency of its technology and thereby keep costs at a reasonable level compared with the value of wood. Environmental aspects will also continue to be important.

A reasonable balance between production and conservation, based upon mutual respect for different aims, must be established and promoted by all parties with an interest in the country's forests. The positive interlinkages between production and conservation are already quite strong and must be strengthened even further. The revenue generated by industrial forestry provides the resources needed for conservation and it is through conservation that the sustainability of production can be guaranteed. Forestry can also play a positive role as a sink for carbon dioxide, nitrogen and the other pollutants that are threatening today's world.

Sweden's forests are situated close to the industrial sources of long-range airborne pollutants such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides. These pollutants are likely to figure prominently in discussions on the future for forestry. It is absolutely necessary to reduce these emissions significantly; however, in the short term, the forest soils may have to be limed in order to reduce acidity.

Mechanized weeding around young conifer seedlings


Finally, some conclusions can be drawn regarding the present state of Swedish forestry. To a certain degree, these conclusions might be applicable to other countries but it must be remembered that the development of Swedish forestry is based on a number of circumstances which do not exist anywhere else.

Social development. It is evident, in Sweden as well as in many other parts of the world, that sustainable forestry is difficult as long as people's elementary needs of food, housing, etc., are not secured. A long-term forest development programme must therefore include food security.

Markets. Swedish forestry is almost entirely based on wood for industrial use. An expanding, free market for its products, comprising a wide variety of products and with a certain stability over time, is necessary for motivating investment in new forests. Clearly, it is possible to expand a forest resource and at the same time we forests for large-scale industrial purposes. I believe Sweden's forest industry represents a very positive experience which could also be used in other parts of the world.

The political process. A leading factor in the political process affecting the Swedish forests has been consensus. The successive forestry acts had, with few exceptions, reflected views which have already been adopted by professional foresters on the grounds that they reflected good forestry. I believe this is necessary during a period in which forest resources are being built up. In addition, strong links between ownership and management have been maintained, and it is a common opinion in Sweden that such links are a positive factor in the development of forests and forestry. We can, however, see some signs of a conflict rising over legislation, especially concerning new environmental protection laws. These laws, the majority of which are outside the forestry act, have begun to regulate forestry in detail in a way which is new for foresters and, in my opinion, not very appropriate in the long term. On these questions as well, it is necessary to reach a consensus in order to get good results.

Development. Forests represent a truly renewable resource, providing a number of important products and services based on a process involving the sun, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients. Compared with almost all other means by which humans obtain essential commodities, forestry and forest industry should be preferred from an environmental point of view. Against this background I believe that ensuring the sustainable development of forestry in the world and in Sweden will be a most important task in years to come and perhaps one of the most viable strategies for the future.

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