- Sweden is widely considered to be the world’s greenest country, but its surprisingly lax forestry laws often leave decisions about logging to timber companies, and large swaths of biologically-rich boreal forest are being lost.
- Federal agencies and certifying bodies such as the Forest Stewardship Council have tried to improve the situation, but activists charge that they are unable to prevent forestry companies from cutting even the most valuable and the oldest forest tracts. I traveled there in 2011 to investigate their claims.
- These forest watchdogs have trained themselves to identify rare and endangered species of fungi and lichens, whose presence prevents cutting of those richest tracts, a successful but rugged tactic requiring long days of trekking, climbing, and lifting or turning of many logs.
- This post is insider content, which is available to paying subscribers.
Near the Arctic Circle in late summer 2011, I waited at a petrol station on the outskirts of a large tract of Sweden’s boreal forest. My Volvo had completely cooled down by the time a red hatchback rolled up fitting the description I was looking for.
Out leapt a man in full camo gear, squinting in the late summer sun, who then came straight for me.
Glad to learn he was not a soldier but rather a Finnish conservationist with a fetish for military gear, I shook his hand while his gang emptied themselves from the vehicle and set about filling water jugs and buying essential food staples while we discussed logistics.
I’d inserted myself into the activities of a corps of old-growth forest activists that had trained themselves to identify rare species (especially fungi and lichens) that frequent the high conservation value areas we’d be sleeping among for the next few nights. Proof of their tiny presence was used by this group associated with the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) to keep biologically-significant tracts intact (under the 1993 Forestry Act, of the 70,000 forest plots proposed annually for logging, the Swedish Forest Agency had just six weeks to respond to each landowner’s notification of intent to log a particular tract. If their staff did not respond in time, which was often the case, cutting was allowed to commence).
The SSNC realized that all it would take during this six week window was sending samples of rare organisms residing in any particular tract and their GPS coordinates to get a logging job proposed there canceled, and so they organized expeditions for areas slated for logging that stretched for several weeks during the summer. From the report I filed for Yale Environment 360:
“The northern county of Jämtland, where we tripped, slid, and sloshed on a late-summer day, is under intense pressure from logging companies. It is also the area of Sweden where biodiversity is the least documented. So activists like Daniel Rutschman, with the Swedish nonprofit Protect the Forest, take part in surveys organized by SSNC. ‘At first I was bored by lichen and fungi, until I heard that you can save a forest like this if you find rare ones,’ said Rutschman. ‘It’s become a treasure hunt.’”
A treasure hunt, then, but also a marathon sprint: toting a full camera kit, voice recorder, binoculars and notebook, I struggled to keep up with the fast striding team – who carried just as much gear and whose work included turning over every log in sight – which began as early as possible after dawn and continued until well after dinner, thanks to the high latitude which kept the sun aloft until nearly 11pm each night, allowing assays of many forest blocks of multiple hectares, daily.
During dinners and the subsequent breakfasts (seemingly just a few hours later), the citizen scientists from around Scandinavia employed hand lenses and guidebooks to identify specimens collected during the 12-hour days, while munching through campfire-smoked oatmeal (one of the team even discovered a new species and eventually got his PhD in fungi biology).
So contrary to the country’s burnished green image, there was a biodiversity crisis looming in Sweden’s forests due to intensive clear cutting across the landscape, the most extensive such forest in Europe. To keep feeding their paper mills, forestry companies had resorted to moving into the oldest forests of all, which harbor deep carpets of lichen that reindeer rely upon during the long winters, and also a growing list of threatened and endangered creatures, over 2,100 species at the time of my visit.
Yet Swedish forestry officials were fond of appearing at conferences to claim that their nation’s model of forestry was the most sustainable in the world, advising foresters in other countries about how to follow their lead. The SSNC issued a report saying that, despite efforts like those of sustainable forestry certifier Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), timber companies continued to cut the oldest forests and erode Sweden’s biodiversity. Further, the FSC-certified companies were often found to cut in the very habitats that they were required to set aside, which harbored those rare species. “So how many times can you violate FSC rules without losing your certification?” a SSNC staffer asked me, holding his palms up.
One of the biggest offenders at the time, Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget (SCA), employed 45,000 workers and owned paper mills, too, which required a steady flow of trees to make their ubiquitous toilet paper and hand towels (often marketed under the brand name “Tork”).
Having survived the sweaty and buggy marathon in the boreal forest, I later asked SCA’s sustainability director, Hans Djurberg, about his company’s documented violations, and as I reported, he replied that while he didn’t think that SCA should lose its FSC certification, he agreed with the critique of the industry. “It’s unacceptable for a company to make recurring mistakes with no effort to correct them,” he said. “They should not be allowed to keep their certificate.”
Back in Stockholm after enjoying a long shower, I queried FSC-Sweden director Lina Bergström about the many ongoing violations of sustainable forestry practices by private and public forestry companies alike, and whether her group could be tougher, and she agreed with Djurberg, saying “I wish we could have more backbone.”
Once my report aired, the irony of this ‘greenest’ of countries’ forestry policy leading to widespread clearcutting (and replanting with non-native trees in many cases, to boot) struck a chord with readers, but when National Geographic asked me to write about the findings for them, the critique gained a global platform which industry sources and FSC quite disliked. A national conversation was sparked by a top Swedish newspaper columnist’s recounting of the findings, which continued for many months.
Yet despite the dialogue and ongoing failings, the most recent report from SSNC notes that the situation is still the same in 2019. And further, it was with interest that I noted this January that Mr. Djurberg had been elevated to the role of FSC International’s board chair.
This news and his quote about the ongoing failings of forestry companies made me think of the famous quote by B. F. Skinner: “A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.” However, the quote becomes more apt as it continues: “The real mistake is to stop trying.”
Above: video shot in Sweden that summer.
Banner image: a citizen scientist inspects yet another lichen-full log in Sweden’s boreal forest. Image by Erik Hoffner