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Increasing Challenges with the Swedish Forestry Model

Submitted by on 05 Mar 2014 – 12:43


By Sanna Black-Samuelsson, Associate ProfessorForest Genetics, Swedish Forest Agency

In the Swedish Forestry Model, two overriding goals, production and environmental protection are of equal importance. The increased and often conflicting demands on the Swedish forests are a permanent challenge for the forest sector, researchers and decision makers. Is it possible for forest owners to conserve biodiversity, enhance recreational needs and still have sustainable forest production?

 Sweden – a forest dominated country

More than half of the land area in Sweden, 23.1 million hectares, is productive forest land. The forest area almost corresponds to the size of Great Britain. The Swedish forests are dominated by conifers, Norway spruce and Scots pine, making up about 85% of the total standing volume. Amongst broad-leaved trees, birch is the most common. In the southern part of Sweden, noble trees such as oak, beech, ash and elm make up 25% of the growing stock.

About half of the Swedish forest area is owned by private, small-scale, forest-owners, often called “family forestry”. In total there are about 350 000 private forest-owners in Sweden, of which 70% live on their properties. The average forest area in family forestry is 47 hectares. One third of the private forest-owners are women, the amount of female forest ownership has increased during the last years. Private forest companies own 25% of the forest land while the State and other public organizations own the remaining 24%.

During recent years much of the State-owned forest has been reorganized into companies. Moreover, a massive rationalization of agriculture has resulted in a decrease in the number of farms with combined forestry and agriculture since the mid 1950s.

About 10% of the total land area, equaling 4.3 million hectares, is protected land- and water areas in Sweden. Of that amount, about 800 000 hectares, consists of legally protected productive forest land as national park and nature reserves etc. Forest land voluntarily set aside for conservation comprises 1.1 million hectares in sub mountain areas.

The primary reason for protection is to protect habitats for rare and/or threatened species. Cultural heritage values and recreation and outdoor values are other aims for protection. The State provides the finances and is responsible for protection. The forest owners are expected to pay careful consideration to nature and voluntarily set aside forest land in order to promote and protect different environmental values.

Forests host a wide range of values

Forests play a vital role in maintaining a stable global climate and environment. It’s also a place for recreation, a source of food and for many people an income. Forestry and the forest industry employ more than 100 000 people. Many more have indirect connections to forests, such as those employed in the transport and tourism sectors.

Ever since the 1920s the growing stock in the Swedish forest has increased by over 60%. Forestry provides by far the largest net export income, USD 17.5 billion. In fact, Swedish forests provide approximately seven percent, USD 189 billion, of the world’s sawn timber, pulp and paper and are therefore of high importance both to the EU and globally. In 2012 the value of Swedish exports of forestry and forest industry was SEK 122 billion. The forestry and forest industry sectors, providing products from fuel and paper to furniture, housing and packaging accounted for 10% of the total export value (all goods).

Appreciation of forest values is deeply rooted in Sweden. Recreation in the forest is facilitated by The Right of Public Access (Swedish: “Allemansrätten”), which has very strong standing in Sweden. It gives the public the right to access, walk and cycle on any land except for private grounds and where such access itself may cause damage. There are also restrictions concerning nature reserves and protected areas. The Right of Public Access also includes the right to pick wildflowers, mushrooms and berries, provided they are not legally protected.

Freedom under responsibility – the Swedish forest policy

Two overriding goals, production and environmental protection, are according to national legislation, on an equal footing in Swedish forestry. In 1994, the policy structure for forestry changed, and informative means of control was emphasized in a system with “freedom under responsibility”.

The main section of law affecting forest policy is the Swedish Forestry Act which sets a minimum standard for forest management. Also other acts such as the Swedish Environmental Code and the Cultural Heritage Act, affect forestry. In addition, voluntary standards in the form of different certification systems are important to oversee compliance with the legislation.

Swedish forest policy has to be implemented by those who own and manage the forests. The main function of the Swedish Forest Agency, the national forest authority, is to promote the forest policy. The Swedish Forest Agency supervises compliance with the Swedish Forestry Act. Other tasks include advising and providing services to forest owners and other forest stakeholders, to support nature conservation efforts and to administer subsidies to forest owners.  The work is often field-based, with inventories, site visits and contacts with forest owners. The local anchoring through the districts-offices all over the country and their personal contacts and local knowledge is therefore of fundamental value for the Swedish Forest Agency.

In 1995, Sweden joined the European Union. Within the EU, the Treaty does not include a common forest policy. However, several forest related policy areas, such as environment, climate, energy, trade and rural development, are covered by EU common policies. Sweden also plays an active role in international and regional forest co-operation and in development-aid related projects.

Sustainable forests?

The Swedish Parliament has adopted several environmental quality objectives and interim targets for sustainable development. The objectives define the quality and state of Sweden’s environment and of its natural and cultural resources. National agencies, among them the Swedish Forest Agency, follow up and evaluate the objectives. Regional county administrative boards co-ordinate the work and the municipalities translate national and regional objectives into local politics, aims and actions.

“Sustainable Forests” is one of the Swedish environmental quality objectives. One aim among several others is to maintain forest ecosystem services and conserve forest biodiversity so species are able to spread within their natural ranges as part of a green infrastructure. The achievement of Sustainable Forests is followed up continuously. According to the overall assessment in 2013, several sub-goals of Sustainable Forests are not possible to achieve by 2020 with today’s actual or planned instruments.  Obviously, various efforts are required such as an improved environmental consideration at clear-cutting and increased areas of protected and voluntarily set aside forests with more habitat management. Also, increased efforts for endangered species, and action plans, are needed.

The official national Red List is an important barometer in the Swedish environmental quality objectives and in international agreements. The Red List, prepared by the Swedish Species Information Centre, lists Sweden’s threatened species and describes current status, threats and trends in the species population.

According to the Red List, more than half of the 4,127 red listed species in Sweden are forest dwellers. Especially in Northern Sweden, vast areas of old forest with long continuity are being cleared which affect many fungi, mosses, lichens and wood-living insects. Forest habitats are affected by forest practices, and natural disturbances such as fire and flooding are scarce. According to the report under Article 17 of the EU Habitats Directive in 2013, sixteen of the seventeen assessed designated forest types in Sweden and several species do not have a favorable conservation status.

Possible ways ahead

The Swedish forestry model is obviously a brain teaser in Sweden. There seems to be a consensus that the multiple uses and the increasing demands of the Swedish forests leads to considerable conflicts, and that various actions therefore are needed fairly promptly to obtain a sustainable forestry. There are however a wide range of opinions among policy makers, the forestry sector and environmental organizations on how to define and consequently to achieve a sustainable forestry.

Research plays an important role in providing knowledge on synergies, trade-offs and conflicts concerning different forest management options. FutureForest is an extensive interdisciplinary research programme in Sweden and with a large stakeholder involvement. The main objective of Future Forests is to provide knowledge enabling an increased and sustainable provision of ecosystem services from boreal forests. Models for science based decision support are developed to resolve goal conflicts aggravating the multiple uses of forest landscapes. One of several topical research areas is to improve the capacity of the forest sector to adapt to global changes. Such changes are driven by, for example, altered markets for forest goods and services and by climate change. For instance, changes in pests, diseases and catastrophic weather events in relation to forest management adaptation strategies are a particularly urgent research area.

Also another large research area in forestry is just round the corner. The development of a bio-based economy is proceeding with an increasing rate at a global scale. To tackle this important issue, the Swedish Research council Formas will make a special effort to support forest research that generates new knowledge concerning the production, use, and further refining of renewable biomass.

In order to achieve the Swedish Forestry Model, the Swedish Forest Agency has several urgent tasks ahead. The number of controls to monitor the compliance with the statutory requirements needs to increase, as do the efforts to protect forest living species, in particular those with an unfavorable conservation status. Besides, a continued dialogue and collaboration with the forest stakeholders will hopefully clarify their roles and responsibility in the Swedish Forestry Model. Moreover, in collaboration with the forestry sector, the Swedish Forest Agency has recently developed a number of “target images” in order to achieve sound environmental considerations. The next step for the forestry sector is consequently to implement these target images in their work, amend governing documents in line with the targets and offer further training to their staff.

Despite the uncertainties on how to achieve a sustainable forestry, one thing is certain: The efforts and willingness among all parties involved to find solid and long-term solutions will continue. There is a consensus that it is of great importance for society that forests resources are used without being used up. In this way, future generations will hopefully benefit from the many assets of the Swedish forests.