– From natural forests to industrial landscapes



In an international context, Sweden has an undeservedly good reputation for sustainable forestry. Countries buying wood and paper products from Sweden have been misled by different environmental certification guarantees. The concept of replanting forests after logging operations, which is the case for Sweden, has been associated with a sustainable use of forests. Logging in, for example, the tropics is often associated with deforestation, while the Nordic countries Sweden and Finland claim that their forestry is better and different since the logged forests usally are replaced with new trees.


However, it is important to remember that a large ongoing ecosystem change is reaching its final phase. Diversified natural forests and old “peasant forests” have been transformed into industrial plots often managed with insufficient nature consideration. This process is similar to agriculture and cultural landscapes, where small-scale, diversified meadows, pasturelands and fields have been replaced by large-scale agriculture. This is a big threat to biodiversity.

Swedish forests

Sweden’s good reputation for sustainable forestry lies in stark contrast to the fact that there are fewer old-growth forests in Sweden today than ever before. At the same time forest companies continue to log old-growth forests and other forests with high conservation values. Sweden is far from fulfilling its commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Swedish forest industry and the government have promoted and are promoting an intensified forestry with the aim of maximising the flow of wood to the industry.

More than half of Sweden is covered by forests. Forestry policies and methods have resulted in the conversion of the forest landscape into industrial forests that lack key features of natural forests. Old, natural forests are and have been clear-cut and replaced by plantations and industrial forests that have low biodiversity values. Only a few per cent of the productive forests below the mountain region (sub-alpine forests) are old-growth forests with high conservation values.  

Although, Sweden holds a considerable proportion of the remaining old-growth forests of Europe.

Over 1 800 animal and plant species in the Swedish forests are red-listed and many of them are dependent on old trees, dead wood and deciduous trees to survive. In order to reverse the ongoing biodiversity degradation,  20 per cent of the total productive forest land below the mountain region need to be protected. There is a consensus among Sweden’s leading biology scientists that the Swedish forest policy is threatening the biological diversity in the forest.

In 2007 only about 3.3 per cent of the Swedish productive forests were formally protected from logging as national parks, nature reserves, habitat protection areas and by nature conservation agreements. About 1.5 per cent of the Swedish forests below the mountain region were formally protected.

In order to live up to national and international obligations, such as the CBD, Sweden has a legal responsibility to protect the biological diversity and to ensure that forestry operations are carried out in a sustainable fashion.

One of the Swedish environmental quality objectives, “Sustainable forests”, states that the value of forests and forest land for biological production must be protected and biological diversity safeguarded, by year 2010. A recent review of the national environmental quality objectives concluded that this quality objective will not be achieved by either 2010 or 2020.

A number of disturbing trends in the state of the forest environment and forest management are evident. Forests with very high conservation values are being cut down, and in addition to this, appropriate care is lacking when logging is carried through. 28 per cent of the loggings on privately owned forest land and 20 per cent of the loggings done by forest companies do not live up to the general consideration demands of the Swedish Forestry Act. All these aspects affect the forest biodiversity dramatically. The logging in Sweden has increased by approximately 35 per cent since 1990. The volume logged in 2007 (95.5 million m3 forest cubic meters) is scarcely compatible with long-term sustainable logging levels necessary for long-term wood production, especially given the current management intensity.

Forest management

Swedish forestry is extensive and has dramatically altered the Swedish landscape. More than 90 per cent of Swedish forests are, or have been, in commercial use and are affected by systematic forest management.

The large Swedish forest companies are certified by the environmental certification organization FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Research carried out by Swedish NGO:s show that the companies are guilty of major violations against the FSC-standard by e.g. logging old-growth forests, leaving inadequate or non-existent nature consideration patches, felling trees with high conservation values and running over dead lying wood.

Forest policy

The Swedish government suggested in its budget proposition presented in the autumn 2007 that the allocation budget for forest protection should be decreased by 47.8 million EUR (450 million SEK) during the coming three years. The government stated that it wants to increase the voluntarily protected forest areas. Thereby the environmental quality objective for protected forest areas can be achieved in a more cost effective manner. This of course compromises the state’s ability to impose quality demands or control possibilities. If a private land owner is allowed to choose which areas are to be set aside, there is a risk that incorrect and insufficient areas are protected. For example, areas with low productive forest are often voluntarily protected to decrease the economic loss. There is also an uncertainty regarding the long-term security of the voluntary protected areas. The land owner can easily change his or her mind and decide to cut down the forest in the future.

Forest proposition

In March 2008 the Swedish government presented its Forest Policy proposition to the Swedish Parliament. The proposition stated that the two objectives of the forest policy, the environmental objective and the production objective, should be of equal importance. However, the proposition primarily emphasized an increased forest production, while the environmental proposals were lacking. The government emphasized increased forest growth, increased production of biomass, increased pre-commercial thinning and an increased use of biofuels. They recommended that a study of intensified forestry should be done and they suggested that the boundary of mountain region should be redefined and moved further north, making it possible to more easily log in areas that are currently defined as mountainous regions. The forests above the mountain region boundary have historically been less subject to clear cutting than the low land forests.

State of forest biodiversity in Sweden

There are an estimated 50 000 species in Sweden, of which 25 000 are forest species. Of the 1 875 red listed forest species, 92 have already disappeared from Sweden and are regionally extincted, 1 174 are estimated to be vulnerable or nearly threatened and 346 forest species are endangered or critically endangered. These numbers are probably even higher than documented since the overall level of knowledge is very poor for certain groups.


The species loss in the forests is primarily caused by forestry practices – both through direct loss of habitat, but also through effects of forestry such as ditching or mechanical stress from forestry machines and transport. Many of the forest species do not manage to survive in a commercial plantation forest, partly due to the degraded structure and open micro-climate.


Red-listed forest species are too often represented found inby small and isolated remnants of natural forest that once hadformally large and dynamic populations of with a continuous distribution. This means when individual populations go extinct, there is no chance for re-colonization, so the entire species’ survival is further threatened. Such species are referred to as a part in an extinction debt. This is of a particular concern for species associated with dead wood or other special wood qualities.

Lack of resources

The Swedish authorities have not been able to establish enough protected areas due to the lack of resources. The Swedish Forest Agency does not have the resources to analyze all the logging plans submitted to them. Even when the analysis is done and areas with conservation value are identified, the money for protection is often lacking.  As a result County Administrative Board and the Swedish Forest Agency, the two bodies tasked with implementing the state forest protection, are forced to allow logging in some high conservation value areas.

Forest and climate

The Swedish government is advocating an increased forest production to mitigate climate change. The Swedish Forest Industries Federation (Skogsindustrierna), the forest companies Södra and Sveaskog take advantage of the situation and campaign for an active forest management, where old trees are logged to be used for different products and replaced by new trees, for the sake of the climate. The fact that loggings of old-growth forests actually worsen the climate situation is not mentioned at all. A forest stores a lot of carbon, both in the tree biomass and in the soil. When the forest is logged, especially when soil scarification is taking place, the carbon in the soil is released. The older the forest is the more carbon is stored in the soil and in the tree biomass and the more carbon dioxide is released. Studies at the University of Lund have shown that it takes up to 30 years before the emissions of carbon dioxide are compensated by the up-take of the new trees. The forest stops functioning as a carbon sink when all the trees are removed.

The climate change implies an increased stress and vulnerability for the forest and its species. Intact forest landscapes resist and recover better from fires, storms, insect out-breaks and other types of climate impacts than fragmented areas. Intact forest landscapes and old-growth forests will give the trees, plants and animals better possibilities to migrate, adapt and survive in a climate that is changing. Intact forests provide contiguous corridors that these species need in order to migrate.

For instance, forest company Södra claims if half the world’s forests were run like Sweden’s the entire greenhouse effect would be eliminated. They have tried to spread this propaganda abroad and they have partly succeeded. If the Swedish forestry with clear-cuts as main forestry method, would be used as a model, it will have serious implications for the world’s forests if it would be put into force.



Some data about the forests of Sweden

The total land area of Sweden corresponds to 41.3 million hectares, of which:

  • 23 million hectares of forest land
  • 4.5 million hectares of mire
  • 0.9 hectares of mountains
  • 3.5 million hectares of high mountains and sub-alpine coniferous woodland
  • 3.4 million hectares of arable land and pasture

The national definition of forest land according to the Swedish Forest Agency: “Land which is suitable for forestry and not significantly used for other purposes. Potential yield capacity is at least 1 m3sk (stem volume over bark) per hectare per year.”

More than 80 per cent of the Swedish forest consist of coniferous trees, of which spruce and pine are the dominating tree species.

Sweden can be divided into three different main zones:
the nemoral, boreonemoral and boreal zone.

The nemoral zone (southern deciduous forest region) is drawn at the natural southwest border of the spruce, stretching from the southern parts of the Swedish island Öland and the province Blekinge in the east to the province Skåne, and up along the west coast. The forest here mainly consists of deciduous trees such as beech and oak. However, this part of the country is to a large extent cultivated and populated.

The boreonemoral zone, also called the southern region of coniferous forest, is the mixed forest zone between the nemoral and the boreal zone in the north. This zone is dominated by spruce and pine, although pure deciduous forests of beech, oak and elm occur. Large parts of Europe’s boreonemoral forests are found in Sweden. Here were originally many selected valuable broadleaved trees, but many of these have succumbed to the intensive forestry. The zone is drawn at the natural northern border of the oak, approximately where the river Dalälven is located.

The boreal zone (northern coniferous forest region) is a part of the vast taiga belt that stretches across Scandinavia, Russia and Canada. This is a part of the temperate zone in the northern hemisphere, which is characterized by coniferous forest and tundra.

In the north and west of Sweden, along the mountain chain the coniferous forest turns into mountain birch forest (the sub-alpine region) and the higher lying bare mountain above the tree line (Alpine region).The largest continuous natural heritage area of Western Europe is located between Sälen up to Riksgränsen in Sweden. Some parts are completely untouched. The belt of forest has been considered as low productive and difficult to access by the forest companies, but the shortage of wood in combination with rising prices and higher demands has made it profitable to harvest sub-alpine forest.