Leading Swedish scientists warn that the nation’s natural heritage is at stake: We are ashamed of our decision makers’ negligence regarding the environment. The Swedish forest has been turned into a giant cultivation area. Areas where numerous species once lived together in harmony are nowadays dominated by spruce, pine and planted exotic tree species. This forest cultivation is a threat to the biological diversity and it violates the Parliament’s national environmental quality objective. Swedish forest policy officially relies on the production of raw forest material being of equal importance to the environmental objective. But in practice, production is prioritized higher. The survival of almost 2,000 forest living species is now threatened because of the present policy. We are deeply concerned and ashamed of the rich country Sweden, which is not working effectively to fulfill its national and international environmental commitments. This is what 14 leading Swedish scientists in the field of plant ecology, ecological zoology, botany and other disciplines write.
Swedish forestry has been successful, and in many ways the Swedish forests are among the best managed in the world. Production has increased by 50 percent over the last 80 years. During the last 15 years, the volume of growing forest has increased by 25 percent, and yearly loggings have increased by 30 percent. The forestry is one of the backbones of the Swedish economy.
However, this story of success has a darker side. Today, after more than 100 years of intense forestry, we have a landscape almost completely dominated by managed forests in different stages after clear-cutting. We have replaced naturally growing forest trees with refined plants. The new forest proposition emphasizes increased production of raw forest material and highlights stump pulling, ditching, fertilization and intensified forest cultivation of exotic tree species as methods to achieve this.
The Swedish forest is becoming a giant cultivation where spruce, pine and exotic tree species dominate, similar to the few cereals grown in our fields. These forest cultivations pose a threat to the biological diversity.
The forestry has led to a large-scale change in the ecosystem, and a large number of species and processes which belong in natural forests have been forced back and become endangered. Complex relationships between thousands of plants and animals that regulate flows of energy, nutrients and water have been disrupted. Among other things on the long list of threatened species, the bryophyte Cephalozia macounii is found, just like the beetle Pytho kolwensis, which lives in spruce wetland forests, and the beetles Stephanopachys spp, which live in fire-induced pine trees and the white-backed woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, which is found in old deciduous forests. These species are just a few examples of the nearly 2.000 forest living species, whose future survival is not safeguarded in Sweden.
The single most important threat to these species is that the size of areas and the remaining protected natural forests are insufficient to accommodate viable populations. This despite the fact that one central ambition, the so-called “zero vision”, in the Swedish environmental policy states that “all naturally occurring species shall be preserved in viable populations”.
Modern forestry has also led to a change in the genetic composition of naturally occurring forest trees, since plants and seeds used for regeneration come from refined cultivations or are imported from other countries. Genetic studies have shown that the naturally occurring Swedish spruce forests have a different genetic composition than that of much of those that has been spread over the country. On top of this, there are now proposals to increase the extent of planting non-native species, even though Sweden has signed international agreements not to spread alien species in the country.
Changing the genetic composition is what is consciously pursued in forestry. Trees with a genetic composition that improves the wood production more than naturally occurring trees have been cultivated. What this genetic manipulation might lead to in terms of biological development of forest trees in the long-term, and their interaction with other species, is definitely not clear at the moment.
In Sweden, there is broad political consensus on the national environmental objectives, including the objective of “Sustainable forests”. The same objective is defined by the EU and is in compliance with international agreements which Sweden has signed. Also, in the so-called 2010-target a “zero vision” is specified, which means that the loss of biodiversity should have ceased by 2010.
Today, only 5 percent of the productive forest land below the mountain region consists of protected natural forest (only about 1.5 per cent of the productive forest below the mountain region is formally protected. /editor). From an international perspective this is a low number. Worldwide, more than 12 percent of the world’s forests are protected and single countries like Costa Rica, a poor country compared to Sweden, has protected more than 25 percent of its forest area. Even our neighbor in the East, Estonia, has a natural reserve system that within a year will cover 10 percent of the productive forest area.
The Swedish Forest Agency is now proposing that the new environmental objective for the 2010-2020 period should include an increase in the proportion of protected natural forests below the mountain region to nearly 8 percent. The proposal means that we will have increased ability to meet our objectives adopted in a democratic consensus, while 92 percent of Sweden’s productive forest land will remain available for commercial forestry.
The proposed increase represents an absolute minimum to achieve the environmental quality objectives at all. We recommend a higher level of ambition, and that at least 10 percent of the productive forest area is protected. This level is also in line with what previous studies have shown to be necessary to protect biodiversity, and it complies with current international guidelines. In addition, these objectives must of course be implemented in the budget work, so that the necessary resources will be available to compensate landowners economically.
The effects of the extensive genetic changes to forests must be investigated. Billions of plants with different genetic background than the naturally selected plants have been spread across Sweden. Today, basic documentation as well as follow-up studies of this large-scale manipulation are lacking. It is not clear what and where genetic stocks are planted in the country. And it is unknown what potential effects this has led to or could lead to in the future.
It is well known that genetic variation is the backbone of biodiversity, and it is central to create resistance to changes in, for instance, the climate. Ecological and genetic research show that the capability of ecosystems and populations to continue to resist changes are directly linked to biodiversity. Modern forestry risks weakening the ecological resistance of the dramatic climatic and environmental changes we face. The proposals for more intensive forms of forestry and the introduction of exotic tree species must therefore be subjected to careful environmental assessments.
The Swedish forest policy relies on production and environment being equivalent objectives. While production in forests and logging volumes set new records, the Parliament’s environmental objectives for biodiversity face an uncertain future. This clearly shows that the desired balance has not been achieved. In practice, production has precedence. We are deeply concerned about this development and ashamed that Sweden – one of the world’s richest countries and with a profile of being progressive on environmental issues – is not working effectively to meet its national and international environmental objectives and commitments.
Bengt Gunnar Jonsson, Professor Plant ecology, Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall. Linda Laikre, Scientist Population genetics, Stockholm University. Frank Götmark, Professor Ecological zoology, University of Gothenburg. Nils Ryman, Professor Population genetics, Stockholm University. Gunilla Almered Olsson, Professor Human ecology, University of Gothenburg. Lars Björk, Scientist Ethnobotany, Uppsala University. Torbjörn Ebenhard, Scientist Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences/Uppsala University. Joakim Hjältén, Professor Animal ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Umeå. Margareta Ihse, Professor Ecological geography, Stockholm University. Sven Jakobsson, Scientist Zoology, Stockholm University. Per Milberg, Professor Plant ecology, Linköping University. Sven G. Nilsson, Professor Animal ecology, Lund University. Henrik Smith, Professor Animal ecology, Lund University. Per Wramner, Professor Environmental science, Södertörn University.
This article was originally published in Swedish in Sweden’s biggest daily newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” on the 14th of April 2008 as a comment on the government’s forest proposition and the situation for the Swedish forest. The government reduced the funds for nature conservation in their budget proposition later the same year.
The english translation is made by Amanda Tas, Protect the Forest 2009. Link to the original article in Swedish.