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An 800 hectares big clear-cut, in a former natural forest landscape in the north of Värmland, Sweden, made in the 2000s. Stora Enso has on Bergvik land placed several large clearings adjacent to each other that create this huge clear-cut. Photo: Viktor Säfve / Protect the Forest 2011

Due to intensive forestry, the natural taiga of northern Europe has shrunk to the point that our common natural heritage has been decimated, and many species and ecosystem functions are threatened. Now, forest experts in the Nordic countries and Russia have started to cooperate to try to stop the loss of old-growth forests. A group of scientist and representatives from several environmental organizations from western Russia recently visited Sweden and Finland. Through field visits and lectures they learned more about the Nordic forestry model and forest conservation, and knowledge about conservation biology was exchanged by colleagues from the different countries.

The forest industry’s interest in western Russia is expanding. Through satellite images one can follow the last few decades of fragmentation of massive expanses of natural forests. Not too long ago these parts of the taiga were intact and roadless wilderness. Now, through brutal exploitation and mining-like extraction of old-growth forest, seen from above, the landscape resembles a large chessboard. Behind the exploitation of these priceless natural values are, among others, Nordic interests. Sweden and Finland has through smart lobbying managed to give the image of having the perfect model for forest management, where the levels of both production and environmental consideration are high. Because of this claim, the network for nature conservation in western Russia wanted to see if the Nordic forestry model really keeps its promise, and investigate the state of biodiversity and other environmental issues in the forests of Scandinavia.

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Satellite image of the mining-like exploitation of a natural forest landscape in the Russian Karelia near Kostomuksha. The chess squares are large clear-cuts in the, a few decades ago, almost intact natural forest landscape.

The organization Protect the Forest was host for their visit in Sweden. One of the main objectives for the host organization was to warn their Russian colleagues of the Swedish forestry model, by showing them how too much fragmentation of natural forests will effect biodiversity. Viktor Säfve, chairperson of Protect the Forest and who is also chairperson of the international reference group of Taiga Rescue Network, was one of the nonprofit conservationists who guided them through scrubby plantations, young forests, large FSC-certified clear-cuts and remnants of old natural forests. Read his report about the Russians visit in Sweden here:

I meet up with the Russian expedition at the central station in Stockholm. In the bus are many representatives from the western Russian forest expert elite. They are enthusiastic, but a little tired after a long journey.

I reflect over the importance that we strengthen cooperation across national borders. Even though Russia at an alarming speed is also losing a lot of old-growth forests, there are still larger areas of old, natural forests remaining there than in Sweden. In some parts, like in Archangelsk, there is significantly more old-growth forest in intact landscapes than in Scandinavia. The protection of these areas are important, not only from a national perspective, but from an international point of view as well. They make up a significant part of northern Europe’s natural heritage – the Taiga. It is very important that our colleagues see the effects of the Swedish forestry model on a landscape-level – and realize that this is a future scenario for Russia if the destruction of natural old-growth forests does not stop.

As we travel through the south boreal and highly managed landscapes of Örebro, Dalarna and Värmland counties, many of the participants are surprised over the large-scale transformation of the forests. One of the participants on this journey is Alexander Markovsky from the Karelian forest conservation organization SPOK. This is what he has to say about the few single trees left around the water environment on the clear-cuts we passed through on our journey north.

“I am totally amazed at how it can be allowed to cut all the way down to a stream, without wide buffer zones to protect water quality and the species which depend on these environments. What also amazes me is that Sweden and Finland, which lie on such a high level of conservation research, still are so far from realizing functional conservation of the forest”.

When we arrived in Värmland we were guided through the forest landscape by the conservationist expert Sebastian Kirppu. He navigated the bus with our Russian guests through the domains of the FSC-certified company Bergvik and Stora Enso, to see how the forests have been transformed by FSC-forestry. We are now located in an extreme clear-cut landscape, resulting in a 800 hectare large clear-cut on land owned by the FSC-certified company Bergvik. Stora Enso, which manages the land holdings of Bergvik, have over the period of a few years made adjacent clear-cuts which has transformed the area into something like a moon-like and barren landscape. Viktoria Tarasova, who does research on lichens at the state university in Petrozavodsk, had this to say about the forestry methods:

“One example of Stora Enso’s non-functioning and short-term nature consideration, is this standing dead pine remaining from the felled natural forest which was here before the fellings. The Wolf lichen, Letharia vulpine, which is a very rare species in northern Europe and on the Swedish Red List is present on this tree. But the company has not left any older pines in the vicinity, so in the future when this dead pine no longer can host the lichen, it will most probably disappear from this biotope. From this example it seems that their forestry is a kind of one-time forestry, with the consequence that their natural consideration is only short-term consideration”.

“their forestry is a kind of one-time forestry”

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The Swedish lichen expert Janolof Hermansson shows the Russian guests a high stumps with wolf lichenPhotoViktor Säfve / Protect the Forest 2011

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Alexander Markovsky interview entomologist Bengt Ehnström for a film projectPhotoViktor Säfve / Protect the Forest 2011

As well as visiting different managed and protected forests, the guests also had the possibility to participate in a seminar with environmental scientists, representatives from the Swedish Forest Agency and environmental NGO’s. Chief Executive of the organization SPOK, Alexander Markovsky, was active during the presentation by the Forest Agency. He asked if was true that the Swedish Forestry Act only requires environmental consideration at the expense of a trivial amount, in form of buffer zones around water, leaving dead wood and eternity-trees, repairing damage to the soil made during logging, since the act is governed by the so called “intrusion limit”. The Forest Agency confirmed that this was the case.

“What does this distorted legislation have to do with conservation and front-rank research?”, asked the audience from Russia. “It sounds fundamentally wrong, especially since Sweden has forestry legislation where production and conservation are supposed to be of equal importance”.

What should the officials answer to this question? The fact is that the functionality – and credibility – of the forest legislation isn’t good. The Swedish Forestry Agency’s inspections show that 37 % of all final felling does not reach the minimum level of nature consideration of the Forestry Act, and to make it even worse there are no possibilities today to sanction those who break the law.

Sure, there are times when the consideration does follow the authorities’ recommendations, but there are so many cases where it’s far from following the law. There are also cases where you could strongly question the environmental benefit of conservation oriented management required by the FSC-certification, for example when re-creating forest fires. We visited a burned logging site, where the land owner had performed a forest fire which really should have been made to mimic the natural disturbance, to create living conditions for the species dependent of natural forest fires. In this case, the ambition had utterly failed because almost no trees had been left on the logging-site prior to the burning, which means that the dead wood and the burnt, sun-exposed trees were missing, which are characteristic after a natural forest fire.

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Burned clearcut with few saved trees that can serve as substrates for fire-favored speciesPhotoViktor Säfve/Protect the Forest 2011

Invasion of exotic species?

One day we visited large plantations of the exotic tree species Pinus Contorta, situated on the land of Bergvik in northern Värmland county. The participants got to smell the orange-like scent of the bark, but the sweet smell cannot weigh up the tragic fact that there are about as large areas of formally protected forests in Sweden as there are of plantations of exotic tree species. The biologists from Russia did not understand how it can be legal to use exotic tree species to be planted in monocultures in the forest landscape. Such practice of introducing exotic species clearly opposes environmental objectives, and also threatens the natural forests by such a radical shift of ecosystems. Forest experts are concerned that this phenomenom will spread to Russia, with severe negative consequences for the natural ecosystem.

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Denis Dobrynin from WWF Arkhangelsk smells the bark of Pinus contortaPhotoViktor Säfve/Protect the Forest 2011

When we visited the, in Swedish standards, large natural forest of Havsvalladalen in northern Värmland, I asked the conservation expert Denis Dobrynin from WWF in Archangelsk, what his thoughts were regarding the Swedish forestry model.

“It is obvious that the apparent economic success of Swedish forestry has a dark ecological side, like the dark side of the moon”.

As we travelled south again from the industrial forest landscapes of Värmland, we stopped to look at a test site for stump extraction, a clear-cut of 20 hectares where state owned forest company Sveaskog has had a large amount of the stumps removed. Once again the participants ask themselves how forestry management in Sweden can strive to become more and more intensive, during the same period as knowledge has significantly been raised concerning the negative effects on biodiversity, water quality and climate?

As a Swedish forest activist, how does one respond to these questions? “Welcome to our reality.”

To give our Russian guests a well needed pause from the monotonous, young plantations and highly managed forests, I asked our driver to make a turn down one of the forest roads towards a 30 hectare large remnant of old natural forest. Here, at the old-growth forest in Helgedomen (meaning “the Sanctuary” in Swedish), in Örebro county, we strolled and gathered new energy for a while among pines and spruces several hundred years old. I asked them what they felt as we were walking in this forest. The answer came in unison “Finally a normal forest which is beautiful, where you can breath…” I stopped to think about this reaction. What is normal old-growth forest in parts of Russia, is in the land of the Swedish Forestry Model something very exotic and unusual. And now a large amount of corporate stakeholders want to see the same thing happen in Russia.

The starting point for many of the participants I had the honor to travel with on this excursion, was that they previously had been colored by a very flattering picture of the Nordic Forestry Model, at least those who had not yet visited Finland or Sweden. During our trip this image was broken when faced with the grim reality Sweden has to offer; with a lack of environmental consideration, ambiguous legislation and threatened biodiversity.

After a long day’s journey we arrived in Stockholm, where legendary conservationist Anders Delin was waiting for us to hold a lecture on Swedish forestry. After the lecture I left the group to Daniel Rutschman and Olli Manninen, Protect the Forest, who the following day would take them to join their inventories of threatened forests in Stockholm and Uppsala counties. After that I took the train back home, to the forests of southern Närke, and I heartily hope that in cooperation with our Russian friends we will find a way to stop the exploitation of natural forests in Russia, before they are put in the same situation as we are in Sweden today. I find comfort in the words spoken by Alexander Markovsky:

“We have learned a lot during this journey in the Nordic countries, among other things not to adopt the Swedish model of “freedom with responsibility”. For example, in Russia it is illegal not to save buffer zones along water. We want it to remain that way”.

The struggle goes on!

/Viktor Säfve, Protect the Forest

 

Facts about Swedish forests:

Less than 4 percent of the total productive forest land is formally protected.

Less than 2 percent of the productive forest area below the montane forests is formally protected. (Source EPA)

80 percent of the productive forests in Sweden consists of plantations and managed young production forests with an average age of less than 100 years. (Source: Swedish Forest Agency)

 

Plantations of exotic species: For a long time, the Canadian tree species “pinus contorta” has been the dominantly used type of exotic tree species in Sweden, and now cover about 550 000 hectares. This represents about 2 percent of the productive forest area, which is roughly equal in size to all of the formally protected natural forest below below the mountain region. During the period between 1995 – 2006 the average of new plantations amounted to 2500 hectares per year. The last few years, annual plantations of Pinus contorta have increased to about 6 000 hectares. (Source: Swedish Forest Agency)

 

 

 

Nature conservation:

 

 

Leading scientists point out that 20 percent of the productive forest land in Sweden should be exempted forestry and committed to long-term nature conservation, if Sweden is to live up to their environmental objectives and reach the ambition to preserve all naturally occurring species in viable populations. (Source: Research Appeal “Protect Sweden’s Old-Growth Forest”)

 

 

More than 2100 forest and arboreal species are listed on the national Red List. A large proportion of these are threatened or near threatened due to the fact that their habitats are shrinking. The dominant cause is deforestation. (Source: Species Information Centre, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences – SLU)

 

 

According to the Swedish Forestry Agency’s surveys (so-called “polytax-inventories”), which examine how well forestry meets the environmental laws (30 §) of the Forestry Act, 37 percent of all final harvesting do not reach the minimum requirements of the law. Better general consideration for biodiversity, water and soil is needed if Sweden is to meet national and international environmental goals and agreements. (Source: Swedish Forest Agency)

 

 

The Swedish forestry can account for as much as 25 percent of the leakage of mercury into waterways. The leakage will continue for years after the felling. According to an article in the Swedish Forestry Agency’s Journal (No. 3 / 2009), the levels of mercury continue to rise in Swedish fish. Calculations by Kevin Bishop at SLU, show that the soil can leak twice as much mercury and methylmercury after felling as before. The problems are greatest in wet soils and in the context of damage to the soil due to vehicles.

 

 

 


 

Facts on the trip: Trip was organized by SPOK.

 

 

The Russian forest experts’ trip was financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

 

NCOM

Nordic Council of Ministers is not responsible for the content of materials. The author’s opinion may not reflect the official position of the Nordic Council of Ministers.