The Swedish model of forestry

Photo: Amanda Berglund

Behind everything we use, there’s a raw material. Or several. They rarely get much attention. Design and function are often more important than what things are made of. But as interest in sustainable development increases, so does awareness of the raw material. In the quest for alternatives to oil and coal, the forest is becoming ever more important. Join us for a look into sustainable production of raw materials in Swedish forestry.

The years have turned the orangey-red paint on the old barn wall into a rusty silver lustre. The planks are over 100 years old, and arranged in a way that indicates respect for, and perhaps even limited access of, materials. The wall is one of many in Sweden, and it portrays a time when the forest and the wood raw material, just like now, played a major, important role.

“Seventy per cent of our country is covered by forest. That’s just under one per cent of all forest growing on Earth. Even so, Sweden accounts for about five per cent of global production of wood products, pulp and paper, and is one of the world’s largest exporters of these products. Sweden is very good at fostering and maximising available resources, in a sustainable way,” says Linda Eriksson, Forest Director at Skogsindustrierna, the Swedish Forest Industries Federation.

The forest and the historical significance of the forest industry are key factors in Sweden’s transformation from a largely poor farming country to an industrial nation with welfare for all. Today, Swedish forest management is at the international fore with regard to technical development and digitalisation, according to Isabelle Bergkvist, Programme Manager for Forest Management at the Swedish research institute Skogforsk: “Forestry is an important industry for Sweden, which means we have invested a lot in development and forest-based research. We are at the cutting edge when it comes to developing technology and digital systems, and being able to use different kinds of data generated in forest management and from the woodland. Sweden is a small country with few people – so we have to be efficient and drive development in that direction.”hat simple.”

Photo: iStockphotos

Many old wooden facades across Sweden reveal how long the forest and its raw materials have been with us, and the important part they play.

Profitability is sustainability

Of Sweden’s 320,000 forest owners, the majority use even-aged forestry. This means that forest management follows a cycle of different phases, just like in agriculture.

“The thing is that the forest’s cycle is far longer, between 60 and 100 years, depending on the land’s fertility and where in Sweden it is. In southern Sweden trees can grow almost twice as fast as in the north,” Eriksson explains.

The cycle begins when the forest owner plants trees, and then clears and thins around them as they grow. Meanwhile the forest is closely monitored to detect threats such as insect pests, storms and fires in time. When the time for harvesting comes, the majority of the trees in the stand are felled on a single occasion. Some trees, usually about five to ten per cent of the volume, are left to preserve flora and fauna habitats, and to make it look less like a clear-cut area. After felling, new trees are planted and the cycle continues.

“Since the early 20th century, it has been law in Sweden to re-forest after harvesting. For every fully grown tree felled, at least two and usually more new ones are planted. This is an important foundation of sustainable forest management, the aim being to ensure that future generations can have and use as much forest as we do,” says Eriksson.

The predominant practice of retention forestry – also known as regeneration felling or an even-aged stand system – is constantly coming under discussion. Isabelle Bergkvist is a firm advocate, based on a sustainability perspective: “The definition of sustainable forestry is that it’s profitable, while also considering vital social and ecological aspects. So profitability is one of the basic requirements for sustainable forest management, and based on the conditions in Swedish forests and with the systems we use at present, retention forestry is the most profitable approach. It’s that simple.”