Why are Sweden’s forests managed the way they are?

Sweden’s forests have one of the most mixed ownership structures in the world, with owners from private individuals and companies to government authorities. This also allows quite a lot of legal leeway in how the forests are managed. So why is it that so many owners choose to manage and harvest their forest in the same way? How has tradition developed into today’s standard, and why does this suit Sweden?

The Swedish forest tradition hails back hundreds of years, and has developed through the ages. To try to find out why things are the way they are, with patch clearcutting as the predominant management method, we talked to Dan Binkley, Professor at Colorado State University and Honorary Doctor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Isabelle Bergkvist, Programme Manager for Forest Management at Swedish research institute Skogforsk. Together, they provide a scientific explanation.

Dan Binkley has a long background in forest productivity and nutrient cycling. For more than 35 years he has been a professor focusing on forest issues at Duke University and Colorado State University. "For me, the strongest hallmark of Swedish forestry is that you invest so much money in nurturing and caring for your forest, both while it's growing and after it's been harvested – even though it grows relatively slowly compared to other countries further south," says Dan Binkley.

"Another thing is that the infrastructure is so well developed in Sweden. If I have a forest property here in the Colorado mountains and want to sell a bit of forest, no one will want to buy it as the nearest place for refinement is 100 or even 200 kilometres away. We don't have the local infrastructure here, with road networks and relatively nearby industries, like you often do in Sweden," he continues.

Retention forestry is the norm

Retention forestry has been the norm in Sweden since around the 1950s. This essentially means planting, clearing, thinning and eventually harvesting the entire section of forest, in cycles of about 60–100 years. According to Dan Binkley, there are many reasons for this.

"All kinds of aspects are important. You avoid the risk of damage, as driving machines through the forest puts a lot of strain on the land. It's also easy to damage the trees you would otherwise leave behind. What's more, the cost of harvesting forest is far lower if you fell it all at once. Finally, trees that are relatively young or middle-aged will generally grow faster with this method. A rotating patch clearcutting approach will normally lead to 10–15 per cent higher growth, which means more forest raw material over a longer period," Dan Binkley explains.

Isabelle Bergkvist is Programme Manager for Forest Management at the Swedish research institute Skogforsk. She agrees with Dan Binkley on the benefits of patch clearcutting.

"For forestry to be sustainable it has to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable – so profitability is one of the basic requirements for sustainable forest management. Based on the conditions in Swedish forests and with the systems we use at present, patch clearcutting is the most efficient and profitable management approach. It also enables greater variation in the forest landscape as regards age, care of nature and culture, and the mix of tree species, as we can govern what we plant. It's that simple," says Isabelle Bergkvist.

The fact that a small country like Sweden, with just under 1 per cent of the earth's forests, accounts for 10 per cent of all the timber, pulp and paper used internationally suggests a successful concept when it comes to fostering forest raw materials, i.e. the forest as a resource.

"A lot of today's investment in forest growth around the world is otherwise made in more intensively managed forest plantations. In Brazil, for example, the typical circulation time for a eucalyptus plantation is just six years, by which time the trees are already 30 metres tall," says Dan Binkley.

Forestry for maximum climate benefit

Just like Dan Brinkley, Isabelle Bergkvist of Skogforsk has long experience in forest research, and they both follow the debate on carbon dioxide balance: whether the forest should remain standing to sequester carbon, or if it is better to manage it actively and thus produce a sustainable, renewable raw material to replace coal and oil. She says:

"If you let the forest evolve into a natural forest, you have sequestration up to a certain extent, but after that a balance is achieved, whereby forest dies and emits carbon at the same rate as it absorbs it. So you're sequestering carbon up to a maximum level. If the forest is managed under the patch clearcutting method, you have no sequestered carbon after harvesting. In fact carbon is emitted when the carbon that was sequestered in the ground is released, but with higher production you can still sequester more carbon in the long term than in a natural forest. Moreover, you're using a wood raw material rather than, say, coal and oil, and this has a very positive substitution effect."

Since the Swedish patch clearcutting approach to forestry also leads to more forest raw material to replace fossil raw materials, the gains are many. The result is more sustainable products, and also improved economic sustainability. Dan Binkley returns to the tropical forests, which sequester more carbon as they grow more quickly. Even so, he too is careful to emphasise that what happens after harvesting is the key factor.

"Superficially speaking, tropical forest absorbs more carbon dioxide. But if you look deeper, far more detailed reporting of what happens to the wood raw material afterwards is needed to give any kind of useful answer. What products is the wood made into, and how long can they, for their part, contribute to carbon sequestration?"

What will society need in 100 years?

From his office in Colorado, Dan Binkley follows forest developments internationally. He monitors trends and developments, and believes that this is the very challenge Sweden faces: ascertaining what society wants, when the cycles involved can be anything up to 100 years.

"It's important to ask what society wants from its forests. If society's interests change with time, it's important to be able to keep up. If sustainable, large-scale production of forest raw materials is what's important, Sweden and Scandinavia are well placed to successfully manage supply and demand. On the other hand, if what the people of Sweden and Scandinavia want changes with time, and more emphasis is put on biodiversity and the value of really old forests, more research may well be needed to look at what these future forests will look like," Dan Binkley explains.

Having said that, he adds that responsible forest management, ensuring that harvested trees are made into as sustainable products as possible, is important right now, and is something Sweden is good at. That, and maintaining long-term planning of the nation's forest management and forest resources.

"I think that Sweden may be one of the most advanced countries in the world when it comes to understanding growth predictions, and how production is linked to infrastructure, jobs and economics."

In many ways optimal, sustainable forest management like this requires a lot of information to be properly collected and collated, if the forests really are to be utilised in the best possible way, considering all aspects of sustainability.

"I believe that collating and using this information is one of the areas where Sweden can lead the world, and help others to understand how to get the most out of their landscape. It's certainly something that other countries can emulate," Dan Binkley concludes.