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A Green Veneer: Sweden’s Forestry Industry Gets Low Marks Despite Reputation

By Erik Hoffner A recent reporting assignment concerning Sweden’s forest industry took me from Stockholm to areas far to the north and west, where the country’s forestry model, trumpeted as the most sustainable forest cutting system in the world, was on full display. Earlier this year the Swedish Forest Agency revealed a study showing that...

By Erik Hoffner

A recent reporting assignment concerning Sweden’s forest industry took me from Stockholm to areas far to the north and west, where the country’s forestry model, trumpeted as the most sustainable forest cutting system in the world, was on full display.

Earlier this year the Swedish Forest Agency revealed a study showing that over a third of all the recent cutting activities (37 percent!) violated the tenets of the official forestry model by prioritizing production over conservation. I wanted to see the logging for myself, avoiding any kind of official tour and instead traveling on my own, also meeting activists who watchdog the industry, along the way.

 

Clearcuts like this at the site of a formerly old and biologically rich forest make conservationists like Olli Manninen cringe. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

 

Restrictive federal regulations on logging were replaced in 1993 by an act requiring that every logging operation balance production with conservation, allowing companies to police themselves and operate under the act’s “freedom with responsibility” framework.

That this model does not work is perhaps not surprising: voluntary programs like it rarely do, no matter what country you’re from. But this was Sweden, I thought. If anyone can do it, they can. In the capital city, I had watched long lines of bike commuters sharing equal space on the roads with sleek buses – even in driving rain – which are powered by gas synthesized from garbage. I even enjoyed the use of both recycling and composting bins in my hotel room.

But trees are Sweden’s most valuable natural resource beside iron ore, and paired with a long Scandinavian tradition of utilizing the forest, logging is therefore widespread and accounts for an important slice of the economy.

 

A typical clearcut in Sweden removes up to 95% of the trees, leaving behind little but deep tire ruts. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

 

Even if its model does not function according to plan, could Sweden’s forestry still be sustainable, though? No activists I met would say so, but surprisingly, neither would officials with the government or the industry. They all agreed with NGOs like Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and biologists like Ulf Swensson, who told me he was terrified and ashamed by the pace of the cutting, saying instead that no, their industry is not sustainable, but is rather “heading that way.”

What I witnessed personally was widespread clearcutting — up to 95 percent of the trees (and sometimes even their stumps) removed from a typical plot for lumber, paper, and fuel — and heavy equipment damage to formerly wild forests, which are often replanted with long rows of single species of trees.

The replacement of natural forests with tree farms is a disaster for biodiversity. That’s clear, and the country’s list of threatened and endangered species correspondingly rises steadily.

The hopeful upside is that citizens are increasingly acting on the widespread sentiment that conservation is more important than industry, and are training each other to become biodiversity sleuths, nosing out forest tracts that are key to biodiversity by identifying rare species and alerting authorities and forestry companies alike before the harvesters crank up. I spent a few days with one of these teams and I never ate so many wild blueberries in my life.

 

Forest campaigners have trained themselves to identify rare species of plants, fungi, lichens, and animals inhabiting forests slated for cutting, and can sometimes halt logging company plans with such evidence. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

 

Still, the activists I spoke with implored me to be very wary of forest products originating in their country, even those certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, whom they accuse of greenwash. “Species will go extinct to make these companies money. They’re stealing our heritage, our nature. It’ll be gone in a generation, ” one told me.

It’s true that just because it’s Swedish, the country’s industry should not automatically be given top marks. Rather, it’s countries like Sweden, which can and ought to lead on issues like sustainable forestry, which invite the most scrutiny.

Read Erik Hoffner’s original report: Sweden’s Green Veneer Hides Unsustainable Logging Practices

Erik Hoffner is a freelance photojournalist and Outreach Coordinator for the award-winning magazine, Orion. His work appears in Earth Island Journal, Grist, and The Sun. See more images and a video of the logging in Sweden from his trip here.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the independent freelance journalist Erik Hoffner, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to respond with their views and comments in the comments section below.

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David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn