In Sweden, the forest lacks naturalness

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By car on Swedish roads, it is inevitable to have the impression that the forest is everywhere, with its dark mottling which extends to the horizon, its army of trunks which scroll on the side aisles. It occupies 70% of the territory – a record in Europe shared with Finland – and penetrates into the heart of cities. Theright of public access, free access to nature is a constitutional right which allows everyone to explore it, pick berries and mushrooms.

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Like many of his fellow citizens, the biologist Sebastian Kirppu has therefore got into the habit of stopping in a parking lot, a little at random, to sink into the foliage. Except that most often he finds himself in a “field of leeks”, rather than in a real forest: “First clue: there are no dead trees, he notices immediately. Then look at these trees aligned… They are always the same conifers, and the delicacy of their bark indicates that they are between 40 and 50 years old… They are however the same size as the trees of natural forests, centuries old. This is because they were planted on dry marshes, or ancient grasslands. They grow very quickly and their wood is not of good quality: they will end up in pulp. “

They grow very fast and their wood is not of good quality: they will end up in pulp.

Sebastian Flea, biologists

This irrefutable observation can be made in the majority of the massifs of the country. Sweden was built by consuming its forest – which supplied forges, glassworks, then paper mills – and has done so for centuries. But at the start of 2021, it is as if part of the public opinion has realized this. According to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden has only 3.4 million hectares of forest over 140 years old, or 12.6% of the total.

And these oases are threatened: a series of daily surveys News of the day shows that ancient forests continue to be decimated. Documentaries make the same accusations on the screens. Even Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, recently observed when presenting his climate plan that in Sweden “the forests are in worse condition than before”, and advised him to adapt “his forestry strategy to the challenge of rising temperatures ”.

Skatudden Reserve

If apparently a young forest stores as much carbon and has the same virtues as an old one, a “plantation” has nothing to do with the complex biotope offered by a “real” forest. To demonstrate this, Sebastian Kirppu takes us to the Skatudden reserve, about a hundred kilometers north of Stockholm. The ground is more rugged, covered with moss, and walking is hampered by birches, spruces and pines of all sizes.

To estimate their age, the biologist relies less on his hand drill than on the presence of control species: “You see these dark patches on the bark, with white spots… These are lichens which only grow on the spruces of over a century. And that is Goodyera repens, he adds, unearthing a seedling in the middle of the moss, a small orchid typical of old forests. If you cut down the trees, it disappears. ” But what interests him even more is deadwood: “In our boreal forests, it is in these decaying trees that we find the greatest biodiversity. They support hundreds of species of lichens, fungi and insects. By decomposing very slowly, they make it possible to have this rich and thick soil, which is one of the most important CO2 storage areas on our planet. ”

Pest fires

If biodiversity makes it easier to adapt to the upheavals caused by climate change, its absence may partly explain the scourges that befall Sweden. During the summer of 2018, the country was caught off guard by fires that consumed 25,000 hectares of forest, a phenomenon rather unusual in these latitudes. Trees are also weakened by the bark beetle, a xylophagous beetle doped by heat waves but also by the monoculture of the same tree, which allows accelerated propagation. According to Skogsstyrelsen, the Swedish Forestry Agency, 8 million cubic meters of timber were infested last year. For the forester and expert Peter Lindgren, “if the logging had been carried out taking into account biological principles, biodiversity – and not just yields – the effects of these disasters would have been much weaker”.

This debate, in any case, polarizes Sweden, a country which sells itself as an environmental model but where forest products represent 10% of exports, 120,000 jobs, and where the state is the largest of all owners. The industry refutes any failure, and puts forward its management which allows a country with 1% of the forests to provide 10% of the wood and paper used in the world. She recalls that Sweden, especially in its southern half, lost a large part of its trees during the industrial revolution and that today it has twice as much forest area as a century ago.

Clear cuts

The defenders of the environment, for their part, demand an immediate end to the exploitation of old forests, and rely on the reports of the Swedish media which denounce the persistence of clearcutting especially in Lapland, without the agreement of mobilized populations. “In Sweden, only 6% of the forest is classified as a reserve or a national park. Elsewhere, you can do whatever you want, ”denounces Sebastian Kirppu.

A forest survey commissioned by the government, and made public on November 30, suggested the protection of a 100 km wide strip following the mountain range that separates Sweden from Norway. According to Agneta Ögren, who supervised it, it is “the last area in Western Europe where we can protect such an ecosystem, with enormous biological diversity”. The compensation paid to owners would amount to 1.5 billion francs. An important sum, but that Sweden, which “demanded that the tropical forests of Amazonia and Borneo be preserved”, must also invest to safeguard its own heritage.