How Sweden's Logging Practices Affect the Environment

Approximately 2.7 million forests in Sweden lack formal protection.

Clear-cut forests

Charlie Rogers / Getty Images

Sweden is known as one of the world’s most environmentally conscious countries. The International Energy Agency (IEA) called the country a global leader in building a low-carbon economy. Sweden's logging practices and policies, on the other hand, require a closer look.

Forests in Sweden are coming down at record-breaking rates. Approximately 2.7 million hectares of the forested area below the mountain region in Sweden lack formal protection. In areas, the cut forests are being replaced with even-aged, limited-species trees, which have put a strain on biodiversity.

The main authority responsible for monitoring compliance with environmental and forestry-related legislation is the Swedish Forest Agency (SFA). They found that some forest owners do not always notify the SFA of their intentions to harvest trees; many fail to meet requirements regarding nature conservation, as well. Other problems that contribute to the logging numbers include the lack of cultural preservation of forests and reforestation in connection to harvesting.

History of Logging in Sweden

Sweden's forests play a major role in its economy. The country has just below 1% of the world’s forested area, and yet it provides 10% of the sawn timber, pulp, and paper that is traded in the world market. While this wasn't always the case, logging in Sweden has been commonplace for centuries.

1100s-1800s

In earlier times, forests were cleared for farming and domestic purposes, such as using wood for fuel and timber. Forests were also hunting grounds and used to produce charcoal, tar, and potash. In the 13th century, timber from Swedish forests was used in the mining industry; this continued until the 19th century.

Raw materials from forests helped produce iron and steel, build ships, make glass, and was used for other industrial activities. During the 1400s, timber was so widely available, therefore the government did not see a need to regulate logging.

1800s

In the mid-1800s, the forest products industry increased the demand for sawn logs and raw materials for the production of pulp and paper. In 1850, timber exports accounted for 15% of the total value of Sweden’s exports. This increased demand transformed Sweden from being an agrarian society to a quickly developing industrialized nation. The exploitation of resources and the lack of reforestation policies resulted in totally depleted forest land by the end of the 1800s. Many parts of the south of Sweden were completely devoid of forests as an increased population needed more land for agriculture, while the northern forests grew depleted due to selective logging to meet industry demands..

1900s-2000s

In 1903, Parliament passed the Forestry Act, which initially focused on the regeneration of the forests. The Forestry Act was highly criticized for flora and fauna not being sufficiently considered; it has been revised many times since 1903.

During this time, regional forest service organizations were also created to support afforestation and reforestation policies. In 1905, a forestry authority was set up in each county, and in 1915, forest education was implemented into Swedish universities. The Swedish National Forest Inventory was started in 1923 and government regulation of the forestry sector intensified after World War II.

The stock of forests increased by 85% after the National Forest Inventory was created. This was due to a combination of factors, including policy determination, forest science development, and the creation of family forest associations built on land tenure rights. In Sweden, the forest is a family asset, and there are approximately 200,000 families with farms of more than 50 hectares. Although stocks of the forest increased, they were not biodiverse because of Sweden’s even-aged forest management system. Rare species of flora and fauna have completely disappeared from Sweden's forests due to habitat loss.

Laws and Policies

The 1993 Forestry Act, which is still in place today, states that Sweden forests must produce a “sustainable good yield while maintaining biological diversity.” It states that those who cut down the forests have an obligation to consider nature, cultural heritage, reindeer husbandry, and other interests.

However, under this act, logging is still not strictly regulated, and responsible logging has been made voluntary. In 2010, more than one-third of the trees that were cut down did not comply with the requirements of the Swedish Forestry Act. This voluntary system has been highly criticized by conservationists around the world.

In 2011, the SFA released prescriptions and advice on how forest owners should responsibly manage forests, but this had little lasting impact. In 2013, the Strategy for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was created in response to the worsening deforestation problem in Swedish forests. In 2014, the National Forest Programme was established to increase the efficiency of implementing forest-related policies and to increase public participation. However, the program seems to prioritize growing the economy over sustainably managing forests, stating “Forests...will contribute to creating jobs and sustainable growth throughout the country, and to the development of a growing bioeconomy.”

Today's Practices

In recent years, Sweden has claimed that its forestry model is one of the most sustainable in the world, with around 45% of its forested area (24 million to 57 million acres) certified as being sustainably managed. However, there were still acres of clear-cuts that removed up to 95% of trees and buffer zones around waterways that were only two meters wide, according to an article from 2011. Additionally, areas that were clear-cut were replanted with monocultures, such as spruce or pine trees; this had a negative effect on biodiversity and resulted in habitat loss.

Another problem with the forestry management system is that the SFA, which is supposed to be the authority responsible for monitoring compliance with rules, is understaffed. Therefore, forestry companies and landowners end up making the decisions about how to manage the country’s forests themselves.

Additionally, illegal logging—defined as any logging activity that does not meet the requirements regarding nature conservation, cultural heritage preservation, or reforestation—has been a problem for Sweden in years prior. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Sweden is one of the European Union’s leading importers of illegal timber.

Logging continues to limit the number of old-growth forests and destroy wildlife habitats. More than 2,100 threatened species depend directly on Sweden’s old-growth forests, but the number of threatened and endangered species on the country’s Red List has risen. Revised logging regulations, however, may be one of the keys to improving conditions.