Environmental measures in Swedish forests will continue to be strong

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Aerial shot of Jarvso, Sweden. [jimmy Svensson/Shutterstock]

In a recent opinion piece, a group of NGOs wrote that Sweden’s forest policy is wreaking havoc. Herman Sundqvist argues that this is wrong on several counts and that the country is working to improve environmental measures in the forest.

Dr Herman Sundqvist is the director-general of Swedish Forest Agency.

Not only do the five NGOs paint a bleak picture of Swedish forests and forestry, this is also directly wrong on several points.

As a government agency, we do not make policy, we implement it. That is how democracy works in Sweden. Much in Swedish forestry and nature conservation can and should be done better, but in my opinion, the Swedish Forest Agency’s work with nature conservation is not only strong, it is also developing further.

The NGOs write that six% of the productive forest today has formal protection. What they do not mention are the other types of forest land which are exempt from forest production and therefore important for conservation and vital for the Swedish environmental quality target Living forests to be achieved.

These are voluntary set-asides, retention areas in felled areas, and unproductive forest land.

The size of forest areas in each category is shown in official Swedish statistics. The voluntary set-asides are particularly interesting. They are comparable to the formally protected forests, both in terms of their total area and their share of high conservation value forests.

Thanks to the continuous improvement and efficiency of forestry, and at the same time increasing environmental considerations, Sweden’s total standing forest stock has almost doubled since the first national forest inventory in the 1920s and increased sharply from 2.1 billion cubic meters in 1955 to today’s 3.5 billion cubic meters.

As an effect of active forest management, the forest land has generated annual net greenhouse gas removals. Since 1990 the net removals have increased by 20%. From a carbon balance perspective, this is very positive.

The EU Habitats Directive has been legally implemented in Sweden and we are currently working on it. However, the legislation is legally unclear and, together with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, we have requested an investigation to have it clarified. Several legal cases are also being tried to provide guidance.

Our Board of Directors has recently decided to replace the current registration of woodland key habitats with a new working method by December 31 this year. Today, the registration is done in conjunction with the supervision of the demand in the Forestry Act that each felling must be notified to the Forest agency.

Supervision of the law aims to check compliance with the law, but woodland key habitats have no connection to the law, instead, it is information to the forest owner about the forest. However, an agency is obliged to separate legal supervision from its other activities.

This is also the main reason for the decision. It also risks eroding public confidence in our supervision. Consequently, we are now working on a new method which will be operational by the end of the year. We will continue to document high conservational value forests, but in a way that is consistent with the legal frameworks.

The Swedish forest policy has two goals, one on production and one on environment. The goals are to be of equal importance. As an agency, we have the mission to work with both.

In recent years we have jointly developed goals on retention with the forest sector and a common government strategy for formal protection of forests with the relevant government agencies.

We have now also developed measures for increased growth in the forests. In order to become climate neutral by 2045, it appears that increased forest growth will be needed to store more carbon in the forest and replace fossil resources.

And yes, the growth in the forests can be increased and the environmental status can be improved. The report covers both aspects and shows how each measure is carefully weighed against other political goals, such as the national environmental quality target in Living forests.

We certainly cannot focus on one aspect only. We are tasked with improving the forests environmental status and increase forest growth. In the end, it is up to each forest owner to determine the goals of his or her forest, entirely according to the freedom under responsibility that permeates Swedish forest policy since the 1990s.

Everything does not work perfectly, efforts are still needed to improve environmental measures in the forest, but we are working on it. Contrary to the description from the five NGOs, I think we are on the right track.

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