What happens when laws and regulations changes, or disappears, in a way that give the individual person more freedom and responsibility? In 1994, the Swedish Forestry Act was updated, and many “musts” became recommendations. How has that affected the Swedish forests?

Freedom with responsibility

Until 1994, the Swedish forest owners had to do thinning in due time, both pre-commercial and commercial. If that wasn´t done, the forest owner could end up with a fine. The same was for clear cuts, the forest shouldn´t get too old. Old forest should be replaced by new and vital forest. The forest also had to reach a certain age before it was allowed to clear-cut it.

The Swedish Forest Agency was the “police”. Thousands of foresters were active in the forest, checking, advising, and having personal contact with the private forest owners. A huge project was going on where all forests, both private-, state- and company owned, were inventoried to give the authorities an as exact as possible figure of how much forest we, the nation Sweden, had.

This meant that foresters and rangers were in high demand, until 1994 when the Forestry Act was changed. In 1994, thousands of foresters were therefore fired from the Forest Agency. 1994 happens to be the year I graduated as a forester … Why I never worked as a forester may be explained by the situation at the time.

The taste of freedom

Not everybody liked the old system where the authorities, the police, from the Forest Agency snuck around in everybody’s forest. Many felt that the Agency was interfering with their private business. So, in general most forest owners thought the new Forestry Act was good. Also I thought so, even though it meant that I had wasted years on learning to be a forester. On the other hand, I did learn something in forester school meaning that I also knew about forest management without, or with smoother, laws and regulations. The Forestry Act didn´t disappear, it just became freer for the forest owners to make their own decisions.

But was it only for good? What has happened in the Swedish forest since then? Is there a difference compared to before 1994?

Hard thinning

Somewhere along the way the adviser’s role was taken over, from the Forest Agency, by the wood buyers. From 1994 and onward that was ok as forest management no longer was so tightly controlled by the Agency. As one might figure out, the wood buyers want wood so, their advice quite often ends up in a recommendation to cut.

Many forest owners and contractors can testify that thinning often is made very hard these days. Before 1994, the first commercial thinning was seen as an action that didn´t generate any profit. On the contrary, it could often end up in being a cost, an investment for the future forest that should give much more profit. Today, all first commercial thinning is expected to give a profit to the forest owner.

To achieve that, more and thicker trees are taken. Many also waits to make the first commercial thinning in hope that there should be more wood to take. This often creates problems with snow- and storm damages after the thinning as the trees are too thin and high. After a hard thinning the trees have no support from other trees and easily breaks due to snow and wind.

Also, the distance between the strip roads has shrunk, partly due to that manual felling in the mid-zones between the strip roads nowadays is very unusual. The harvester is supposed to reach the whole stand and therefore the strip roads must be closer to each other. This means that more area is “clear-cut” in thinning than before which also means that more trees are felled.

All this put together means that less trees than what is optimal for the soil are left to form the future stands. In turn, it means that the forest owner gets less by the time for the second commercial thinning, not to mention the clear-cut when the real profit is supposed to come.

Freedom with responsibility

Perfectly thinned?

Young clear-cuts

The youngest allowed forest to clear-cut in south Sweden is today 45 years, in the north it´s 65 years. I haven´t found any corresponding figures for north Sweden before 1994, but in south Sweden the forest had to be at least 65 years old by the time for clear-cut back then. That is 20 years older than today’s lowest allowed age. A qualified guess is that it is about the same difference in north Sweden as well.

It seems that today’s advisers, the wood buyers, give the same advice for clear-cuts as for thinning: “Cut today and not tomorrow.” Forestry has become a short-term economy like most other businesses. The question is what the long-term consequences of those actions will be?

Long-term economy – What is right and wrong?

In the old school, the school who taught me forestry, it was very clear: Forestry is a long-term project. All actions through time, planting, thinning, etc., aims to make the clear-cut as profitable as possible when the time comes. In the northern hemisphere that means that investments made today will not give profit until the next generation (unless you plant your forest when you are very young).

The new school seems to be more finance controlled: Better make money today than tomorrow. A classic industrial way to see it if you ask me. The forest is no industry but it´s controlled and adapted by and for the industry – at least here in Sweden. Maybe that´s the explanation?

And maybe that´s the way it should be? After all, everything changes, so why not forest management? The theory “a dollar today is better than a dollar tomorrow”, that actually was mentioned in forester school in the early 90’s, is maybe the way to think, and act? We don´t know about tomorrow so maybe it´s better to earn what we can today? Even if one doesn´t agree, and it may be difficult to think in new ways, it may be a good idea to at least give it a thought.

What will the long-term consequences be?

We will not see the long-term consequences of this strategy until later. The forest grows in its pace whatever we or the industry says or does. One can only hope that it will not affect the economy of the coming generations forest owners negative. If it does, we should be lucky if we are not there to see it.

There is another issue to be mentioned here: Carbon storage! The public and authorities are becoming more and more aware of the forest’s important role as a carbon storage. But for the forest to store as much carbon as possible, it must be dense, vital, and growing. That means it must be managed to get the optimal growth for the soil it´s standing on. When you thin too hard, the growth decreases, and the forest binds less carbon. In the future forest management this will most likely be taken into consideration if the EU and other authorities get their will through …

To be or not to be responsible – that´s the question

Responsible for what? is another question. For the future forests (children and grandchildren), your economy today, and tomorrow, the environment, for the forest industry and its employees, or for the public who wants wood and paper products?

I think to manage your forest responsibly, is to use common sense, experience, and knowledge. Freedom is good, but it shouldn’t be abused. If your forest has been managed in a sustainable way for generations, just keep doing that. If you need money one year, cut some more that year and don´t cut anything the next year. Common sense – it´s better than any laws, acts, or regulations.

 

Photo: Per Jonsson