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“Working with forest owners is a continuous learning process” – interview with Elisabet Andersson

As part of the European Network Integrate, Elisabet Andersson is the Swedish focal point responsible for questions of forest conservation. We spoke with her about the role Swedish forests play for the economy, what measures are taken to both to preserve and to increase biodiversity, and how the Swedish Forest Agency is aiming at improving collaboration between forest professionals, policy makers and societal actors.

Elisabet, would you tell us a bit about your background and about your role within the Swedish Forest Agency?  

Elisabet climbing a tree (photo: Elisabet Andersson)

I am an ecologist with a main responsibility for forest-water related matters, for instance the implementation of the EU water framework directive in the forest landscape. My daily work involves capacity building activities (both at the agency and for forest owners and managers), supporting my colleagues and the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise in forest-water matters, keeping up with new research, spread and integrate new knowledge into practice in various ways.  

I got my master’s degree in biology at Umeå University, specializing in botany, landscape ecology and conservation biology. As a PhD student, I focused on riparian ecology, studying the role of hydrochory for riparian plant communities in large free flowing boreal rivers. After my PhD I worked at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences as an extension officer for four years. Then, in 2004, I got the job as ecologist at the Forest Agency, with a main focus on forests and water. 

One challenge of forest management in Sweden is forest ownership. Since half of Sweden’s forest land is owned by private individuals, conservation measures that are enforced from top down might be seen as a violation of property rights. How do you collaborate with forest owners and how do you ensure that the same goals are pursued, and the same measures are followed so that you work together? 

The state as well as the forest owners work with a variety of conservation measures, from the general environmental consideration (regulated in the Forestry Act), via voluntary set asides, to formal protection according to the Environmental Act (here are also county administration boards and municipalities involved). Depending on what measure you consider, the collaboration may vary. Forest felling restrictions and formal protection in relation to property rights have been hot topics lately. In media it is often referred to as a “forest-war”. There are discussions on a political level on how to progress. At the end of 2021, a new forest policy was presented by the Government. We do not know the consequences of that yet. Also, several court decisions were made last year concerning forest felling restrictions because of protected species and valuable forest habitats. Some of the decisions have been appealed and we have to wait for the outcome of those processes to see in what direction they guide us. 

Forest landscape in the North of Sweden (photo: Elisabet Andersson)

Collaboration between the Forest Agency and individual forest owners may take place at consultations, at landowner meetings, training courses, or other activities in specific projects or so. However, we do not reach everyone in person. Other collaboration processes take place on national and regional levels, with representatives from forest companies and forest owners associations. The collaboration processes may for example lead to environmental consideration objectives that all parts agree on, common indicators with set goals for environmental consideration (or other measures) with the purpose to motivate forest owners to take concrete actions when they manage their forests. 

To ensure that conservation measures go in the right direction, randomly chosen forest felling areas are inventoried in the field with a specific focus on the environmental consideration taken (buffer zones, biotopes with high biological values, dead wood, stream passages etc). Felling areas where injunctions and prohibitions have been decided, are also inspected. Inventories using helicopter are also carried out, but not every year and not in all regions. Pictures taken from the helicopter are used as a basis for dialogue with forest companies’ managers as well as field staff. It is important to give feedback to the forest owners on the outcome of inventories, as a part of a continuous learning process. That dialogue usually starts with the forest owner/manager describing the measures taken at a felling area, reflecting on what went well and what could have been carried out in a better way. The strong, successful development of digital tools has been helpful in many ways, both for the Agency and for forest owners. They are used for counseling, planning, monitoring and analysis etc. 

What activities do you implement to increase the biodiversity of Swedish forests to sequester more carbon, provide a broader range of ecosystem services, and also better manage the impacts of climate change in the future?  

We have ongoing measures both to preserve and to increase biodiversity. Formal protection and voluntary set asides are two obvious ones. Then there are activities in the pipeline. “Increased Sustainable Forestry” is one (hopefully) upcoming campaign which was suggested by the Government. However, the budget for 2022 was not accepted by the Parliament. The campaign was supposed to include all the issues raised in the question above. Hopefully, we can still get a special assignment from the Government later this year, to prepare for a campaign. Besides that, there are different ongoing projects focusing on biodiversity (i.e. GRIP on LIFE IP  and related projects), preservation or restoration forest habitats with high biological or cultural values (i.e. NOKÅS and Skogens miljövärden economic subsidies ). There are also initiatives taken by both companies and individual forest owners to restore habitats, to add or create important structures etc. 

Environmental NGOs criticize, that Sweden is still largely covered by plantations instead of mixed and biodiverse forests. How do you counter these arguments, especially since the forest-based bioeconomy plays such an important role in Sweden? 

Forest landscape in the South of Sweden (photo: Elisabet Andersson)

I say that it is a question about how you define “plantation”. The most common way to regenerate after final felling is by planting new trees (more than 80 % of the area, the rest is sown or naturally regenerated). However, many plants emerge from natural regeneration also in the planted area, so together the planted trees and the naturally regenerated trees form the new stand. Cleaning and thinning measures later on hen heavily influence the composition of the future stand. I think that intensive cleaning and thinning measures, combined with fertilization, to form fast growing single species stands could be considered “plantations”. The majority of managed Swedish forests could possibly be classified as some kind of “semi-plantations” or “semi-natural”, depending on what focus you have. 

How do you imagine the future of Swedish forests? 

The situation concerning the Swedish forests is somewhat confusing at the moment, it is difficult to see a clear route ahead. I am sure that the Swedish forests, and forestry, will continue to be very important in many ways, but we seem to be in the middle of a crossroad with several different paths to choose between. Hopefully things will get clearer during this year concerning the main direction, or directions, towards the future. 


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