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Nordic Forest Policy – a journey through two centuries

This is a contribution from guest authors: Alexia Fridén1, Dalia D’Amato2,3, Hanna Ekström1, Bogomil Iliev4, Akonwi Nebsifu2, Wilhelm May1,Marianne Thomsen4, Nils Droste1.

1 Lund University, Sweden, 2 University of Helsinki, Finland, 3 Finnish Environment Institute, Finland, 4 Copenhagen University, Denmark

Forest ecosystems play a crucial role in providing economic, ecological, and social values, both nationally and internationally. This significance is particularly evident in the forest-rich countries of the Nordics such as Sweden and Finland, where a long history of forest policies unfolds, intertwined with national (and more recently, international) macro-trends such as war, economic boom, and globalization.

In a collaborative effort with researchers from Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, we have developed an open-access database that documents key public forest policies and private initiatives over the past 200 years. By providing this policy database and a related paper called “Mapping two centuries of forest governance in Nordic countries: An open access database”, we seek to enable historical analysis and long-term planning, and thus support evidence-based decision making to address challenges in the Nordics. The database is meant to be a shared resource to be co-owned and collectively developed further by the community. Ultimately, we believe that promoting knowledge sharing and informed policy development can catalyze sustainable forest management, thus benefiting society as a whole. In this blog post, we introduce a short overview of past and present forest policy development in the Nordic countries to showcase key insights coming from the database.

Forests across the Nordics

Forests cover approximately 70% of the land area in Finland and Sweden, 40% in Norway, and just 15% in Denmark. The majority of forests are privately owned, ranging from 69% in Finland to 79% in Norway. Forest-rich Finland and Sweden are both substantial net exporters of wood and paper products, while Norway exports a smaller amount, and Denmark relies on net imports. Productivity remains the primary management objective in Nordic forests, with even-aged management and clear-cutting as the most commonly used practices.

A unique regulatory system known as “the right to public access” is in place across Nordic countries (apart from Denmark), allowing public access to privately owned land. This system facilitates popular activities such as hunting, berry and mushroom picking, camping, hiking, and skiing. Forests and their multiple uses are thus deeply rooted in Nordic traditions and cultural identities. Another important socio-cultural dimension is the presence of the indigenous Sámi, who practice reindeer husbandry in the northern regions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden. However, due to climate change, forest fires, and forestry practices at large, the very survival of reindeer husbandry is threatened.

Scanning the last 200 years

The early 19th century marked the introduction of Nordic Forest policies, primarily aimed at regulating deforestation. Forest Acts were established, imposing limits on logging, and setting standards for sales, ownership, and forest regeneration. As forests became the backbone of national economies in Finland and Sweden, maximizing forest production for strategic industrial sectors became a key political objective, where the state played a strong role in governing the forest.

The 20th century saw the continuation of industrialization and mechanization of forestry, leading to the decrease and specialization of the workforce, turning forestry into a full-time profession. Even-aged management and clear-cutting became dominant practices in the rationalized forest industry, crucial for the Nordic economies. However, in the wake of environmental movements in the 1960s, concerns about industrial pollution, attention to nature conservation, and the need for cultural and recreational uses emerged. While the state still played a strong role, voices from industry and civil society were getting increasingly louder.

In the early 1990s, forest policy began to internationalize as new actors such as the UN and the EU entered the scene. The policy focus shifted from solely focusing on intensive production to sustainable forest management practices with respect to conserving various ecosystem services and biodiversity preservation. Forest management has transformed from a solely national concern to one highly influenced by international standards. Thus, more and more players entered the arena of forest management decisions, each with their own distinct agenda.

Current situation and challenges

Today, we can observe that forest management in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland is increasingly governed through private initiatives such as the market-based certification systems Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Sweden and Denmark were the first Nordic countries to join the FSC in 1996, followed by Finland in 2010 and Norway in 2022. Forest policies have transitioned not only from the national to international domain, but also from traditional state-led “command and control” principles to softer, participatory, private governance approaches. A common characteristic across all Nordic countries is the management principle of “freedom with responsibility”, granting private forest owners greater freedom in managing their forests in exchange for meeting established environmental goals. However, how much freedom versus responsibility should guide the principle is debated.

Additionally, a growing trend of decentralized planning and increased participation of forest owners and other stakeholders can be observed in Nordic Forest policies, as well as a greater emphasis on sustainability in forestry. For example, national forest programs have been implemented in accordance with this trend over the last decade in many of the Nordic countries. These programs intend to ensure a broader integration of stakeholders’ interests in forest management to protect biodiversity and climate, while continuing to deliver forest products and cultural services. While developments toward decentralized, more inclusive forest policy suggest a shift towards including a broader range of interests in forest management, opposing trends challenge these movements. For example, a recent government bill in Sweden (2021/22:58) suggests strengthened property rights to address economic and environmental challenges. This signals a shift towards empowering private forest owners in deciding how to manage their forests. The mounting pressure from international, private, and local arenas to provide a wide range of ecosystem services, has increased the demand for multifunctionality, where the concept of multifunctional forest use has become essential. How to balance out these multiple interests under freedom with responsibility is, however, not an easy task.

Heading towards the future

The challenges of managing forests for multiple uses span various sectorial interests from forestry to tourism as well as multiple levels of governance. There is a need to reconcile EU policy demands for improved conservation efforts in forests with national targets for enhanced forest production. Furthermore, national processes are undergoing decentralization through participatory approaches, incorporating regional and local perspectives to a greater extent. However, these processes still face criticism for disregarding the viewpoints of indigenous groups like the Sámi. While forest raw materials, such as wood and biomass, are central to growing bioeconomy strategies, finding a balance between production and protection remains a central challenge, where, up to this day, production remains the key objective.

To summarize, what we can see is that more and more interests are being considered in forest governance that need to be balanced out. Consequently, policymaking faces increasing challenges within an already complex policy arena. This calls for both innovative and coherent governance alternatives that effectively consider the diverse uses and interests associated with Nordic forests.

While our database cannot give all the answers, it can contribute to creating a shared knowledge base that helps to understand historical developments, showcasing past and present challenges in Nordic Forest policy. We hope this can serve as a foundation for research and policymaking towards sustainable forest management.

This blog post is based on a recently published scientific article: Fridén, A., D’Amato, D., Ekström, H., Iliev, B., Nebasifu, A., May, W., Thomsen, M., Droste, N. 2024. Mapping two centuries of forest governance in Nordic countries: An open access database. Forest Policy Economics, 160: 103142.

Photo credit: Cover image: Matthew Smith; Other photos: Elke Karin Lugert; Sini Tiainen


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