Forest owner Lars-Erik Levin does not seem like an environmental villain. As he walks through his 80 hectares of forest in southern Sweden, he identifies gold crowns with their song, points out a cauliflower mushroom and shows the aspen in his wood on which grouse feed. This year he has picked more than 100 kg of chanterelles and even more blueberries.
But this is the part of the property he manages through so-called continuous cover forestry, where he claims that he only cuts down trees with trunks so thick that his arms no longer reach around them. On the other side of his farm there is a wide open space the size of two football pitches, where he cut the forest to the stumps five years ago. Little remains now but grass, brambles and young, waist-high spruce. “Animals and birds have legs and wings, they can move a little,” he protests when asked what happened to wildlife.
“It’s devastating,” says Magnus Bondesson, a local officer at the Swedish Forest Agency. “It is not good for biodiversity.”
Clear-cutting, which sees a total forest area a third larger than Greater London every year in Sweden, has become a hot political issue after the EU new forest strategy in July said that the technology should “approach with caution” and called on Sweden to protect more of its forests.
Forestry policy is now threatening to cause clashes with the European Commission. The Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven explained in a speech to open parliament that “forestry should not be micro-regulated from Brussels”.
The issue also threatens the government’s stability. The Social Democrats ‘coalition partner, the Green Party, refused last week to bow to a demand from the Agrarian Center Party that forest owners’ property rights be strengthened, as part of the price to support the government.
The question is even to divide the green party itself and put those who see forest products as the key to the green transition against those who want to protect biodiversity at all costs.
“I describe it as environmental degradation, the most serious damage that is going on in Sweden,” says Rebecka Le Moine, the radical runner-up in last year’s party leadership competition.
Unlike many other European countries, Sweden does not have a border for felling, which means that areas of more than 100 hectares can be cut at once, which threatens the 2000 red-listed species that are linked to the country’s forests.
Le Moine is pushing for its party at its annual meeting in October to join a campaign to limit cuts to two hectares and to push for wood used for heating to no longer be seen as renewable and instead taxed on its emissions, such as coal or oil.
Maria Gardfjell, the party’s spokesperson for forestry, who is herself a forest owner, admits that the party is divided.
“If you look at the Green Party’s policy, it is not the same as you hear from Rebecka. That is not our policy, she says. “If you take the climate law that we have in Sweden, you can see that we will need forest products as substitutes for plastic, clothing, fuel and almost all types of products. But at the same time, we must promote biodiversity much, much more. ”
On Levin’s property, he goes from his lush, naturally acting continuous cover forest to an area he planted with spruce 30 years ago. It comes as a jerk. While in the continuous coverage area there are trees of all ages, and in places thick undergrowth, the spruce forest is a plantation, the trees evenly distributed and all of the same age.
“It’s a little darker,” says Bondesson, while acknowledging that biodiversity is “zero.” It would not feed a mouse. There are mushrooms, but there they are. ”
However, it is not clear which of the two areas provides the most environmental benefits. “The spruce produces 15 to 20 cubic meters of wood per hectare, and the continuous cover gives five,” explains Bondesson. Do you understand the climate impact? How much more carbon dioxide does it bind? ”
According to Tomas Lundmark, professor of forest ecology management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, harvesting forest by felling and then growing trees of the same age takes on average up to 30% more carbon than if you use continuous cover forest technology, perhaps even more.
Trees 30 to 50 years old, like those in Levin’s plantation, absorb most of the carbon, while forests that have been untouched for hundreds of years tend to be small net releases. This is the industry’s great claim to sustainability.
The total volume of standing timber stored in Sweden’s forests has more than doubled in the last century and its forests still absorb 48 million tonnes of CO2 a year when they grow, with another 7 million stored in sustainable products made from Swedish wood. All in all, that is enough to make Sweden effectively carbon neutral.
The supply of biofuels in Sweden has tripled in the last 40 years and now provides close to 30% of its total energy supply, which helps to halve the consumption of petroleum products.
For Le Moine, however, none of this is worth losing its natural habitat. “They keep telling us that we have more forests now than we had before,” she says. “My answer is that we have never had so many trees, but never had so few forest ecosystems.”
Levin says that when he started with continuous cover forestry in the 1980s, he had to keep it secret because it was considered by the Swedish Forest Agency as “almost criminal”. Now others are beginning to see the benefits. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “It produces money and berries and mushrooms, and it’s not that much work.”
But he grimaces about the mention of activists like Protect the Forest (Save the Forest) or Le Moine, who clearly want to stop.
“They do not understand that the forest has to do its job,” he says. “They have to make money for people, so people can live out here.”