Of Ashes and Evergreens Skip to content

Of Ashes and Evergreens

Words by
Erik Pomrenke

Photography by
Golli

We come to the windswept, barren highland for solitude. To be alone, away from it all. The immense openness of Iceland’s landscape is only rivalled by the silence that can be found there, punctuated by sharp winds and distant bird calls. But the ash and gravel that cover this subarctic desert hide a story. Out here, so far removed from people, we stand among the scars of human settlement. We come to nature to escape ourselves but find instead a mirror. We are not so alone in this strange and empty place. This, too, is manmade.

hekla forest project

New growth

A new footbridge spanning the Þjórsá river in South Iceland opened in 2021. This was celebrated by hikers eager to further explore this scenic region of Iceland, but it also inspired a different kind of celebration; it was the first major construction project in a millennium to be built with timber sourced exclusively from Iceland.

Last year also saw several other milestones in Icelandic forestry, with a Sitka spruce near Kirkjubæjarklaustur, South Iceland reaching 30 m [98 ft], a post-Ice Age first, and forest coverage finally surpassing 2% of Iceland’s total land area. Admittedly, this figure includes shrublands as well but, in 1990, forest coverage only accounted for 7,000 hectares [17,000 acres]. The figure now stands around 45,000 hectares [110,000 acres], more than a five-fold increase over the course of 30 years. And where just decades ago only a handful of sites were considered viable for forestry, Icelandic forests are growing in places once considered beyond the pale of the habitable world.

hekla forest project

Icelandic forestry is no longer the oxymoron it once was, but as it grows in importance as well as size, so also grow disagreements about its future and methods. At the centre of the debate is the coming merger (or rather, reunion: the once-united agencies were split apart in 1914) of the Icelandic Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service, which has thrown some of these disagreements into sharper relief, including the use of non-native species and the role of the carbon credit market in Icelandic forestry. No matter their differences, everyone who participates in the afforestation effort’s goal is simple: to reclaim a part of the original landscape. One of Iceland’s greatest successes in the field is Hekla Forest (Hekluskógar), nestled in the once-lush Þjórsárdalur valley.

It is generally agreed that prior to human settlement, some 20 to 40 per cent of Iceland was forested. The Book of Settlements states that “there were forests everywhere between the mountains and shore.”

The Hekla Forest Project

Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and since forestry efforts began in the region, it has seen five major eruptions. The birch woodlands around Hekla are quite resilient and can survive eruptions, even when only the tops of the trees are left sticking out of the newly deposited ash and tephra. This is important because other vegetation such as grass and low-lying shrubs do not survive eruptions. Forests, especially tall ones, form durable shelters which prevent ash from spreading and forming deserts on nearby land.

hekla forest project

Experience has shown that Hekla eruptions regularly deposit half-metre-thick ash layers up to 10 km [6 mi] from the volcano. With the next eruption of Hekla only a question of when, not if, the Hekla Forest is also an important investment in the future of this region of Iceland.

“By the turn of the century, forests in this region of Iceland had been reduced to a few isolated patches along Þjórsárdalur valley and Búrfell mountain,” explains Hreinn Óskarsson, former director of the Hekla Forest Project. “But thanks to afforestation efforts, the region is now one of Iceland’s largest wooded areas, extending up Hekla and the surrounding slopes to an elevation of 600 metres.” For the previous generation of Icelandic foresters, elevations above 200 metres were considered the limit.

hekla forest project
hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Some of the methods that have enabled this success, Hreinn says, are the use of soil-stabilising plants like lyme grass and lupine, and the use of fertilisers. Chemical fertilisers often suffice, but in particularly troublesome areas, bone meal is used, an effective slow-release fertiliser. Thanks to these methods, the birch forests of this region have expanded more than any other Icelandic woodland in recent years.

When the Soil Conservation Service acquired Gunnarsholt farm in 1926, it and many surrounding farms had been abandoned to the encroaching sand drifts. Centuries of sheep grazing and soil erosion had left swathes of once-productive farmland in South Iceland little more than a desert. Gunnarsholt became something like a living laboratory for soil conservation work in Iceland, ultimately becoming the headquarters of the Soil Conservation Service. The work there was a great success, and at its height, Gunnarsholt was the largest farm in Iceland, with 1,600 sheep and 600 cattle raised on what had been desert in living memory. During this time, the Forest Service protected the remnants of birch woodland and experimented with new tree species but did not work on the afforestation of eroded land. Although forestry and soil work share many goals, such as reducing erosion, the Forestry Service and Soil Conservation Service seldom worked together. One project, however, was fated to bring these star-crossed agencies back together.

The Icelandic word mörk, like in Þórsmörk, derives from the Proto-Germanic *markō, meaning a frontier or boundary. Because forests often marked the edges of the map, where settlements ended, this term was also used for any region on the edge of a nation or culture. Hence the English term march denoting a border territory, and a marquis or margrave who rules over such a territory. Icelandic mörk also shares this root with Denmark. This sense of mark also indicated signs that set aside territories, like landmarks, and over time, the word acquired a general meaning of “sign,” or “impression.”

It was due to the Soil Conservation Service’s success in the region that in 2007, a contract was signed between the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and the state to finance the project that would become the Hekla Forest. A century after forestry and soil conservation efforts began at Gunnarsholt, 90,000 hectares of wood- and shrubland now grow around the volcano Hekla. Small teams, both volunteers and workers, work tirelessly to repair the damage done by humans here. One individual can plant several thousand saplings in a day, with a small team armed with nothing but an ATV and some fertiliser planting tens of thousands in a day. The work is difficult, often done in the wind and rain, and the mechanical rhythm can take a toll on one’s back. Planters stab at the earth with a shovel, plant a sapling, and throw in a handful of fertiliser all in one deft movement, and then it’s two paces forward and the same thing again, for hours. The hard work means that the teams working in Hekla Forest have to take frequent breaks, often working for three days straight and then resting for two. But during the bright, clear summer nights of June, some teams have been known to work all day, challenging each other to surpass their records.

hekla forest project
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In addition to being an inspiring success story, the wooded lands known collectively as Hekla Forest are also providing a model for other forestry projects in Iceland, due to the use of native species and close cooperation between agencies, municipalities, and private landowners. Of the 1,000 km² to the north, west, and south of Hekla, up to 600 km² [232 mi²] will be covered by native birch and willow forests in the next 50 years. The area comprising these forests represents approximately 1% of Iceland’s total land area.

Financing forests

In December of 1997, Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed up a California redwood. When she eventually climbed down, it was a full 738 days later, in December of 1999. In addition to protecting a nearly 1,000-year-old tree from being logged by the Pacific Lumber Company, she was also setting a dramatic precedent for environmental activism, a stunt both to be imitated and dispersed into the popular imagination.

These days, environmental activism looks decidedly less free-spirited, major forestry projects more likely to be spearheaded by international financiers than by stereotypical activists. For better or for worse, activism has been monetised in the form of the international carbon credit market.

hekla forest project

Established by the framework of the Kyoto Protocol and refined by the Paris Agreement, international markets in carbon trading have emerged which seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through financial mechanisms. Carbon credits, which represent one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gas, are traded with the goal of reducing global emissions. In theory, nations that come under their allowed limits can sell their excess emission permits to others that have exceeded their limit. The system also allows participants to offset emissions through environmental projects in developing nations and green investments such as forestry. A key requirement behind this system is that of “additionality,” that is, the actions must not be already required by law or otherwise expected to happen without human intervention.

Additionally, a voluntary carbon credit market exists for organisations wishing to go carbon neutral. When travellers are asked to check a box to make their journey carbon neutral, it is of course not the airline itself planting trees. Instead, companies can choose to approach brokers who will manage the company’s investments in environmental projects.

icelandic forest hekla

However, the voluntary carbon market presents a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, the barrier to certification must be sufficiently low to encourage investment and participation, while on the other hand, standards must be high enough for these projects to actually have the impact they claim. Many early carbon sequestration projects were uncertified, meaning that they can’t be used on this voluntary market. The best of these projects, however, will insist that a company cut their operating emissions down as far as possible, and only then will they cover the difference.

For some working in Icelandic forestry, the entry of private enterprise is one of the most exciting directions in the field today. Until very recently, Icelandic forestry was almost entirely funded by the state. But planting can prove expensive. Very expensive: the lifetime cost of the Hekla Forest Project, including planting an annual average of around 280,000 new saplings, is estimated to be ISK 6 billion [$44 million, €40 million].

Afforestation is a term used for forestry in regions that have not previously supported woodland. Reforestation refers to replacing woodland that has been lost in the recent past. Afforestation is particularly difficult, as these regions often have sparse, nutrient-poor soil. Although Iceland once supported extensive forests, it has been deforested for so long that forestry efforts are considered a form of afforestation.

Indeed, Iceland may prove to be particularly attractive for NGOs and corporations looking for green investments, precisely because its centuries-long struggle with forestry has been so difficult. Iceland’s afforestation struggles have produced some of the best-monitored forests in the world, with comprehensive statistics and metre-by-metre vegetation surveys going back for decades. Of the several international projects currently active in Iceland, at least two are currently within the bounds of the Hekla Forest: Mossy Earth, a UK-based non-profit which focuses on rewilding ecosystems with native vegetation, and Land Life, a Netherlands-based company that specialises in data-driven carbon offset projects. Such companies have also allowed large carbon-emitting industries to help finance forestry efforts, the Icelandic fishing industry now a major player in the field as well.

Missing the forest for the trees

But there are critics of this style of environmentalism, those who doubt that the climate crisis will be solved by market mechanisms. Critics, such as former Assistant Director of the Soil Conservation Service Andrés Arnalds, state that at best, these projects may delay more meaningful environmental action, and at worst, may not actually offset carbon as claimed. “Very often, these carbon offsets can be a kind of modern indulgence. Companies buy off their green sins and continue with business as usual,” Andrés says.

“Even relatively bare grasslands can store surprising amounts of carbon,” Andrés says. “What looks like empty land to many can store up to two-thirds of the carbon that a forest would.” Additionally, afforestation projects often harrow large portions of land before planting. Such practices disturb the soil and can even aid in carbon release, meaning that carbon offset projects themselves can often be significant sources of emissions.

To be able to plant at scale, many carbon offset projects are also monocultures, which isn’t ideal from an ecological perspective, Andres explains. “Icelandic forestry has, for a long time, focused simply on planting trees. But a forest is also an ecosystem with everything that lives in it. It’s not simply a collection of trees, but that’s what they’re planting: trees, not forests.”

hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Planting can be difficult, and historically, the most effective method for large-scale planting has been monoculture plantations. Over time, however, Icelandic foresters have switched to a method that prefers small monocultures of different species clustered together, such that one hectare might have several different monocultures. This, in theory, combines the efficiency of large-scale planting with a more diverse landscape.

And then there’s the fact that the native Icelandic forest, overwhelmingly composed of birch, is a monoculture as well. When we think of biodiversity, our mind often drifts to the tropical rainforest and images of multicoloured flowers, vibrant birdlife, and dense, verdant forests. This is of course an image Iceland will never live up to, but nevertheless, Iceland has its own native biodiversity that’s worth protecting.

For Andrés Arnalds, the Hekla Forest is one of the best models we have: “It’s just a classic example of what we can achieve in Iceland. So many local people have gotten involved in planting, and we’ve restored so much diversity in the Hekla region in the last years.”

Guest workers

The use of birch in Hekla Forest isn’t just a political statement; as a native species, it’s well suited to the local conditions. “Birch is a pioneer species,” says Hreinn. Such pioneer species are often the first species to colonise an ecosystem after a disruptive event like a volcanic eruption or forest fire. “Birch also produces many seeds at a young age,” he says, “meaning that it can spread very quickly under the right conditions.” 

A mature tree can absorb some 22 kg of CO2 annually, the approximate equivalent of 180 km [112 mi] driven in an average passenger vehicle.

Although birch is in many ways the ideal candidate for reforesting Iceland, certain non-native species have also played a key role in Icelandic afforestation. Lodgepole pine, for instance, can tolerate nutrient-poor soils, meaning that it can be used in areas that would otherwise remain empty. Likewise, the aforementioned lupine was intentionally introduced from Alaska to the Icelandic landscape for its nitrogen-fixing properties. Now blanketing many hillsides, it is considered by some to be an invasive species. 

Hreinn Óskarsson, however, is quick to remind me that Hekla Forest has not prohibited the use of non-native species: “What the Hekla Forest Project has done is encourage the use of native species, but it’s a diverse area. It’s not obligatory to just use birch, but that is our main goal. We want to promote biodiversity in the area, and many species in Iceland have grown to be dependent on birch woodlands. Often, with non-native plantations, we don’t get the kind of biodiversity that we’d like to see.”

Hreinn isn’t a purist about what does or doesn’t belong in Icelandic woodlands, and he reminds me that some 2-300 species of flora which we consider to be Icelandic have been imported through the ages. While it’s nice to think that the Hekla birch forests represent a return of the landscape that would have once greeted Icelandic settlers, the goal isn’t simply to revert to a state before human intervention. “The goal,” says Hreinn, “is to restore the function of the ecosystem. We want to see less erosion and more even runoff in the landscape. We want to see stable soils that can withstand catastrophes and to create taller vegetation that both stands up to eruptions and can sequester carbon. But this doesn’t mean simply spreading trees everywhere. We want to expand and preserve birch woodland, without restricting other land use.”

hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Nevertheless, even the best-intentioned projects can have unforeseen consequences. The Icelandic landscape has been barren for so long that forests, even native ones, can cause disruptions to established habitats. Many shorebirds, such as the golden plover, sandpiper, and oystercatcher make their nests in open areas of the lowlands. They prefer these open areas so they can better spot predators like foxes, and increasingly, domestic cats. Notably, they refuse to nest near treelines because they associate trees with predator activity, and even a small stand of trees can deny these birds a large nesting area. 

“We have to accept that human settlement has already totally changed the flora in Iceland,” Hreinn explains to me. “We haven’t seen a reduction in these bird populations yet, but we should also think about how our situation was at the time of settlement, with vast birch woodlands across the lowlands. Now, we’re beginning to see birds in Hekla Forest that we never saw before. In the future, we may well not have the same species at the same sites. Quite simply, we’re creating new habitats.”

Restoring an ecosystem

In the early aughts, one German by the name of Thomas Mann (no, not that Thomas Mann) worked in the Hekla Forest area, shortly before the official founding of the project in 2007. In his evenings and days off, he was accustomed to taking long hikes through Þjórsárdalur valley. He would often take clippings from the day’s work, mostly poplar or willow, and plant them here and there. There wasn’t much method to these trips, and although many of these saplings never took hold, some did, especially those that grew near lupines. 

Not all non-native species are considered to be invasive species, even if they are widespread. Invasives are non-native species which threaten local biodiversity, but plenty of non-native plants manage to find sustainable niches of their own. 

One area in particular that Thomas wandered was Sandártunga, a sand-strewn lava field and historically one of the most degraded areas of the Þjórsárdalur valley. It still presents its difficulties to afforestation today, but among the pockets of lupine and open stretches of gravel, there now also stand the defiant descendants of Thomas’ efforts. It’s not hard to imagine that soon, in decades, not centuries, these lonely trees will be crowded in by other adventurous pioneers. 

Since 2021, Hekla Forest is no longer an independently funded project. But the idea of the project nevertheless lives on, and it is now listed on the Natural Heritage Registry, among such prestigious peers as Gullfoss waterfall, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, and Reynisfjara beach. As puffins and plover begin to descend on Iceland with the coming of spring, this time of year likewise sees a flock of students, volunteers, scientists, and landowners descending on Hekla Forest to continue this important work.

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