Growing Pains Skip to content

Growing Pains

Words by
Jelena Ćirić

Photography by

Vikings did away with Iceland’s forests. Now their descendants are fighting to bring them back.

Picture an Icelandic waterfall. Now picture a glacier. Chances are you have no trouble visualising them, whether or not you’ve had the opportunity to visit. Now picture an Icelandic forest. Are you stuck for images?

Iceland’s forests may rarely feature in the country’s advertising campaigns, yet their area has more than doubled in the last century thanks to dedicated afforestation efforts. Now, they are poised on the edge of becoming a sustainable industry and a key to achieving the country’s environmental goals. Devoted foresters and creative thinkers are working to spread the message.

Human Behaviour​

Iceland has not always been virtually treeless. When settlers first arrived in the 9th century, forests covered somewhere between 25-40% of the island. Only a few centuries later, they had all but disappeared. “The people coming brought sheep and cattle and swine, land needed to be cleared, and their grazing prevented the forest from coming back,” Þröstur Eysteinsson, Director of the Icelandic Forest Service, explains in a recent short film made for National Geographic.

The soil erosion that followed only made it more difficult to reverse the effects of humans and their livestock. Today, nearly one third of Iceland – more than 37,000 square kilometres – is barren desert.

In many parts of Iceland, trees are nowhere to be seen.

Carls, Conservation, and Carbon​

In the early 20th century, three Danes helped Icelanders see the necessity of taking action to preserve their vanishing soil. Merchant marine captain Carl H. Ryder, forestry professor Carl V. Prytz, and forester Christian E. Flensborg lobbied the parliament to adopt a forestry and soil conservation act, which they did in 1907. The following year saw the foundation of the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS), the state authority that has since been responsible for afforestation efforts.

Sigríður Júlía Brynleifsdóttir is the director of national forests and afforestation programs at the IFS. She started working for the organisation at the age of 14 as a summer job, eventually completing a master’s in forestry in Norway before returning to work for the organisation. She spoke with me about the IFS’s goals and the impact they would have.

“We are hoping to quadruple afforestation efforts over the next five years,” Sigríður tells me. The IFS experienced large funding cuts following the banking collapse in 2008. Its biggest challenge now lies in securing long-term investment from the government. “Of course it’s difficult because politicians look at four-year periods, whereas in forestry we think in decades,” Sigríður points out.

Yet the IFS’s goals seem well aligned with the government’s, which is in the process of making Iceland carbon neutral by 2040. By the IFS’s calculations, Icelandic forests could sequester one million tonnes of carbon each year by 2050. That would require a government investment of over ISK 10 billion over the next 12 years, yet Sigríður is optimistic. “Forestry is an investment in the future,” she says.

Growth Potential

In the meantime, Iceland’s forests have begun to produce wood for a small timber market. Forests planted between 1950-1970 are now supplying around 5.000 square metres of wood per year: miniscule compared to industries abroad, but a start. The Icelandic birch, Siberian larch, Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and balsam poplar are producing quality wood of equal or superior quality to that which Iceland imports from abroad. Yet an overwhelming 80% of the trees felled are burned as fuel in silicon smelting.

I spoke with designer Björn Steinar Blumenstein, who believes the resource can do much more. “The infrastructure as it is today is that we fell trees and we burn them,” he tells me. “We started planting maybe sixty years ago. All of a sudden the wood is ready, but we forgot to make a plan for it.”

Björn says few Icelanders are aware of their forests’ potential, which could create a sustainable timber industry by as early as 2040. “There would be no need for IKEA furniture or import for hardware stores. But this is something that Icelanders are really far away from realising.”

Björn Steinar Blumenstein

Björn has been collaborating with foresters and designers to develop ideas for how to turn the new resource into something more valuable than fuel. After travelling around the country to map the resource, he made a quick start guide for designers on designing with Icelandic wood. “I just threw that up on the Internet and asked for submissions. There were just two rules: the objects had to be at least 85% Icelandic wood and they had to be useful.” The project, called Skógarnýtjar (Forest Utility), was exhibited at Iceland’s largest design festival in March, helping to raise awareness about the overlooked resource both locally and internationally.

Björn hopes to eventually produce a furniture line using Icelandic wood in collaboration with the IFS. “That would serve the purpose of fixing the channels in the infrastructure. The foresters would have to start supplying.” The ultimate goal? “Creating value for forestry so they can start spending more money on planting.”

Putting Down Roots

A survey conducted in March of this year found 93% of Icelanders are positive toward afforestation. Most countrymen believe afforestation efforts make a positive impact on the country and believe they are an important step toward sequestering carbon. Many landowners are taking a hands-on approach through an IFS program which provides them with funding and support to grow their own forests. “There are always more and more applications from landowners to be a part of the program,” Sigríður tells me.

Björn echoes the public’s positive attitude. “By creating products from wood, using wood, and storing wood we are sequestering carbon. So as long as we don’t burn it, it has a really positive environmental impact.”

Though much work lies ahead, Icelanders have many reasons to be hopeful about what their forests can do. “We may not see those benefits right away,” Sigríður tell me, “but future generations will.” With awareness of the forests’ potential growing, the next step is action, says Björn. “We have all the aces up our sleeves.”

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