Why are there no trees in Iceland?

hekla forest project

The short answer: sheep. According to the earliest records of the settlement of Iceland, the island was forested everywhere between the highlands and the coast when the Norse first arrived. Often, these semi-historical accounts in the mediaeval sources have to be taken with a grain of salt, but this assessment has been backed up by modern science, which estimates that approximately 40% of the island was covered by birch forests prior to settlement.

Over time, the settlers cut down trees for charcoal, tools, houses, and ships. Because Iceland’s environment is relatively harsh, once trees were felled in large numbers, it was difficult for them to grow back.

Perhaps the largest impediment to reforestation, however, was sheep grazing. It has long been traditional in Iceland for farmers to let their sheep roam in highland pastures during the summer, and then to collect them in the fall. This sheep grazing caused immense damage to Icelandic forests, from which they are still recovering. To this day, most tree plantations in Iceland need to be fenced in, to prevent sheep from destroying young saplings.

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Deep North Episode 35: Of Ashes and Evergreens

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.

Read the story here.

Of Ashes and Evergreens

hekla forest project

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

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.

What’s in a Name: Forestry and Soil Conservation Agencies Debate New Title


The Environment and Transport Committee of Iceland’s parliament has received a proposal for a new law on forestry and land conservation, which aims to merge the two existing agencies, the Land Conservation Agency and the Forestry Service.

The proposal identifies key issues of the merger between the two agencies. The plan, called “Land and Life,” was created by the Land Conservation Agency and the Forestry Service and outlines their vision for land and forest management through 2031.

Read more: Use of Lodgepole Pine Sparks Feud

The new organization, named “Land and Forest,” has been proposed as the name for the merged agency. However, the Land Conservation Agency has suggested that a better name might be found, given that the proposed name does not reflect the activities of the two agencies.

In a statement, the Soil Conservation Agency noted the need for a “more suitable name” for the new institution. Alternatives proposed include “Land and Life,” “Institute of Land Resources,” and “Earth.”

Read more: First-Ever Joint Policy on Land Reclamation and Reforestation

The existing law on land conservation will still apply, and the merger will not change any ongoing work or projects. The proposed new law identifies the significant benefits of the merger, including streamlined operations and increased efficiency. However, the new organization will have a broader mandate and be better equipped to manage the country’s natural resources effectively.

Icelandic Forestry Service Asks Public For Help

icelandic forests birch reforestation

The national collection of birch seeds began last week in Garðsárreittur in Eyjafjörður. The national initiative aims to reforest 5% of Iceland in birch forests, and volunteers from throughout Iceland are invited to gather birch seeds for the project.

Over the weekend, some 50 volunteers were able to gather some one and a half million seeds. An impressive number, but around 450 birch seeds fit into one teaspoon alone.

Currently, only around 1.5% of Iceland is forested with birch. In an interview with RÚV, Kristinn H. Þorsteinsson, project director of the initiative stated: “In order to be able to cover the country and get up to 5%, we need many hands, we need the whole nation. We need individuals, companies, schools and families to help out.”

The project began in 2020 in response to the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Now, the goal is to reforest 5% of Iceland, equating to around 5,000 square kilometres,  with birch.

In the above video from the Icelandic Forest Service, the collection of birch seeds is demonstrated for those wanting to help out.

Birch trees begin developing their seeds in early September, and they can be collected up through November, according to Hreinn Óskarsson, forestry expert at the Icelandic Forestry Service.

The initiative is also enlisting the help of several companies in Iceland, including Bónus and Olís, where volunteers can donate any seeds collected. Both Bónus and Olís will be accepting seed donation at all of their locations.

Seeds should dried before being donated. More information is available at the initiative’s website.

In Post-Ice Age First, Iceland Records 30m-Tall Tree

katrin jakobsdottir icelandic forest

An Icelandic tree planted in 1949 near Kirkjubæjarklaustur was recently measured at 30.15m, making it the tallest recorded tree in Iceland since the Ice Age.

The tree in question, a sitka spruce, was given the honorary title of “tree of the year” by the Icelandic Forest Service, an award given since 1989 to trees outstanding in their fields.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir was present for the ceremony, and even helped with the triangulation of its height.

In a speech at the ceremony, Katrín spoke to the importance of Icelandic reforestation and the role that forests must play in Iceland’s climate goals. She additionally spoke to her own personal history with the forest at Kirkjubæjarklaustur, where she has several significant memories and experiences.

In addition to the PM, several other officials were present for the ceremony, such as Jónatan Garðarsson, chairman of the Icelandic Forestry Association.




Forests Now Cover 2% of Iceland

Elliðárdalur Reykjavík

Forests and bushes now cover over 2% of Iceland, Vísir reports. That number may not seem like much, but since 1990, the surface area covered by forest or shrubs in Iceland has increased more than six times over – from 7,000 hectares to 45,000. In 20 years, the number is expected to be 2.6%.

The Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA) held a conference last week where the milestone was celebrated. “This is big news,” stated Arnór Snorrason, a forester at the IFA research station at Mógilsá. It’s not only forestry efforts that have increased these numbers, but also Iceland’s remaining natural birch forests, which Arnór says have finally begun expanding for the first time since Iceland was settled.

Read More: One Man Reforestation Project

As much as 40% of Iceland’s surface area was covered by forest before permanent settlers arrived in the ninth century. They chopped down wood for kindling and cleared land for grazing, and their livestock later prevented trees from growing back.

Read more about the history of reforestation in Iceland here.

Icelanders Buying More Locally-Grown Christmas Trees

Christmas tree santa Iceland

Though imported trees still make up the majority of Christmas tree sales in Iceland, locally grown trees are steadily growing in popularity, Bændablaðið reports. Imported Christmas trees decreased from 37,147 to 24,441 between 2019 and 2020, while local tree sales rose from 7,225 to 8,134. More families are buying their trees from local forestry associations, where they can pick and even cut down their own trees.

Ragnhildur Freysteinsdóttir, an environmental scientist at the Icelandic Forestry Association, told RÚV that cutting down your own tree has certain advantages. “Some people may want tall and thin, or short and fat [trees]. They maybe don’t want the totally standard trees that you get at the store. So it’s an opportunity for them.”

Buying local has benefits

As Bændablaðið points out, the benefits of buying local Christmas trees are many. Purchasing one tree enables local foresters to plant dozens more, with a net positive effect on carbon storage. The Reykjavík Forestry Association (Skógræktarfélag Reykjavíkur), for example, planted 50 trees for each one sold last year. Local trees also carry a smaller carbon footprint in other ways: due to Iceland’s climate and geography, local foresters rarely use pesticides in their cultivation. Furthermore, imported trees present a risk of bringing in pests that could potentially affect Icelandic vegetation.

See Also: Húsavík Residents Vote on Town Christmas Tree

Among local trees, the most popular species is the beach pine, accounting for 62.4% of local Christmas tree sales last year. The sitka spruce comes next with 14.3% of sales, followed by red spruce at 11.4%.

New Path Paved Through 85-Year-Old Forest

A team of some of Iceland’s most experienced loggers is in the process of cutting a path through Vaðlaskógur, an 85-year-old forest that stands across from Akureyri, on the other side of the Eyjafjörður fjord in Northeast Iceland. RÚV reports that the felling will make way for a a 2 km [1.2 mi] walking and cycling path, as well make way for hot water pipes from the Vaðlaheiði tunnel to run water to a new bathing area in the forest. An estimated 130 tons of timber will be cut down in the process.

“You can read the history of Icelandic forestry here,” says Ingólfur Jóhannsson, managing director of the Eyjafjörður Forestry Association who is overseeing the project. “People were just experimenting in 1936, when planting started here—no one knew what [species] would thrive in the country.” Ingólfur says that at the time, pretty much anything and everything was planted in the area. “…[S]ome [trees] lived and some died, and that was the foundation for our forestry work today.”

Screenshot, Vísir

Today, several species of spruce grow in Vaðlaskógur, as do beach pines, pitch pines, mountain pines, Alpine firs, rowans, and multiple willow species. All told, Ingólfur estimates that there are some thirty species of trees growing in the forest.

The diversity of species makes this a complicated process for the loggers, who must be selective and ensure that they aren’t felling just any tree. The eleven-person team was assembled from experienced professionals hailing from Reykjavík, Skagafjörður, Akureyri, and Egilsstaðir and will spend about two weeks completing the project. The resulting timber will then be used for building materials and firewood.

Although a number of trees will need to be cleared for the project, Ingólfur spoke highly of the planned outdoor area, which will be easily accessible to visitors. “Paths are also valuable in forests.”

Iceland’s Forests Could Double in Size in the Next Two Decades

forestry forest tree

If Iceland sticks to its plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2040, it will double its forest cover in the next two decades, RÚV reports. Forests cover just 2% of the country’s surface area today. Hreinn Óskarsson of the Icelandic Forest Service says afforestation can be an emotional issue for Icelanders, who are attached to the landscape in its current form.

Forests currently cover around 2% of Iceland’s total surface area, equivalent to around half of the Reykjanes peninsula. Glaciers, in comparison, cover around 10%. When humans first settled permanently in Iceland in the 9th century, forests covered somewhere between 25-40% of the island, but most of them were cleared to make room for sheep and cattle, whose grazing prevented the forests from growing back. The Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) was founded in 1908 but it wasn’t until the 1950s that large-scale afforestation began in the country.

Read More: Bringing Back Iceland’s Forests

The forests planted in Iceland more than half a century ago are now producing usable wood, comparable in quality to wood imported from abroad. Earlier this month, a new 100-metre pedestrian (and horse) bridge across Iceland’s Þjórsá river was unveiled, built entirely from Icelandic timber. It is the first project of its kind. Trausti Jóhansson, a forest warden in South Iceland, stated he is proud that forestry has reached this point in Iceland. There is growing demand for Icelandic timber, according to Trausti, and more parties getting involved in production. “We’re always developing Icelandic timber further and further.”