Picture an Icelandic waterfall. Now picture a glacier. Chances are you have no trouble visualizing 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.
Árneshreppur á ströndum, West Fjords. Large swaths of Iceland are devoid of trees. Photo: Golli.
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.
Wood that does good
Sigríður Júlía Brynleifsdóttir is the director of national forests and afforestation programs at the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS). 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’s biggest challenge is 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 1 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.
In the meantime, Iceland’s forests have begun to produce wood for a small timber market. Icelandic birch, Siberian larch, Sitka spruce, Lodgepole pine and Balsam poplar are producing wood of equal or superior quality to that which Iceland imports from abroad. Yet an overwhelming 80 percent of the trees felled in the country are simply 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 60 years ago. All of a sudden the wood is ready, but we forgot to make a plan for it.”
Designer Björn Steinar Blumenstein is collaborating with designers to develop products made from Icelandic wood. Photo: Golli.
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 or import for hardware stores. But this is something that Icelanders are really far away from realizing.”
Read the full article in the June-July issue of Iceland Review magazine. Subscribe here.