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Sweden's green soul: why forests are vital to the Swedish culture and economy

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Sweden's green soul: why forests are vital to the Swedish culture and economy
A dense pine forest in Småland. Photo: Alexander Hall/imagebank.sweden.se
08:39 CEST+02:00
Forest fires are raging in Sweden, with over 25,000 hectares of woodland currently burning. There have currently been no serious injuries reported as a result of the widespread blazes, but the damage to the forests themselves is a huge blow to Sweden both financially and culturally.
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The value of the woodland currently burning is over 900 million kronor (approximately $100 million), according to the latest estimates from the Swedish Forestry Agency, shared on Monday. The total area affected is significantly larger than the 14,000 hectares that burned in a 2014 fire in Västmanland, which at the time was Sweden's most serious wildfire in 40 years.

Politicians and climate researchers have warned that with temperatures rising globally, Sweden is likely to face forest fires more frequently, with drought exacerbating the blazes and making them harder to extinguish.

So just what is at stake when Sweden's trees go up in flames?

More than half of Sweden – an area equal to the size of the United Kingdom –  is covered in forest. This area is actually growing thanks to protective policies that mean the growth rate outpaces the felling rate. The forests have long been used for fuel and timber first for domestic, then industrial use from around the 13th century.

Today, forests provide around ten percent of Swedish employment and exports. Most of the felled trees become timber, used for furniture, construction, and other wood products, with companies coming up with innovative uses for the wood all the time, such as textiles. The trees also used for pulp to make paper products, and a small proportion become biofuel, which is used for electricity and heating and could serve other purposes in the future – perhaps even powering aeroplanes.

READ MORE: Everything about the unprecedented 2018 wildfire season in Sweden


Burned trees in Gävleborg county. Photo: Pernilla Wahlman/TT

The forests are a particularly important source of employment in rural areas, where jobs in Sweden's other large industries such as tech and telecoms are harder to come by.

But while Sweden has been exploiting its forest for a long time, it has almost as long a history of protecting it: one of the first environmental laws passed anywhere in the world, the Swedish Forestry Act of 1903, was introduced in reaction to the rapid depletion of the forests in the previous century and stipulated that anyone harvesting trees must replant them.

This act has been revised and updated over the decades since in order to ensure that the country's flora and fauna don't suffer. Companies that wish to harvest forest have to submit a plan, which members of the public can object to. As a result, the Swedish Forestry Agency forecasts that the standing stock of timber will almost double in the period between 1930 and 2030.

But the forests are far more than just a source of money and they play a crucial role in Swedes' leisure time and family life.

This is one of the most active countries in the world, where many residents are part of an organized club and sports-related organizations are the most popular of all. The forest is where Swedes often go to hike, run, climb, cycle, and swim, sail or canoe in the forest lakes. The navigational sport of orienteering is extremely popular in Sweden, with around 600 clubs across the country.

A principle that makes this possible is 'allemansrätt' the 'freedom to roam' granted in the Swedish Constitution that gives all members of the public free access to nature and wilderness, including forests and water – even though most Swedish forests are owned either privately or by companies. The only exceptions to the freedom to roam are private gardens, land under cultivation, nature reserves and protected areas. 


More than half of Sweden is covered in forest. Photo: Asaf Kliger/imagebank.sweden.se

This allows residents of Sweden spend a large part of their free time in the forests, whether for sport, for a day out walking and barbecuing, or for a camping holiday. You might hear Swedes refer to 'friluftsliv', which roughly translates as 'outdoor living'. The country underwent industrialization later than many of its European neighbours, and this is a possible factor in explaining why Swedes continue to value the simple pleasures of a walk in the forest so highly. 

It's not all about sport: berry and mushroom picking are popular activities in the autumn, and the right to do so (with the exception of protected species) is guaranteed under allemansrätt. People are also free to pick wildflowers – an important tradition at Midsummer, when Swedes traditionally weave seven different kinds of flower into a Midsummer crown.

Even families that live in the city often own a summer house in a more remote area, with around two thirds of the country having access to one of these traditional cottages. 


Forests also play a crucial role in Swedes' leisure time. Photo: Alexander Hall/imagebank.sweden.se

The forests are also home to many different animal, bird and insect species, ranging from elk to foxes, bats to brown bears, and Sweden has legislation to protect endangered species and conserve biodiversity. Over 1,800 of the plants and animals in Sweden's forests are at risk, and they depend on the environment for their survival.

The country is also home to 300,000 registered hunters, with hunting not just a form of recreation but also a way of keeping species numbers under control to prevent damage to the forests or biodiversity.

Swedes grow up in nature despite – or more likely, because of – the harsh weather conditions in winter.

Even in the coldest months, most people in Sweden will make a concerted effort to spend time outside, making the most of the limited daylight and taking the chance to take in Vitamin D whenever they can. The sheer length of Nordic winters makes it impossible to hibernate for the entire period, so if you live here, learning how to cope with and enjoy the cold weather is an essential life skill. Outdoor activities follow the seasons, so in the winter you might find people skating across the same lakes they swam in during summer, and taking to the forests for cross country skiing excursions.


Outdoor activities follow the seasons in Sweden. Photo: Anna Öhlund/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedes are protective of their stunning nature, and with good reason. It was in Sweden that the first national park was created in 1909. The country is also home to the tree believed to be the world's oldest, 9,550-year-old Old Tjikko in Fulufjället National Park. Laponia, the Arctic Circle region encompassing forests as well as mountains and lakes, is a Unesco World Heritage site.

But as climate change appears to be having an effect on Sweden's temperature, the country may have to come up with new ways of protecting its forests from the fires that look likely to become an increasingly common feature of Swedish summers.

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Annie F - 25 Jul 2018 00:17
this is so sad. i will keep praying that the fires stop soon and the forests of Sweden can be saved. blessings to all fighting the fires.
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