The development of Finnish forests – a success story or a catastrophe?

​Forests and forest use have been a hot topic lately. Opinions abound about the development of our forests, and discussions can get a little heated. The state of Finnish forests is attracting increasing interest beyond our borders as well.
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Director of Sustainability, Metsä Forest

​It is undeniable that the volume of trees in our forests has increased significantly, and we have good forest management to thank for this. We have been spared large-scale forest decline, and any damage to our forests has been much smaller than that experienced in countries suffering from insect damage and widespread forest fires. The daily activities of forest owners and harvesting professionals protect our Nordic forests against damage and decline. Sub-zero winters also keep pests in check.

However, the analysis changes when we shift our focus from forest assets to biodiversity. Drainage has considerably accelerated tree growth in peatlands, but as a downside, many peatland ecosystems have lost their natural state, turning into drained peatland forests. Most of our endangered species live in forests, which cover much of our country. Fortunately, the Red List Index for forest species, indicating the risk of extinction, has remained much the same for the last decade. The importance of biodiversity is understood more widely these days, as forest owners and other players in the field want to contribute to improving forest biodiversity.

It takes years for development to show in forests. It is therefore important that we understand the state of our forests, not only in terms of area and volume, but also from the perspective of biodiversity. It is particularly important now there is so much interest in forests and their use. Forest research has a long history in Finland. Thanks to our national forest inventories stretching back a century, we have a good picture of our forest assets. However, our understanding of forest biodiversity is more uncertain. We need to better identify which of the changes in flora and fauna are part of natural development, and which are caused by forestry.

Forests play an important role in safeguarding biodiversity and climate work, as they sequester atmospheric carbon during their growth. In addition to their ecological sustainability, forests should always be examined from the perspective of their social and economic sustainability. The economic perspective and the advantages of using renewable wood raw material as a replacement for fossil-based materials do not always receive enough attention in discussions.

This year, the European Commission has actively pursued new policies and strategies related to forests. One of the global concerns that has also been raised in the EU is forest decay, which is harmful for both climate change mitigation and the safeguarding of biodiversity. However, forestry is rarely the main cause of forest decay, which is instead caused by other forms of land use such as land clearing and urbanisation. When drawing up EU-wide regulations, the wide range of forest types and their various uses must be taken into account. European forests are not all the same; they exhibit great variation. In view of Finnish conditions, definitions that are too narrow may actually be harmful for good forest growth, climate impacts and even biodiversity.

The best way to secure forest biodiversity in Finland and elsewhere in the world is to ensure that forests remain forests. As experience has shown, this can be done by ensuring forest renewal and carrying out properly timed forest management measures. Many other measures promoting biodiversity have also been adopted in Finland: we increase the amount of decaying wood in forests by leaving high biodiversity stumps and retention trees in place, leaving protective thickets and adequate buffer zones along waterways, and favouring mixed trees in growth areas when appropriate. Especially in peatlands, we can increase the share of continuous cover, which also enables us to reduce the need for drainage repair and minimise greenhouse gas emissions.

To stay on the right track, everyone in the forest sector must continue their long-term work in forests. Let’s keep to our good practices, but remain active and ready to improve our operations. Although forest discussions can become polarised at times, we must engage in them. No one else will do so on our behalf.

Director of Sustainability, Metsä Forest
Prior to joining Metsä Group, handled assignments to the African savannas, Asian tropical areas and Siberia, among other places. Enjoys spending time in the forest, especially orienteering and picking blueberries, occasionally both at the same time.