Citizen Scientists Step in to Keep the Plight of Sweden’s Forests in the Public Eye

Field guide-toting activists fight logging plans by identifying rare critters in threatened forests

Sweden is usually at the top of the list of the world’s most sustainable countries, which is why I traveled there in late 2011 to investigate claims to the contrary leveled by activists at the country's forestry sector. Home to the biggest forests in Europe, I found that trees are indeed falling at a remarkable rate in Sweden, so the fact that its forestry industry also claims to be a model of sustainable logging operations further fueled my interest. The resulting investigative report found that the Swedish forestry model, a self-policed regime that aims to balance cutting and conservation, doesn’t work.

photo of a woman peering at moss through a jewlers loupeAll photos copyright Erik HoffnerClick on this photo to view a slideshow.

The conclusion that the forestry was producing much of its vaunted green timber and pulp through unsustainable clear cutting of its biodiversity-rich taiga, a surprising proportion of it old-growth, caught the attention of readers worldwide when National Geographic News Watch picked up on it. Swedes have since engaged in a national dialogue on the fate of their forests.

Then, when a writer for the nation's main daily newspaper penned a five-part series * in early 2012 also looking at the problem, it put the forestry industry even deeper into damage control mode. The reporter’s findings unflinchingly exposed, again, the inability of the national forestry model and also Forest Stewardship Council (FSC Sweden) to adequately protect biologically-diverse natural forests from the appetites of one of the country’s biggest industries. 

Now a new report from Sweden’s largest environmental group, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), delves into how the FSC seemingly shields its certified companies from harm when their violations of the label’s standards are exposed. The report, “Credibility at Stake: How FSC Sweden Fails to Protect Forest Biodiversity,” details numerous instances where big forestry companies ignore the standards and then evade sanction from the certifying body in charge of the program. What this means is that customers hungry for the most environmentally sustainable wood products are often paying a premium price for business as usual.

Response from industry and government to the new report has so far been muted so it remains the job of grassroots NGOs like SSNC and Protect the Forest to keep the plight of Sweden’s forests in the public eye. Beside advocating for industry accountability and changes in governmental policy, one of the main ways they are protecting the growing ranks of threatened and endangered species in Sweden — over 2,100 at last count — is by conducting their own biological surveys.

In order to keep the most important areas safe from the saw, the activists have trained themselves to identify rare critters, especially fungi and lichens, which frequent high conservation value forests. Proof of their tiny presence (requiring the constant use of magnifying lenses) can be used to educate legislators and ministers about the issue and also to protect individual tracts. In many cases, field guide-toting activists successfully fight planned logging activities in groves of rich and/or ancient pine and fir that are also home to moose, reindeer, orchids, brown bear, wolves, capercaillie, and much more. 

The volunteers find the work rewarding yet demanding. Over the course of a summer month, a rotating group of volunteer scientists camp in remote areas and hike many miles through the forests every day, inspecting every tree in sight. In the case of the old dead ones, they turn and lift them to find cryptic clues leading to rare finds.

From early morning until dusk every day, hounded by mosquitoes and bogged down by the tools of the trade — GPS unit, walkie-talkie, magnifier, field guide, digital camera, mobile phone, knife, collection bags — their labors can mean the difference between life and death for many species. While in Sweden for my reporting project in 2011, I followed a corps of these biodiversity hunters across expanses of spongy forest floor, recording their documentary efforts, gobbling blueberries by the fistful, and producing a short video which shows what happens when loggers find areas like this first.

All of the recent media coverage, including a subsequent multi-part series on Swedish Public Radio, further increased the ranks of survey volunteers, who combed 90 forest tracts during the sub Arctic summer of 2012. Most importantly, the media has largely taken the point of view of concerned everyday Swedes, who when polled say that conservation goals should trump forest industry production targets, yet have felt powerless to effect changes in a system that’s rapidly devouring their beloved natural expanses. This growing awareness in the streets and cafes of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Uppsala may in the end be the the key factor in curbing the steep decline of biodiversity in Europe’s biggest stretch of forest.

See more images and content from Hoffner’s Sweden series here.

*this link is translated by Google. If you prefer the actual page at the newspaper’s site, click here.


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