Trees in a Treeless Land

Nancy Seaton (MLA I)

Project Overview

Nature is close to replacing language as a symbol of ‘Icelandicness’ – Johannesson, 2005

Adoption of “green” “clean” technologies is a part of Iceland’s current identity. The cleanliness of Iceland’s environment is embodied in its high water quality, considered the ‘champagne’ of the north. However, green technologies are not without environmental impact. Central Iceland is widely considered the largest, undisturbed area in western Europe, but is where the most highly contested ecological changes are taking place, virtually hidden from 90% of the population that inhabits urban, coastal cities. The 21st century finds Iceland’s environment being altered to an unprecedented degree through the operations of hydroelectric plants and aluminum smelters, wetland drainage, damming and afforestation of tracts previously treeless. Planting trees, a seemingly prosaic act, has significant political, economic and environmental repercussions. As the accrual of most new forests is along the populated coast, it is the visible face of Iceland’s comprehensive national economic plan for the expansion of industry and increase of greenhouse gas emission within the interior. Is this a bad idea, economic reality or a far-sighted environmental stance that privileges the global environment over that of Iceland’s own?

Project Information

During the Middle Ages, Icelanders called the Hekla volcano, the country’s most active, the “Gateway to Hell,” believing that souls were dragged into the fire below. How does a country, once described as the mouth of hell, alter global opinion to the degree to which Iceland has today? Not without a broad scale effort, on the part of the government, to craft a national image to market globally, trading on the perception as a pioneer in green energy. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has just listed Iceland as number one on their Environmental Performance Index, compiled every two years by university researchers from Yale and Columbia. Iceland’s reliance on power from renewable sources, hydropower and geothermal energy and a dedication to an environmental policy is cited as the reason. Over 90% of Iceland’s households are heated with geothermal water, while there has been a 197% increase in energy production/consumption between 1980 and 2000 ( 

Forest planting is routinely implemented to preserve water quality, increase soil stabilization, and for the production of timber. In Iceland, the objectives of afforestation are not quite as clear or typical, nor are the types of forests being constructed. If restoration of former plant communities were a goal, as often stated in Iceland Forest Service literature (Eysteinsson, 2004), then extensive plantations of foreign species, such as Sitka Spruce and Lodge Pole Pine, would not be included. Clearly, restoration ecology is not the intention nor the method of contemporary afforestation in Iceland. While forest projects are ostensibly used for erosion control and land reclamation, the economic objective appears to be a gain in quantifiable C-sequestration to offset an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric plants installed in the interior. Since 1990, about 4,000 ha per year have been afforested or revegetated. In 1995, the estimated C-sequestration of those areas was 65,100 t CO2, or 2.9% of the national emissions for that year (Sigurdsson & Snorrason, 2000). In 1999, the estimated sequestration was up in 127,600 t CO2, or 4.7% of the predicted CO2 emissions for the year 2000 (Sigurdsson & Snorrason, 2000). Aside from afforestation, effective carbon sequestration has been achieved through planting herbaceous cover on carbon-poor soils, such as the Alaskan lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis).

If a gain in forest cover is all that is required by the accounting method of the Kyoto Protocol that monitors international greenhouse gas emissions (ratified by Iceland in 2002), then rapidly growing, large species are more beneficial to this end than a restoration of birch scrub, the dominant, woody cover of Iceland. In Iceland, afforestation is being used in part to acquire credits for its increased production of greenhouse gas emissions, especially since the country’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. Forest expansion is one of the cheapest ways to gain extra GHG emission credits. In 1997, the government of Iceland launched a special program to increase the amount of C-sequestration in forests, vegetation and soil by 100,000 t CO2 in 2000 from 1990 – at a cost of 6 million Euros. (Sigurdsson & Snorrason, 2000) The Kyoto Protocol demands accurate calculations in determining the amount of carbon dioxide bound in forests, which initiated a new wave of forest mapping, still underway in Iceland.

When the Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon, Iceland was given a special exemption to increase GHG emissions by ten percent while most other nations were obligated to reduce their average emissions by 5.2 percent. The Prime Minister has proposed that Iceland should apply for further exemptions from reducing GHG emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires. Iceland’s exemption made possible the creation of new hydroelectric plants to fuel aluminum smelters, owned and operated by Alcoa. Iceland officials contend “using hydroelectric power from dams and reservoirs in the interior of the country, could contribute to fighting global environmental change,” citing the 70% more emissions from coal-fired smelting. (Johannesson, 2005). While this environmental impact is weathered on the sparsely populated interior, carbon credits are gained by afforestation along the coast, where most of the population lives. Alcoa has just finished construction on this new smelter, Fjardaal (2003-2009) and plans a new plant, Bakki, near the town of Husavik, which will be fueled by a new hydroelectric plant in Iceland. This new plant calls for damming of the Thjorsarver Reserve, a central-south interior wetlands. During the past 50 years, extensive drainage of wetlands has occurred in Iceland, in some places as much as 80 – 90% (LULUCF). This threatens a huge loss of sequestered carbon in Iceland’s extensive peat-lands. Wetland restoration is being explored as a method to reduce GHG emission in the Icelandic Climate Change Strategy for 2007 – 2050, even as new wetlands are compromised in favor of the construction of hydroelectric plants that fuel aluminum smelters and the economy. 

The title of a recent Iceland Forest Service article, Forestry in a Treeless Land, points to the leap in logic that such a practice makes. To what end are forests being created or expanded in Iceland? It is my contention that maximized C-sequestration has informed contemporary afforestation efforts in Iceland, and the result is a focus on larger, faster growing species than those native to the country, at the expense of its unique boreal birch-scrub vegetation. Does this forest planting have a net ecological benefit or is it strictly a pragmatic maneuver that uses policy guidelines to support its national economic agenda? It is the purpose of this research to document the spatial, ecological and political implication of this 21st century forest typology.

What is the image of nature that will typify Iceland in the future? Currently, there are vast tracts of desert, and thinly vegetated land, with only a small percentage of forest cover. Phytogeographically, Iceland belongs to the Circumboreal Region. The country is situated entirely south of the Arctic Circle and the climate is cold-temperate and oceanic. In total, there are 470 species of indigenous, naturalized, vascular plants in the country. This flora is common with Norway’s, with 97% of Icelandic species occurring there and 87% occurring in the British Isles. Iceland is host to the ecoregion of boreal birch forests and alpine tundra. Approximately three-quarters of the island is without vegetation; plant life consists mainly of grassland, which is regularly grazed by livestock. The most common tree native to Iceland is the Northern Birch (Betula pubescens), along with populations of Aspen (Populus tremula), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) and other smaller trees.

Ari Þorgilsson’s Islendingabók, (11th c) chronicles the settlement of Iceland, and is often cited for its description of Iceland’s early landscape, with woods extending from coast to mountain. It is a widely held belief that human settlement, starting in the 9th century, greatly disturbed the isolated ecosystem of thin, volcanic soils causing expansive erosion and limiting the ability of species to regenerate. The forests were further harvested for firewood. Current research on soils has determined that woods were already in decline for other reasons (Blondal & Gunnarsson, 1999). It is estimated that birch woodland covered at least 25-30% of the country at the time of settlement, whereas today they only cover about 1%. 41% of the country is not vegetated in any way; especially at altitudes that exceed 500 m. 45% of the land is vegetated with grass, dwarf heath/scrub, and moss heath. Around 1% of the land mass is under cultivation.

The first afforestation trials were initiated in Iceland during Danish colonial rule with a single hectare of property turned to tree planting (Thingvellir, 1899), probably to find an economic use for the largely vacant country. In 1907, the Act on Forestry and Mitigation of Soil Erosion was enacted to stop further land degradation through afforestation. (Figures 1 & 2 in appendix) It was the first act of the national Iceland Forest Service, and the accrual of lands that would become national forests began in earnest. Four basic functions of forestry within Iceland have been identified as the following: “ecological (ecosystem processes, habitats, wildlife); economic (wood production, nonwood products); protective (soil and water conservation, shelter, sequestrating CO2); and social (recreation, cultural and spiritual).” (Halldorsson et al, 2007) Current tree planting occurs at the rate of 1500 hectares annually. 1990 marked a transitional year, when seedling production grew from 1.5 million seedlings to 5 million (Halldorsson et al, 2007.).

The country has enlisted the population to contribute to forest efforts, with planting days and agricultural subsidies for establishing tree plantations. Regional Farm Forestry Programs, initiated by the Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA) in 1990, have further increased the amount of land dedicated to forest planting. In this program, farmers are given 97% of the total establishment cost of planting trees on former pasture land, with around 700 participants. Strong emphasis is placed on timber production, multiple use forestry, farm shelterbelts and to some extent on woodland restoration. The IFA’s Land Reclamation Forestry Program connects private forestry and national organizations such as the Icelandic Forest Service and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Afforestation in Iceland is not a restoration ecology-based strategy, as there is an idea to improve the aesthetic appeal of new forests with species selection. Characterizations of existing conditions tend to be replete with value-laden language such as shallow and poor soils, low biodiversity, limited function and instability. These words are more than just descriptive; they express a negative bias against the terrain that has developed as a result of human intervention. The future of Iceland’s physical character became a much contested topic in the 1990s, as afforestion gained pace, leading to what is known as the dark sands versus green forests debate, which basically questioned the ecological role of creating forests that had never been a part of Iceland’s ecology. A recent forestry article pronounced that, “people prefer that trees are tall, have straight boles and symmetrical crowns,” (Halldorsson et al, 2007) precisely what the native vegetation of Iceland is not, but which the forests of the future may be. For a variety of reasons an array of such tall, foreign, fast-growing conifers have been selected to be used in afforestation efforts historically, and currently, including Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), larch (Larix sukaczewii) and lodge-pole pine (Pinus contorta).



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