Utter the words “Icelandic Forest” in a crowd of Icelanders and you’re sure to hear a chuckle, a resigned, self-deprecating remark, or even one of the country’s oldest jokes: “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” – “Stand up.” For hundreds of years that joke has rung true. It’s reflected a barren and largely treeless landscape; deeper still it’s reflected an enormous resource management mistake and hundreds of years of imported lumber dependence. But all that might be in the past: thanks to thousands of supporters and a couple of global crises, many foresee the imminent and glorious return of the Icelandic forest.
History: Blame it on the Vikings
The hearty Norwegian Vikings that first laid their eyes and hands on Iceland were privy to a landscape altogether separate from the one we know today. Back then, an estimated 30% of the country was covered in a verdant forest largely composed of downy birch—or Betula pubescens.
Icelandic settlers quickly got about to doing what settlers all over the world do best: plundering natural resources. Forests were cleared and burned to provide grazing space for recently imported gangs of sheep, while the gathered wood was used for fuel, building materials and coal. Unfortunately, the country’s loose volcanic soil minimized the chances for any forest recovery and once gone, the trees stayed gone. By the middle of the last millennia many Icelanders were forced to shift to peat—a thick sludge of decomposed vegetative matter—as a primary fuel source.
With reforestation as far from their minds as cocktail drinks and bikinis, Icelanders soon found themselves largely dependent on imported timber. By the 1940s, when birch wood was finally abandoned as a fuel source, the country had lost 95% of its forest cover; which is to say less than 1% of the island was still covered in trees.
Meanwhile, a number of proto-environmentalists were beginning to question the country’s clear-cut policy. At the turn of the 20th century, three Danes lobbied the parliament to adopt a forestry and soil conservation policy, which it did in 1907. The government run Iceland Forest Services (IFS) was established the subsequent year.
In 1930, the Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA), an umbrella organisation for 57 local forestry societies, was founded. Today it counts over 7,000 members and is considered Iceland’s most popular environmental rights group.
By the 50s, focus had shifted from simple preservation to afforestation [planting in previously tree-free places] between 1963 and 1989, the IFS and local forestry authorities planted anywhere from 500.000 to 1 million trees per year. Since the 90s that number has soared to nearly 6 million per year. While all those trees only translate to an increase of 0.3% in vegetative cover, the growth spawned a most unlikely industry: Icelandic timber.
Pizza, Christmas and kreppa: a recipe for success!
As afforestation expanded, so did the possibility for domestic lumber production. Icelandic timber is currently used for everything from fence posts, to livestock bedding, to fireplace logs. In the 11 years between 1997 and 2008, Icelandic fuel wood sales more than tripled, from under 100 tons to over 350, with much of that fuel, curiously enough, headed to the ovens of wood-fire pizzerias.
Christmas tree production is another unlikely industry to emerge. For the last 20 years the Icelandic Forestry Association has been inviting families to spend a few hours in the forest picking out their trees, cutting them down and dragging them home.
Of the roughly 40,000 Christmas trees used this year in Iceland, Brynjólfur Jónsson, the director of the Icelandic Forestry Association, estimates 10,000 will be Icelandic. Brynjólfur assures that the practice is entirely sustainable and points to Hvalfjördur, where two thousand harvested trees are replaced by 10-15.000 new ones every year. “We never take out more than we plant.”
Both of these developments indicate a changing marketplace. Before the kreppa struck, Icelanders bought imported wood products freely. But as the economy collapsed and the króna along with it, importing wood products became significantly more expensive and a domestic business niche emerged. “This is something that we thought would be impossible for another 40-50 years,” Brynjólfur says, speaking of Icelandic timber production. “But now it’s real.”
Our Good Friend Global Warming
The IFA and the IFS may also be getting a helping hand from another unlikely ally: global warming. With extended growing periods in the spring and fall, many of the planted trees are growing faster and larger than ever before. Although global warming poses some as of yet unknown dangers—among them insects, fungus and disease—the warmer climate coupled with the surge in plantings have Brynjólfur believing that the organisation’s stated goal of reforesting 30% of the country over 1,000 years may be achieved significantly ahead of schedule.
“It might instead take 200-300 years. By the end of this century we might cover 3% of Iceland´s land area. But if the natural vegetation responds to the higher temperature, the process will be much quicker. Large areas on the main plateaus will be recovered with natural birch and willows without the work of man.”
It’s difficult to imagine the green Iceland Brynjólfur envisions, but it’s tempting too. If the director’s right, Icelanders might have a chance to bury their lamest joke once and for all.