They Speak for the Trees

Finnish Environmentalists Work to Stop Relentless Old-Growth Logging

By appearance and reputation, Finland is resplendent in its verdant natural beauty. A flat country with expansive marine clay plains, low plateaus and small hills, fully 76 percent of the nation is covered by dense forest and woodland areas. More than 180,000 sparkling lakes and nearly as many small islands dot the picturesque landscape.

Nature, it has always seemed, has been high on the list of Finland’s priorities. The oldest nature protection areas were established 60 years ago, and the environment itself has formed an integral part of Finnish national pride.

But Finland’s reputation as an environmentally-responsible country—and as a bona fide pioneer in sustainable commercial timber production—has been tarnished amid the accusations that most of its old-growth forest has been chopped down in a frenzied pursuit of logging dollars.

The heavy toll that state-authorized old-growth forest logging has taken on the biodiversity contained within Finland’s unusual boreal and hemiboreal ecosystems has sparked mounting public outcry, and has generated ongoing campaigns from a wide array of Finnish and Scandinavian environmental organizations.

“In Finland, many species have become extinct and more than 700 old-growth, forest-dependent species have become endangered as a result of logging,” says Mila Hulsi-Heathfield, a Finnish campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic in Stockholm. “Regardless, the logging of old-growth forests continues. Only roughly five percent of Finland’s old-growth forests are left, and half of that is at risk of being logged right now.” According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature of Finland, threatened animal species include wolves, bears, lynx, otters, flying squirrels and forest reindeer.

Much of the remaining old-growth forest is situated on land owned by the state-owned Mets?hallitus, or Forest and Park Service (FPS), which has managed forests in Finland for the past century. Responding to a public outcry, the Finnish Council of State designated a new old-growth forest protection program in 1996. This program now covers a total land area of 850,000 acres, according to the FPS. But half of the remaining old-growth forests were left outside of the protection program, says Matti Liimatainen, forest campaigner for the Finnish Nature League (FNL).

Not so, counters Juha M?kinen, director of communications for FPS. “All old-growth forests are protected,” he says, adding that the battle now is over “second-class” forests that are lacking the ecological characteristics that would designate them as old-growth.

The FPS itself is split into various departments, including its Forestry Unit (which oversees forest management and logging), and the Nature Protection Unit, which has often worked in concert with environmental groups.

“One in 15 of Finland’s known species is threatened,” the FPS Nature Protection Unit says in its own materials. “Almost half of these species are threatened because of forestry practices.” Finnish environmental groups have responded to the crisis with demonstrations (including one organized by the ad hoc Artists for the Old-Growth Forests), civil disobedience, letter-writing efforts and multilingual Internet campaigns.

A sparsely populated, headstrong republic that won its independence from Russia in 1917 and suffered through its share of subsequent national struggles, modern-day Finland—a nation slightly smaller than the state of Montana—can boast of a stable parliamentary democracy (with a female president) and social welfare programs. The nation’s highly literate, cell-phone-dependent, computer-savvy population numbers just barely above five million.

Urban dwellers typically make annual treks to commune with nature during the warm, luminous summer months. The strong connection that Finns appear to feel toward their environment has also been evidenced by the long-standing popularity of recycling, low-impact hiking and camping, and a preponderance of natural, non-toxic household cleansers and unbleached paper products.

But as the nation recovered from a deep recession in the early 1990s and embarked on an upward climb toward a new-found affluence, some of those common-sense, environmentally-friendly consumption patterns have lost ground. In addition, the historically government-subsidized forestry industry is credited with helping to build Finland’s national economy. Today, that industry generates a significant portion of the nation’s $43 billion export economy. Currently, over 50 percent of FPS’ annual timber yield is sold to two dominant Finnish-based forestry corporations, Stora Enso and UPM-Kymmene.

Recent merger acquisitions have pointed to the fact that these corporations are aiming for a more heavy global presence in the forestry industry. Earlier this year, Stora Enso acquired a rival North American papermaker, Consolidated, for $4.84 billion. In another trans-Atlantic forest-industry merger, the Finnish company UPM-Kymmene acquired the U.S.-based Champion International for a record-breaking $6.6 billion.

But a decreasing number of jobs in the timber- and paper-producing industry in some rural, economically stagnant towns have left many citizens blaming forest protection efforts rather than increased mechanization, cost-cutting corporate decisions and other factors affecting local economies. “The local people are very tired of the pressure from forest activists,” says FPS’ M?kinen. He was speaking in particular about Kainuu, a fiercely contested Northern region of Finland where environmentalists have tried to expand protected forest areas.

Environmental groups in Sweden and Norway are facing similar challenges to those faced by their Finnish counterparts in halting logging in unprotected old-growth forests. “More than 90 percent of the forest land in Norway, Sweden and Finland has been converted to intensely managed secondary forests,” says Ola Larsson, information coordinator of the Taiga Rescue Network. The Swedish group represents an international network of environmental groups and indigenous peoples working for the protection and sustainable use of boreal forests.

Environmentalists in Scandinavia stress that the devastation of old-growth forests in boreal regions (Canada, Scandinavia and Russia), feed a non-stop demand for paper products in the developed world. A large proportion of the global trade flow of wood, pulp and paper goes directly from these boreal forests, to the three main consuming regions: Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan. Put together, their inhabitants constitute only one-fourth of the global population, yet they consume roughly three-quarters of all the world’s paper.