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New Bottom Line Volume 6.13 – Strategic Sustainability (4): Less is more in Swedish forest

June 19, 1997

Midway through a sunny 20-hour June day, in woodlands near Skultuna, about an hour north of Stockholm, my colleagues and I strolled through the future of forestry.

The main harvested area of the 11 hectare parcel felt like many glades I have come across in unmanaged forests: a couple of hectares of open glade, sprinkled with mature trees; several prostrate dead logs, snags and tree trunks providing a feast for insects and detritivores; a rich vegetative cover of grasses, forbs, and forest flowers protecting the soil. In other zones of the parcel the specifics were different but the pattern the same: each piece of the highly varied patchwork of harvest schemes still felt like a diverse living forest.

The handiwork of a dedicated but soon to be bankrupt small forester? Hardly. This was just one management area of AssiDomän AB, one of the world’s largest forestry, pulp and paper companies. AssiDomän, with $2.5 billion in annual turnover, 13,500 employees and 3.4 million hectares under management, has declared two “equal” business goals: “high and sustainable economic future,” and ” long term viability of ecosystems and maintenance of biodiversity.”

“We used to cut first, and think later,” noted Senior Ecologist Jan-Erik Lundberg. “That’s now forbidden.”

Like other major Scandinavian forest companies (such as the rapidly growing SCA), AssiDomän, a privatized state owned company, has begun to shift from the big clear cuts and uniform practices of the industrial forestry of 10-15 years ago to the more flexible, more situation-specific, yet quite sophisticated practice of “site-adapted forestry” they favor today.

Each management area — typically 6-7 hectares — is mapped into subunits, based on soil type and moisture, vegetation and fauna diversity and other characteristics… Each subunit gets its own management plan — “final felling” that takes out all mature trees, various kinds of selective cuts, small area managed fires, leaving whole stands intact (on average 12% of the area of management units in southern Sweden) to protect soils, species, and ecological vitality. Mass customization comes to natural resource management.

Overall AssiDomän limits cutting to 75% of the timber growth rate, yet it is able to steadily increase harvest — projecting a 1% per year increase over the next 20 years — because timber growth rates are actually increasing under this management plan. (Although there is the question of whether this somewhat simpler forest is at odds with biodiversity goals.)

“But how can you make money doing this,” one of our party challenged. “Clearly you earn less revenue if you leave valuable timber standing.”

Lundberg seemed startled by the question, and had so many answers he hardly seemed to know where to begin. “The seed trees we leave standing each seed 70 or 80 new trees, so we avoid the cost of replanting and scarification. We get better regrowth, and less erosion, so the next generation of trees is more productive. And we harvest the seed trees when the young trees reach 200 to 300 decimeters, so those more mature trees are worth more than if we cut them originally.”

“Yes, there are costs,” agrees Jonas Jacobson, Director of Forests and Timber. “But with a more motivated organization, things are cheaper. For example, with a more complicated harvest we should expect increased costs, but we don’t see it. I don’t think we’d have this level of motivation without our environmental commitment.”

Some of the motivation may come from how AssiDomän has reorganized the work process. The 2 week site planning surveys are conducted by the machine operators — the people who actually cut the trees — who receive several weeks field training in ecological site assessment and planning. What a contrast to the North American forest debate, which has often revolved around preserving logging jobs or shifting loggers to tree planting. In Scandinavia the trend seems to be cut less, let the forest do the planting, and turn the loggers into forest ecologists, with performance ultimately judged by an Ecological Balance Sheet that assesses “site adaptation,” conservation and water protection, as well as yields and profitability.

There is much more to say about the Scandinavian forest products industry — integration of fiber recycling into core business strategy, abandonment of elemental chlorine bleaching, development of ISO 14000 and/or EMAS based environmental management systems; we’ll visit those themes and some other companies in future columns.

Meanwhile, the many people who still consider environmental quality and efficiency to be a cost — which, like any cost, businesses need to minimize — would be well advised to consider the Scandinavian example. By accepting ecological concerns as a given of their operating landscape, companies are finding they can turn those concerns into profit and business advantage.

(c) 1997 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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