Annular Further – Finland – Country and Geography

The introductory Country and Geography section provides an overview of Finland’s relation and history to its vast forests, including the growth of the Forest Industry and wood in the built environment.

There follows sections on the country’s Geography and Trees, Forests, National Parks and Environmental and Nature Preservation organisations in Finland.

The Country

Finland is both Nordic Europe’s archetypal forest culture country and Europe’s most wooded country, with three quarters of its landmass under wood cover. The forests have been lived in and lived by for thousands of years and identifying with forest people and forest culture continues to be close to Finlander’s hearts, even as massive migration to cities and towns over the last century has intensively reduced rural populations. The beginnings of organised pre-industrial forestry can be traced back to the 14th century. Industrial forestry, beginning with steam powered sawmills in the 1870s, was only fully developed in Finland through the 1950s, as part of the country’s broader industrialization. Described in places as the Chemical Forest Industry, there has been a further transition to post-industrial forestry, first with the integration of digital technologies as part of the country’s broader digital transformation in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, and in the last decade, with the arrival of bioeconomy at the heart of the Government’s economic strategy. Among significantly forested countries, Finland continues to be the most economically dependent on its forests.

Sitting between 60° and 70° latitude, 1,100 km long from south to north, and 540 km across, the country’s total landmass amounts to nearly 338,455 km2. Poor fertility of much of Finnish soil has challenged both crop and arable farming and meant that forestry has been an intrinsic part of the country’s farming culture. Despite another of its defining geographic characteristics, its thousands of lakes, and an extensive river network, logging only began to use rivers as transportation arteries in the late 19th century. While less extreme than countries across central and western Europe, Finnish forests were depleted through the 19th century, with an increasing population (from 1 million to 2.5 million through the 19th century) intensifying demand for wood, a growth in wooden boat building, and additional exports of wood to mainland Europe to replace the diminished availability of resources for firewood and other basic uses. As a colony, first of Sweden from the 12th century on, and then after the 1809 Russian-Swedish war, when the country was ceded to Russia, Finnish forestry was significantly influenced by both these neighbours. The beginnings of Finland’s modern Forest Industry benefited from the subsequent hundred plus years of peace, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, when Finnish wood culture embarked on the first stages of industrial transformation.

1860 and 1913 – shifting cultivation

Though depletion and deforestation had been ongoing for hundreds of years, the beginnings of a response only began through the second half of the 19th century, and reforms, when they arrived, were influenced by broader societal change such as migration to cities, and the coming of, primarily German, scientific forestry across mainland Europe. For instance, the first formal forester education was introduced in 1858 while a major legislative reform, the 1871 Forestry Act, resulted in the first laws limiting and attempting to police the prolific logging and forest clearances around the country. It wasn’t, though, until 1917 that the next major piece of legislation, the Private Forestry Act, provided a framework to ban at-risk forests from clear felling, logging, and other forestry practices. The same year – the year Finland gained independence – the Finnish Forest Research Institute was also founded as part of the wider tranche of reforms.

Parallel to and influencing these reforms was the emergence of industrial forestry. The second half of the 19th century saw the introduction of various new foreign technologies, e.g. steam engine technology, which spurred a wave of new sawmills and helped spur the arrival of the pulp and paper sectors of the forestry industry. Foresters continued using axes and other hand tools until the turn of the 20th century.

Tukkilautta (Log Raft), by Albert Edelfelt (1886). In the collection of the Finnish National GalleryImage permission Public Domain

In the wake of Finland gaining independence in 1917 – primarily a result of the Russian revolution – the involvement of the state in its forests, and the organisation and running of the forestry sector, continued to increase. An increased professionalization marked the next forty years through to the early 1960s. State foresters were tasked with implementing the new 1917 regulations, and by the late 1920s industrial forestry and forest management was being introduced to larger and smaller forest owners across the country. By the 1950s industrial forestry approaches were widespread, promulgated by a network of local forestry boards and management associations. In parallel, already in the latter half of the 19th century, and increasingly from independence on, rural communities long held feudal rights were becoming ever more limited and marginalised, a direct counterbalance to the state’s increased role in forests and forestry. The first national forestry co-operative, Metsäliitto was established in 1934, and after its bankruptcy in 1947 it was relaunched as a cooperative running pulp and paper mills, particularly in central Finland. The two largest Forest Industry companies in Finland: Stora Enso and UPM, in their current form are recent. Stora Enso was a merger between the Swedish Stora and Finnish Enso companies in 1998, and UPM in 1996 again a result of a merger, though both companies can trace their origins to pulp and paper mill activities in the late 19th century. All three of these major wood sector companies produce timber and related materials and products, even if for much of their existence the core business has been pulp and paper production. A major shift, though, has been underway over the last twenty years with the arrival of the Internet, and the consequent reduction in demand, alongside competitors, primarily in Asia. Strategic shifts to timber and the bio-based economy have affected all three companies in the last decade, alongside governmental moves towards what has become known as the Bioeconomy Strategy; the basis of economic thinking implemented through Parliament in 2014.


These political and corporate measures had been preceded by a gradual rehabilitation of timber as building material through the 1990s, with fire regulations limiting buildings to three storeys and revised in 1997. Although the vast majority – around 90% – of single-storey buildings were primarily timber, larger and taller timber structures were close to non-existent. This result, a combination of the ubiquity of concrete post-World War II influenced by other Nordic – principally Swedish – state-based modernism housing and planning programmes, though also by proximity to the Soviet bloc with its large-scale post-war projects gaining the epitaph ‘Stalinist Baroque’. Another influence included past memories of 19th century fires razing Finnish cities, such as in Turku, where around 2500 buildings were either damaged or destroyed by fire in 1827. Up until close to the turn of the century timber was considered a material of the past, with Finland’s construction sector and architects so immersed in the 20th century building palette: concrete, brick, and steel, that old knowledge commonplace a few generations earlier had to be relearnt, in part by importing timber specialists from other parts of Europe, including, for instance, Vorarlberg, Austria.

With support from the forest sector, timber projects gradually began to increase through the first decade of the new century, although not to the extent that one might expect for such a forest dominated country. There were showcase projects such as the Lahti Sibelius Hall, or the Wood Town housing programme originating in the northern city of Oulu, which spread across a number of other cities and towns. A new generation of practices, including OOPEA, Avanto and Lunden Arkitekter have produced a series of striking timber projects through the last two decades, generally promoted as contributions to the growing body of Nordic sustainable architecture. The last of these, Eero Lunden, is also one of the more visible representatives of a modest noughties wave of digital architecture, again emerging out of Oulu.

If architectural embrace of wood was both limited and scattered, the Industrial Forest sector’s support of timber was also low key. Still various new timber materials began to appear. Both ThermoWood, the Finnish brand of thermally modified woods and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL), began to be manufactured around the turn of the century with a significant proportion to be exported across Europe. This isn’t particularly surprising, given Finnish forestry was primarily focused on paper, packaging, and pulp, even if the continent’s largest wood industry company, Stora Enso, owned factories in Austria which through the 2000s began manufacturing Cross Laminated Timber (CLT.)

The emergence of the bioeconomy lies in the 2008-2011 economic crash, after paper and packaging demand collapsed through the 2000’s, due to the massive growth of the Internet. Emerging in the aftermath of the crash, the Finnish bioeconomy model began to gain political traction from 2011. A first Bioeconomy Strategy was published in 2014, becoming an economic policy cornerstone of the 2015-2019 centre-right Centre Party-led coalition Government. It is in the last half-decade since bioeconomy thinking has further embedded itself into the heart of the country’s economic strategy, albeit with growing controversy. At the same time a welter of new green bio-based projects and thinking have appeared through the decade. For sceptics, from ecologists and climate scientists to green activists and Saami first nation peoples, its political and corporate embrace is a matter of spin over substance. Pulp and paper mills are given promotional once-overs, while rates of forest cutting actually increase. All three major Forest Industry companies have all pivoted towards bioeconomy identities: Stora Enso is now ‘the renewables company.’  For advocates, a wave of new wood-based products, materials and services are proof of the sustainable effectiveness of the country’s 21st century forest-inflected turn (for more detail see the Climate Change and the politics of the Finnish Boreal Bioeconomy in the Forest Industry section below.)      

As to timber in construction, new timber buildings are indeed increasing across typologies and scale. Revised fire regulation regarding building height was passed in 2011, introducing the possibility of building up to 8 storeys. Successive recent governments have launched programmes aimed at increasing the use of wood in construction, including the current National Wood Building Action Plan. The latter is part of the broader bioeconomy strategy that includes ambitious targets by 2025. However, older targets – such as a 2011 plan for a ten-fold increase in multi-storey buildings – were not reached and were quietly retired. The bioeconomy strategy – and indeed increasing wood construction – is intimately connected to Finland’s political considerations, about which there is considerable division; between the green activist wing, supported by many scientists, and much of the political establishment and Forest Industry. While research across university departments is focused on interlinked concerns and questions, the bio-based circular economy, Design for Disassembly etc., and the architectural community in Finland, like elsewhere, has notably not engaged in the wider debate even as regulation bears down ever more forcibly. Despite being Europe’s most recognisable forest-culture country, it feels too early to say where Finland’s bioeconomy pivot is taking the country in the longer term.

Research on the history of Forest Industry was helpfully informed by Matti Palo’s paper Coevolution of forestry and society in Finland: from preindustrial to industrial forestry (2005).

Geography and Trees

Finland by Sat Nav – Image NASA/Wikipedia Public Domain

Spruce forests in a good light – Photo Metsa Wood

Geologically speaking, Finland is new. The most recent reforestation began only after the last ice age when glaciers retreated north. The forests are therefore also comparatively new. It is divided into three geographical areas: coastal landscapes, the interior lake plateau (also known as Finnish Lakeland) in the centre and east of the country, and the sparsely populated Finnish Uplands in the country’s northern and north eastern interior. There are three ecological regions. The Scandinavian and Russian Taiga from the northern edges of the south of the country continue up to its far northern extremes. South of the Helsinki-Rauma line and along the warmer Baltic south-western coast, a milder climate Sarmatic mixed forest ecoregion consists of mixed coniferous and broadleaf forest biome. The third ecoregion is the Scandinavian Montane Birch Forests, comprising Alpine tundra and Boreal forest found in the far north of the country below the tree line. Sitting on a bedrock of granite soils, the ecoregion remains poor throughout much of the country, mainly where trees are concerned because of the lack of many of the key nutrients.  It is also, apart from in the far north, low-lying – one third lies 100 metres below sea level, and inland 200 metres, a profusion of lakes (10% of the country’s land mass) opens up logging routes to mills in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Spruce, pine, downy birch, and silver birch are the main species found in all parts of Finland. Although species-wise broadleaf deciduous trees outnumber conifers eight-to-one with 30 species growing in all, in the Scandinavian boreal taiga, Scots pine dominates, along with spruce, birch and an understorey of juniper. In Finland’s high north montane birch region, the same core three trees grow, apart from on higher ground, where only mountain birch continues to find a foothold. Glacial retreat originally created the lake landscape, making for wet, bog-laden, thin-soiled, acidic, and low in nutrient ground conditions which mitigates against much other growth. The boreal forest is often divided into the high or northern boreal or taiga zone, the middle boreal and the southern boreal, found in the southern mildest climate conditions. Elm, maple and particularly oak grows in the milder south and south west, which is where agriculture is also most commonly cultivated. Aspen, alder, and rowan are other deciduous trees.

Northern forests: Lake Inari – Photo Karlis Strazdins/Wikipedia Public Domain

Graphic images from Scientific Data/Wikipedia SA BY 4.0 – Souce Beck et al present and future Koppen-Geiger climate classification maps

Forests

Finland’s forest cover is the most extensive of all the Nordic countries, with 75% of the country wooded, about 10% of all of Europe’s forested land (215 million hectares.) This amounts to about 23 million hectares, overwhelmingly (figures vary between 90% to 97%) pine and spruce, of which nearly 96% is categorised as semi-natural, with some human impact. A rough, although truly unquantifiable estimate, calculates 7 billion trees growing in the country, though less than 3.5% remains old growth, nearly all in the far east of the country bordering Russia.

As noted above, spruce, down birch, silver birch and Scots pine are Finland’s main species spread across almost the entire country, with oak, elm and rowan in the milder Baltic and south west parts of the country.

Forests and Climate Change

As the most forest covered country in Europe, Finland will experience, and is already experiencing, significant Climate Change impacts across the whole of the country. Warmer, drier weather is already occurring across Finland, and this is anticipated to increase. Some of the ways in which the country will be affected include the following, according to the Natural Resources Institute:

– Longer vegetation periods
– Proportions of tree species may change
– Earlier growing period for birches
– Norway spruce will grow more slowly early in the summer season
– The forest winter dormancy period will be affected
– Greater forest growth yields
– The capacity to sequester carbon will increase
– Foreign and invasive species will be more frequent, and more likely to survive
– Bark beetle and other insect infestation will increase
– Forest diseases will increase
– Likelihood of increases in storm damage in forests

Warmer climates will encourage the growth of forests, which alongside the various risks, will result in greater photosynthesis and carbon capture and storage, although to what extent and in what ways are being researched and already a matter of dispute. The current Climate Change Act of 2015, is currently undergoing reform in Parliament with forests and land use major considerations.

The country has been experiencing changing weather. In July 2018 the whole country bathed in temperatures of up to 19.4°C, the highest temperatures on record, and winter 2020 was the mildest in a hundred years. The average mean temperature has increased by 2.3°C compared to the 1900’s. One Scientific Data report shows graphic predictions of warming – as above – across two different periods: 1980 to 2016, and 2071 to 2100.

National Parks, Wilderness areas and certified Protected Areas

Urho Kekkonen National Park

Urho Kekkonen wilderness area – Photo Urho Kekkonen Wilderness Park

There are 37 national parks, 19 strict nature reserves, 12 wilderness reserves and 500 other protected areas overall in Finland, which all contribute to conserving forests, islands, lakes, and fell landscapes, as well as the species living in them. A comprehensive overview and list of the national parks can be found on the Nationalparks.fi site, while a satellite map of Finland’s protected areas can be found here on the Protected Planet site. The Natura 2000 EU protected areas network includes nearly 1900 areas, covering some 5 million ha of Finland’s total area of 34 million ha.

Urho Kekkonen wilderness nature area borders Russia in the far north east of the country. Covering 2549 km², Urho Kekkonen is the second largest protected wilderness area in Finland after the Kaldoaivi wilderness area, located in the nearly treeless far north Sub Arctic. Comprising a mix of barren upland fells, and large pine and spruce forests, the park was historically (and remains) home to Saami first peoples.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are some 45,000 species of animals and plants in Finland, almost 30% of Europe’s species. These include Europe’s largest carnivores: the brown bear, grey wolf, Eurasian lynx and wolverine. A species assessment exercise of nearly half of these species identified an estimated 10% at-risk and threatened population.

There are only very limited old-growth and wilderness wooded areas in the country. Conflict over these old-growth forests, those still comprising original natural ecosystems, rather than managed ecosystems of forested land, has continued for the last half century. Ongoing struggles over preserving the natural ecosystems of the remaining old-growth forests, mainly in the north-east and eastern parts bordering Russia. The Forest Industries have played a major part in the destruction of the enclaves of the country’s old-growth regions. A focus of activist nature groups, the tension between these groups and the Forest Industry continues up to the present day.

Map of Old Growth forests in Finland – Map Taiga Rescue Network

YLE, Finland’s National Radio reported in 2017 that only 6.6% of old-growth woodlands remained. Coverage is relatively high in the north-east at 16% in Lapland and 8% in Kainuu, while in south, west, and central Finland, levels were much lower at between 2% and 5%. This is despite, as the report points out, Finland being a signatory to the UN’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity with targets of 17% inland and 10% around coastal regions. These are often hundred-year-old forests, rather than what some consider genuine old-growth forests of 500 years or older. There are only tiny remnants in the country, with man-made intervention almost completely ubiquitous to a greater or lesser extent.

Although industrial forestry attempts to mimic natural succession per the old-growth forest’s ecological systems, the capacity to do so is fundamentally reduced, risking both biodiversity and ecological degradation. Old-growth boreal forests provide warm-weather habitat for “many hundreds of thousands of cranes, geese, lapwings, and millions of other small birds”, according to a 2016 feature in Take Part, the environmental web-magazine. Likewise, industrial managed forests reduce the ability of forest to store carbon and nurture biodiversity.    

Map of National Parks – Image Metsähallitus

Natural Resources Institute

Environmental and Nature Preservation organisations

Finnish Nature League/Luonto-Liitto

There are a relatively small number of environmental and nature preservation organisations in Finland, primarily involved in biodiversity, old-growth forests issues, and nature and environmental education. Activist groups are focused on saving the small amount of remaining old-growth forests, often working with the Saami people in the north and east of the country.

Finnish Natural Heritage League – a Finnish NGO promoting the old-growth forests and their protection, with nearly 100 old-growth forests spread across the country.

The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (FANC) – Finland’s largest non-governmental nature preservation organisation, involved in forest protection, climate change prevention and nature preservation as environmental education.

Finnish Nature League/Luonto-Liitto an NGO nature and environmental protection organisation for children and young adults (and sister organisation to FANC). Founded in 1943, Luonto-Liitto is one of the few nationwide nature organisations, with around 7000 members.

WWF Finland – part of the Global WWF network and active in Finland since 1972. WWF Finland’s Old-Growth paper is available here.  WWF’s 2021-2030 strategy report is also available here.

Greenpeace Finland/ Greenpeace Suomi – part of Greenpeace Nordic and the environmental NGO’s international network. Greenpeace Finland is one of the groups engaged in the overlap of old-growth forest and Saami people’s activism, alongside lobbying and media work.

Snowchange Cooperative – a land rights group comprising and working with local and indigenous communities in Northern Circumpolar, Finland. This includes maintaining and advancing traditional forest culture spanning traditional knowledge, stories, handicrafts, fishing, and hunting.