The facts of the forest debate – who’s interested?

Forest in winter

Emotion, drama and pessimism – tasty little tidbits in the forest debate when you’re in a hurry to cut corners. The responsible thing to do would be to look at the facts and question deeply rooted attitudes. Things in forestry are not as bad as the media and social media might lead you to believe. Things are slowly getting better, says Natural Resources Institute Finland’s Research Professor Annika Kangas.

“People’s perception of forests and forestry is based almost exclusively on negative hype. Since the 1980s, the biodiversity debate has led to a perception among almost all Finns that things are bad – and getting worse all the time. Nobody has bothered to look at what the statistics say. Many indicators have been moving in a better direction for decades now,” says the research professor.

100 years of statistics

Finland’s forest resources have been inventoried since 1921. The 13th national inventory is currently underway. The statistical data maintained by Natural Resources Institute Finland provides the basis for planning sustainable forestry, for planning and monitoring forest, environmental, energy and climate policy, and also for planning investments by forestry and forest industry actors.

The National Forest Inventory (NFI) annually covers about 12,000 test plots, some 80% of them permanent. More than 100 different indicators are measured from the test plots that are located in different parts of Finland; these indicators are used to produce forest resource data. Every year, at least 20 research teams, each with around 20 people, walk the ground for 4-5 months, taking measurements. The results and a huge volume of data from previous decades are freely accessible online.

Annika Kangas has been a research professor with Natural Resources Institute Finland in Joensuu for almost 10 years. Before that, she was a professor for 13 years at the University of Helsinki. Her work has covered a wide range of forest issues: forest assessment, forest inventory, forest resources, data value, forest planning, remote sensing, statistical methods and software development. The role of professors at Natural Resources Institute Finland is to contribute to the societal debate. And that too is what Annika Kangas has done, while also becoming familiar with the often ruthless social media.

Annika Kangas

An insurmountable news threshold

Last June, a group of Finnish media representatives gathered for a forestry tour to hear about what’s going on in the forestry sector. In Research Professor Annika Kangas’s presentation to the journalists, which she had previously given at a Finnish Statistical Society seminar, she concretized her concern about the wrong paths that the forest debate and opinion-shaping can take if facts are not taken into account.

When emotion stemming from negativity is rampant, the aftermath can be very distressing. The carbon sink of a stand of trees is seen as a mirror image of logging, but even brisk growth of the carbon sink doesn’t cross the news threshold. Kangas urges us to look at forests in the light of the NFI statistics.

“Old-growth forests disappeared from southern Finland in the 1700-1800s. Since then, in the measurement history of old-growth forests, their share has gradually increased. There hasn’t been a decline in the large trees; instead, measurement data indicate that their number in Finland has quadrupled in the last 100 years. Over the last 50 years, that tree population in Finland has doubled.”

Common opinion vs. facts

A couple of years ago, the forestry company UPM commissioned an extensive public survey. The aim was to find out what Finns know about forests, forest use, management methods or, say, the economic impacts. Almost half of the respondents believed that the state owns most of Finland’s forests. In reality, 60% of Finland’s forests are owned by private individuals.

More than half of the respondents estimated that forestry generates tax revenues of up to 400 million euros per year. The actual figure is around four billion.

Five percent of the respondents believed that logging had increased fivefold in the previous five years. Similarly, 40% of respondents thought that logging had doubled in the same five-year period.

In reality, from 2016 to peak year 2021, the increase in logging volume was eight percent, according to official statistics. Over the last 100 years, logging has increased by 142%.

“Many people thus imagine that logging has increased more in the last five years than it has actually increased in the last 100 years,” Kangas notes.

A need for communication

Communication is a difficult field, and in today’s 24/7 world you cannot slack – not even for a moment. Annika Kangas admits to at times being frustrated by attempts to correct misinformation and send requests for corrections to media journalists. Most fruitful, in the professor’s view, would be for the debate to be conducted openly and with the facts – and without digging into foxholes.

In Kangas’s opinion, information about forest resources should be communicated more often and take into account the public, not just professionals.

TEXT: Sirkka-Liisa Aaltonen/Viestintä Ässä Oy, IMAGES: John Deere and Jarno Artika