Iceland has become a popular tourist destination due in no small part to its breathtaking views and unique geological features, but it is also one of the worst examples of deforestation on the planet. When settlers first arrived in Iceland in the ninth century, up to 40 percent of the land area was covered with forests. The Vikings cleared these trees for fuel and to make space for grazing. Erosion from overgrazing and disruption from volcanic events left Iceland nearly without woods. Now, in collaboration with forest farmers and local forestry societies, the Icelandic Forest Service is working to regrow what was lost centuries ago and bring forests back in Iceland.
Icelandic Forest Service director Þröstur Eysteinsson understands the true magnitude of what the organization he leads is trying to accomplish. “Iceland is certainly among the worst examples in the world of deforestation. It doesn’t take very many people or very many sheep to deforest a whole country over a thousand years,” said Þröstur. “To see the forest growing, to see that we’re actually doing some good is a very rewarding thing.” Þröstur is motivated by a driving desire to build ecological resilience. “My mission is to support growing more forests and better forests, to make land more productive and more able to tolerate the pressures that we put on it.”
The only native forest-building tree, the downy birch, has struggled to establish itself in new forests. With assistance from the Euforgen program, the Iceland Forest Service is introducing locally-tailored, non-native tree species, most of which are from Alaska, into Iceland woodlands. These newly mixed forests are “growing better than anybody ever thought,” according to Þröstur. The ultimate goal is to improve Iceland’s forest cover from the current two percent to twelve percent by 2100, with help from carefully curated non-native trees.