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Call to increase controlled burning of Finnish forests

Finland has a long tradition of burning the top layer of forest underbrush after logging, to replenish the ground for new saplings. Finland's largest forest land owners plan to burn dozens of hectares this year, to make up for recent rainy summers, as environmentalists and certification programmes call for the practice to be revived in the name of better biodiversity.

Kulotusta Helvetinjärven kansallispuistossa
Image: Mauri Tikkamäki / Yle

"Slash and burn" goes back centuries in Finland and was commonplace from the 1700s to the 1900s, when it was widely represented in art and literature. The idea of burning the top layer of the forest after logging remained a regular practice once the clear cutting ceased, as it was shown to have a positive impact on forest species diversity. As recently as the 1950s, Finland still carried out prescribed burnings of up to 20 percent of its forest land, but since the 1990s the number has fallen to less than one percent.

Ecologists and researchers are now calling for a return to the forest rejuvenation method of old. Several international certification systems have created regulations with regards to prescribed burning. Complying with these certification requirements is important to many Finnish forest companies, as they can then show their environmentally conscious customers that their operations are ecologically responsible.

The Forest Stewardship Council, for example, posits that owners of forests surpassing 10,000 hectares in size should conduct a controlled burn of at least three percent of their regeneration forest in a five-year period. The FSC is a non-profit group that promotes sustainable forestry, and a stamp showing that products are FSC-approved is a boon for companies in the forest industry.

The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is an alternative non-profit specialising in independent third-party certification. It is the system of choice for small forest owners. The PEFC also promotes burning as a natural forest management "good practice" to boost biodiversity.

Up to the forest titans

In practice, the return of prescribed burning is largely in the hands of Finland's large forest companies. The third-largest owner of forest land in the country, Tornator, is partially owned by the Finnish forest giant Stora Enso. It plans to play catch-up in this area this year, as the last few summers were so rainy.

"Tornator has planned prescribed burning of about 100 hectares of Finnish forest in 2017. The amount includes both forest management burns and environmental management operations, typically 0.2 hectare forest stands that are burned to promote forest diversity," says the company's forest and environment director Heikki Myöhänen.

Another sizable Finnish forest firm, UPM, says it will carry out the burning of about 50 harvested hectares.  The company has a unit that carries out prescribed burns on a regular basis, in part to maintain the participants' unique expertise, that is widely seen to be dying out in Finland. UPM claims better cleanup of post-harvest slash – branches and residue – has not affected the frequency of the controlled burns.

"Slash is a marginal factor; it's not dependent on that. We still have target areas, because it's all about planning," says UPM Forest's environmental director Sami Oksa.

Lack of expertise and money

The state-owned forest administrator Metsähallitus, which manages 35 percent of Finland's total land area, has also made systematic efforts to increase prescribed burning.

Finnish law requires that a forest professional always oversee intentional burns. The operation is very cost-intensive, as many people – including several volunteer fire departments – are required to be on hand for technical and safety reasons. It's another reason why the practice has dwindled.

It is also a high-risk operation that must be insured. Insurance companies stopped selling fire insurance that covers prescribed burns to private forest owners already in the late 1960s.

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