Beginnings and protection 1899-1950

One of the first tree nurseries in Iceland established in 1903. The photo was taken by Christian Flensborg in 1905-1907Organised forestry is considered to have started in Iceland in 1899 with the planting of the Pine Stand at Thingvellir. Three Danes; merchant marine captain Carl H. Ryder who perceived the problems inherent in having no forest resource, forestry professor Carl V. Prytz who provided expertise and Christian E. Flensborg, a young forester who did most of the work, were instrumental in initiating forestry efforts in Iceland and lobbying the parliament to adopt a forestry and soil conservation act. It was adopted in 1907 and the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) was established in 1908.

After an early phase of experiments with exotic tree species, forestry efforts largely focused on protecting birch woodland remnants during the first half of the 20th century, with several forest areas being acquired by the IFS for that purpose. They, along with more recently acquired afforestation areas comprise the National Forest system today. Protection entailed enclosing the woodland areas in a fence to exclude sheep, a practice still necessary today for all afforestation areas, due to uncontrolled summer grazing.

Gaining experience with planting 1950-1990

The Icelandic Forest Research station at Mógilsá. Founded in 1968.Since about 1950, emphasis has been on afforestation through planting trees. Planting by forestry societies and the IFS increased greatly during the 1950's, reaching over 1.5 million seedlings per year during 1960-1962. The principal species planted were exotic spruces, pines and larch: Picea abies, Picea sitchensis, Pinus sylvestris, Pinus contorta and Larix sibirica. Planting declined after 1963 and remained at 500,000 to 1 million seedlings annually to 1989. 

From 1950 to 1990, a great deal of experience was gained through experimenting with different exotic species and provenances. It soon became clear that scientific research was essential to progress in identifying the best species and provenances and developing afforestation methods. The IFS initiated research and established a research station in 1967 with aid from Norway.   

Increased afforestation 1990-2009

Afforestation through planting increased again to roughly 4 million seedlings annually throughout most of the 1990s, reaching a high of about 6 million seedlings per year during 2007-2009. Planting of native birch increased proportionate to the total, comprising as much as 30% of seedlings planted in some years. Larix sukaczewii (syn. L. sibirica var. sukaczewii) was planted to roughly the same extent and planting of Picea sitchensis increased as older stands showed very good growth.

The crash 2009-2015

Public funding for forestry reached a maximum in 2005, after which it started to wane slightly in real terms (rated against inflation). After the financial crisis of 2008-2009, funding for forestry was cut drastically. In real terms, public funding for forestry in 2013 was only half of what it was 2005. This resulted in a drastic reduction in planting, down to about 3 million seedlings in 2015. Among the consequences were tree nurseries going out of business and educated foresters moving abroad to find work.

On the other hand, the collapse of the Icelandic Krona meant that wood imports became much more expensive, providing opportunities for greater use of domestic wood. Plantations from the 1950s-´70s were in need of thinning and had been for some time. Now for the first time there was a possibility that thinning could be economically sustainable. Thinning and timber sales by the IFS increased greatly in 2009 and continued to increase during the following years. Since then, timber production from thinnings has become a new, major activity within the Icelandic forestry sector.

Historically, there have been three relatively short-lived upswings in forestry in Iceland with longer periods of less activity in between. The upswings were the beginnings of forestry 1899-1908, the beginnings of planting 1950-1963 and the recent increase in afforestation 1990-2009. The causes of the current decline are partly financial and partly social, both of which translate into less political support for forestry. If history is any indication, we might be in the early years of a period of less forestry activity that could last 30-40 years. Despite rapid economic recovery in Iceland during 2014-2016, funding for forestry has only increased slightly. However, Iceland now has a developing commercial forest resource that is already starting to generate significant income. That income should spur interest in investing in forestry, hopefully resulting in a shorter downswing. Other factors, such as increased afforestation for carbon sequestration could also aid in revitalising forestry, but that hasn't happened yet despite 20 years of talking about it.