The Icelandic ministerial structure went through major reshuffling in 2007 and again in 2012. In two steps, responsibility for forestry was moved from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Environment and Resources. From 2007 to 2012, the IFS was under the Ministry of Environment while the Regional Afforestation Projects (RAPs), responsible for providing grants for farm afforestation, remained under the Agriculture Ministry. In 2016 the IFS and the RAPs were merged into a new agency, Skógræktin, which is nevertheless still translated into English as the Icelandic Forest Service.  

The Icelandic Forest Service

The Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) was established according to the forestry and soil conservation act of 1907. It is the state forestry authority in Iceland and is under the Ministry of Environment and Resources. The IFS manages the National Forests, totalling about 7000 ha or 5% of Icelandic forests and woodlands. The majority of forest and woodland area within the National Forests is protected native birch woodland, but there are also cultivated forests of various species, experimental forests and arboreta. All National Forests are open to the public year-round and some are among the most visited outdoor recreation areas in Iceland. Their status with respect to outdoor recreation varies from barely accessible wilderness to considerably developed, with marked footpaths, picnic areas and campgrounds. The National Forests employ a full-time staff of around 30 people.

Between 1950 and 1990 the main emphasis of the IFS was on afforestation through planting. The IFS planted roughly half the trees planted in Iceland up to 1990, mostly in the National Forests. To this end, the IFS built and ran as many as six tree nurseries in various parts of Iceland. After 1990, seedling production was gradually privatised and other actors took the lead in planting. Tree planting is now a relatively minor part of IFS activities but continues at a rate of 50-100 hectares per year. 

Besides planting, the IFS promoted increased woodland area through direct seeding and self seeding of birch. Most IFS enclosures were established around remnants of birchwoods where natural regeneration was usually abundant. For example, the area of birch cover within the original Hallormsstaður National Forest enclosure increased by 330 ha from 1906 to 1995 without any birch being planted, or an average of 3.7 ha per year, more than doubling the original forest area in 90 years.

One of the early IFS afforestation areas at Kirkjubæjarklaustur in SE Iceland. The tallest tree in Iceland grows in the Sitka spruce stand on the left; 27.2 m in 2016.The Icelandic Forest Research located at Mógilsá near Reykjavik is the research division of the IFS. Tree improvement (species and provenance trials and tree breeding) along with research on seedling production and establishment are the mainstay of forest research in Iceland. In recent years, forest ecology research has become an increasingly important, with a wide range of topics being looked at, including carbon and nutrient cycles, insect pests and pathogens and the effects of afforestation on plant and animal communities. Forest inventory has also increased in importance, not the least due to the need for knowledge about carbon stocks and sequestration. Other recent research topics include growth and yield studies and social aspects of forestry.  For the majority of research projects, emphasis is placed on applicability to forest management planning and practice.

From its limited beginnings as a pilot project by the IFS on four farms in 1970, state supported afforestation on farms has grown to become the main channel for afforestation activity in Iceland. Since 1970, the grants scheme has gone through several institutional changes and a great deal of development has taken place. Between 1990 and 2016 the grants scheme was managed by Regional Afforestation Projects (RAPs) that were independent of the IFS, but the IFS and RAPs were merged in 2016. State funding of farm afforestation grants reached a maximum during 2005-2009 but has since then suffered severe cut-backs.

Within the farm afforestation grants scheme, contracts are made with landowners, afforestation plans are drawn up for each participating farm, seedling production and distribution are co-ordinated, education and extension services are provided and grants are distributed. Recently, methodology and provision of grants has been developed for spacing and pre-commercial thinning. 

Each farm afforestation grant covers 97% of establishment costs, including fencing, roads, site preparation, planting and the first thinning. The individual landowner owns the resulting forest and bears all legal responsibility. The landowners often do part of the work themselves but other parts of the work are usually done by contractors. Thus, the grants scheme has led to establishment of small businesses providing services to forest owners, such as fence maintenance, road work, site preparation, planting and thinning. 

After the merger in 2016, the IFS is set up in four divisions:

  1. Forest resources

    o  National Forests
    o  Afforestation grants scheme
    o  Seed supply and cutting production
    o  Outreach and advisory services
  2. Forest research

    o  Tree improvement
    o  Forest inventory
    o  Forest pests and diseases
    o  Forest establishment
  3. Forest strategy

    o  National forestry programme
    o  Forest recreation
    o  Education
    o  Public relations
    o  Marketing
  4. Finance

    o  Day-to-day operations
    o  Fiscal planning
    o  Contracts

Hekluskógar (Hekla forests project)

A very large area north, west and south of the volcano Hekla consists mostly of desertified land at fairly low elevation. It was wooded for the most part at the time of settlement, but the forests were felled and grazing along with blowing volcanic tephra caused severe erosion. Tephra is not only a problem immediately after an eruption, since in an open landscape it is blown back and forth for years and can be the source of dust storms for decades. In the shelter of a forest however, the ash quickly settles and becomes covered by vegetation.

An ambitious effort to reclaim forest and woodland around Hekla was initiated in 2005. The aim is to afforest up to 100,000 hectares of land, primarily with native birch, in the hope of reducing disturbance from future eruptions of Hekla. The Hekluskógar project is a joint effort of the Soil Conservation Service and the IFS with special funding from the state budget.

As of 2016, other similar projects are being prepared, principally on lands managed by the Soil Conservation Service. These are often disturbance prone sand dune areas that have been at least partially stabilised by lyme grass, other grasses or lupine but succession toward a more stable vegetation cover is slow. The aim is to afforest these areas for soil conservation, carbon sequestration and other forest benefits such as recreation and timber production. These will hopefully be cooperative projects between the Soil Conservation Service, the IFS, local municipalities and others.

Forestry Societies   

The Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA) was formed in 1930 and is an umbrella organisation for 57 local forestry societies. These are non-governmental volunteer organisations of people interested in afforestation. Their efforts are mostly concentrated around towns and villages, but some own quite large tracts of forest land and some of the oldest cultivated forests originally grown on treeless land belong to forestry societies.

The Icelandic Forestry Association is the largest environmental NGO in Iceland.Since 1990, forestry societies have been the main actors in the Land Reclamation Forest project, originally a co-operative project between the IFA, the IFS and the Soil Conservation Service but now by contract between the IFA and the Ministry of Environment and Resources. This project has been responsible for 10-30% of annual planting in Iceland. The aim is to afforest eroded or degraded land and 40-75% of seedlings planted annually have been native birch. Besides the Land Reclamation Forests project, local forestry societies are mostly concerned with managing forests and woodlands for outdoor recreation, some grow Christmas trees and some have small tree nurseries.

The IFA publishes the journal Icelandic Forestry, which comes out in two volumes annually. It is the main forestry publication in Iceland and contains a mix of scientific papers and more general articles. They also offer short courses in forestry related subjects, an annual lecture series and forests walks aimed at increasing public knowledge of and interest in forestry. The IFA has roughly 7000 members, or about 2% of the Icelandic population, making it by far the largest environmental NGO in Iceland.

The Forest Owners Association

The Icelandic Forest Owners Association (FOA) was formed in 1998 as a union to represent the views and concerns of forest owners. It has a membership of over 700, consisting mostly of forest owners participating in the farm afforestation grants scheme. The FOA has a volunteer board of directors, a very small budget, one part-time employee and no permanent headquarters. Outreach, in the form of meetings, conferences and publication of the magazine Við skógareigendur (We Forest Owners), is an increasing part of FOA activities.

Forestry education at the Agricultural University of Iceland

The Agricultural University of Iceland, with its main campus at Hvanneyri in West Iceland, started a forestry degree programme in 2004. This marked the first time that university level education in forestry was offered in Iceland and was a milestone for Icelandic forestry. The first foresters with an Icelandic BSc in forestry graduated in spring 2007 and the first MSc degree was awarded in autumn of 2008. The Agricultural University also offers sub-university level courses and continuing education in forestry, where forest owners and others can improve their knowledge and technical competence.

The beginnings of forest industry

Icelanders use the same amount of forest products per capita as other nations with a comparable standard of living, but they are almost all imported due to Iceland's very small forest resource. However, there are niche markets that can be supplied with wood from selection felling in the largest birch forests and thinning in plantations of various species. Examples include:

  • Birch fireplace logs
  • Fuel wood for heating buildings in non-geothermal areas
  • Larch fenceposts
  • Birch, larch and other species for handicrafts
  • Larch, spruce, pine and poplar lumber in small quantities
  • Spruce poles for fish drying racks
  • Spruce and pine shavings for bedding for livestock. 
  • Wood chips used in footpaths, as mulch, etc.

It is perhaps inappropriate to use the term forest industry in Iceland, but there are several small businesses that use wood from Icelandic forests in their production. As the forest resource grows and more wood from thinnings in plantations becomes available, these businesses and others will be able to rely on domestic sources of wood rather than imports to an increasing extent.

Silicon smelting has become a sizeable industry in Iceland because it is an arc smelting process requiring a great deal of electricity. A source of carbon is also required in the smelting process and wood chips are more climate friendly that fossil carbon (coal or coke). Since 2012, the IFS has provided wood chips from Icelandic forests to the Elkem-Iceland silicon smelter at a price that more or less covers the costs of thinning, transport and chipping. This has resulted in a greatly needed increase in thinning of middle-aged stands in both the National Forests and forests owned by others. However, the Icelandic forest resource can as yet only provide a small part of the wood chips needed in the smelting process, so most are imported.

Chipping of Siberian larch thinned from young stands.A new silicon smelter near Keflavík started operations in late 2016 and another one near Húsavík will start in 2017. Both will use wood chips as a carbon source, mostly imported. Together, these three smelters will require well over 100,000 tonnes of wood chips annually, whereas the potential annual production of chips from Icelandic forests is currently less than 10,000 tonnes. This will increase as the forest resource grows, but is will still be some decades before we can provide the wood needed by the silicon industry.

This is only one example of the need for wood as a raw material in Iceland. This is also a need that could easily be met domestically, while both creating jobs and reducing the carbon cost of importing chips. If we only had a larger forest resource. This underscores the need to plant more trees, to build up the resource.

Afforestation objectives

In general, Icelandic afforestation is planned and cultivated forests managed with multiple-use objectives. These objectives can best be described based on the three principle aspects of forest sustainability: economic (wood production, non-wood products), ecological (ecosystem processes, habitats, wildlife, soil and water conservation, sequestering CO2) and social (recreation, spiritual, public health).

In forest planning and management, greater emphasis is often placed on one or two of these functions and less emphasis on others, without ignoring them entirely.  In farm afforestation the majority of plans to date emphasise timber production as a primary goal, the main timber species being Siberian larch, Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine and black cottonwood.  

The management goal for the greatest area within the National Forests (IFS lands) is simply protection of native forest and woodland ecosystems. Because the IFS was first to plant extensive areas with productive conifers, it is now the main timber producer in Iceland as well. In large areas, emphasis is on soil erosion control, reclamation of productivity and in some cases ecological restoration, where native birch plays a major role.

The realisation is increasing that urban and peri-urban forestry serves very important social and health-related functions. Forestry societies have been most active in this regard, placing emphasis on opening forests to the public. Two forest areas originally cultivated on treeless land in the 1950's and 60's, one near Reykjavik and the other near Akureyri, annually receive over 500,000 visits, well over the entire population of Iceland.

Forestry Legislation

Laws pertaining to forestry reflect the fact that forests form a very small part of the Icelandic landscape, the main policy points being that existing forests should be protected and afforestation of treeless land is encouraged. To this end, the IFS also has a mandate to educate and advise the public in forestry matters, which requires research. These goals have been in effect since the first Forestry Act of 1907. The current forestry act is from 1955 and is for the most part out of date and useless. However, the goal of increasing forest cover through afforestation is re-affirmed in the Farm Afforestation Act of 2006, where for the first time a concrete goal of 5% forest and woodland cover of lowlands is set.

In recent years, checks have been put into place regarding certain aspects of forestry through the Planning Act, the Environmental Impact Assessment Act and a regulation regarding use of exotic plant species. These legal instruments are the results of EU directives; in other words not the result of a perceived need within Iceland to put checks on forestry, although forestry in Iceland as elsewhere is not without its detractors.

Work on drafting a new forestry act is going on. If passed, the new forestry act will support and legitimise developments that have already taken place and lead to some much needed changes.