Iceland, a country known for its lunar-like landscape, has just 1% of woodland left. Once upon a time though, it was covered with trees, says Brynjólfur Jónsson of the Icelandic Forest Association. And his hope is that small areas of woodland will re-emerge in the coming years as companies take interest in reforesting the island nation.
Outdoor Icelandic apparel brand 66°North is one such company that has started with about 2,500 trees planted about an hour outside of Reykjavik. The goal is to do 11,000 in total. This was more than just a “carbon offset” program, but a community event with the intent to create awareness on the importance of woodlands, explains Jónsson.
What’s unique about deforestation in Iceland is that this is not a recent phenomenon. Rather, Iceland has been treeless for about a hundred years, with over 97% of its natural forest extinct. “It’s humans. Human activity, be it clearing land for sheep, farming, or using timber for building, fuel, and charcoal, that is responsible for it,” Jónsson says.
Now bringing them back is a bit trickier given the climate and soil Jónsson and his team are dealing with. “It’s very hard to get these young saplings to grow when the wind is blowing so hard and there’s so many temperature changes. One day it’s below freezing, the next day it’s not. The winters are quite brutal. So, how do we create a good environment for them to grow?”
There’s also the issue of the sheep, which graze on the open land. “Sheep is a complicated topic here in Iceland,” he says with a bit of a laugh. “They’re treated with great regard and allowed to roam freely. Unfortunately, sometimes they eat things, like low lying bushes, that we don’t want them to eat and that contributes to the desertification.”
IFA is using birch, which was the dominant species, and is suitable for Iceland, he says, in its reforestation efforts, coupled with a mix of 5-6 species. But some areas, such as the woodland supported by 66°North, will have a variety of trees, including fruit trees, to make it a place that people want to visit. And that human interaction, Jónsson says, is actually really important in getting local Icleanders to see the value in reforestation.
While IFA had access to this particular area, measuring to about 15 hectares, getting land otherwise is a challenge, Jónsson explains. “Most of the land in Iceland is under the ownership of individuals. That means we’d have to lease land and that’s expensive and hard to finance.”
IFA, as a non-profit, would struggle with funding that; rather it works to unite Icelanders around environmental causes: with over 60 regional groups and more than 8000 Icelanders involved, Jónsson hopes initiatives such as this one with 66°North spark a deeper interest in reforestation efforts and collaborations of the sort.
“You know trees are 50 percent carbon,” he iterates. “So they’re truly part of the solution to this bigger problem of climate change and global warming. But we have to do it right, and have it supported by local communities.”
With this first project underway, Jónsson says other companies have already reached out to do something similar. “I hope this does create a trend.”
66°North, a quintessential Icelandic company with roots that go back to the early 1920s, making clothing for fishermen and search and rescue teams in the country, sees this as not just a way to write off its manufacturing footprint (although the company has been carbon neutral since 2019), but a more intimate affair. CEO Helgi Rúnar Óskarsson was planting alongside his colleagues in Úlfljótsvatn when the first 100 trees were put in the ground in spring 2021. Now, he’ll be making visits to see its progress as the forest develops over the next five years, and the company has committed to help with associated costs to keep the area protected and thriving in the future.