Yet it’s easier to save old-growth forests than it is to replace them, especially in a cold place like Iceland. The country has been working on reforestation for more than 100 years, planting millions of non-native spruce, pine and larch trees as well as native birch. Iceland added hundreds of thousands of seedlings per year throughout much of the 20th century, reaching 4 million annually in the 1990s and up to 6 million per year in the early 2000s. Forestry funding was cut sharply after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, but Iceland has continued adding as many as 3 million new trees annually in recent years.
So what happened? The Vikings began chopping down and burning Iceland’s forests for timber, and to clear space for farmland and grazing pastures. “They removed the pillar out of the ecosystem,” Gudmundur Halldorsson, research coordinator for the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, recently told the New York Times.
They also brought sheep, whose appetites for saplings made it difficult for Iceland’s forests to recover. “Sheep grazing prevented regeneration of the birchwoods after cutting and the area of woodland continued to decline,” explains the Iceland Forest Service.