Friday, May 27

‘Basically starting from scratch’: Restoring Finland’s river ecosystems | reconstruction

CJumping out of trees isn’t the way most people would expect a river restoration project to start, but Janne Raassina, who expertly uses a chainsaw to fell four or five marked logs around the Särkkäjoki River in the easternmost part of Finland, explains that rotten wood will be of great use to the ecosystem.

“This is a huge buffet of insects, and it’s something that has been missing from our nature for 100 years,” he says. “We are creating the food chain from scratch.”

Finland is the most forested country in Europe, with about 76% of its area covered by trees. However, this impressive statistic belies the ecological damage that has been inflicted by the forestry industry over the last century or so.

The old growth has almost completely disappeared, replaced by the skeletal monocultures of commercial plantations; today, Less than 5% of Finland’s forest cover is more than 120 years old. These are a pale imitation of the berry- and lichen-filled forests of yesteryear, and the wildlife has suffered as a result.

Rivers have been another casualty of Finland’s rapid industrialization. Since the 1850s, before the age of roads and rail, its waterways were laid out in unobstructed channels to create a vast network of river transportation. Rapids were removed and bends were straightened to allow logs to float hundreds of miles downstream for processing. The supply of dead wood that would once have fed into the rivers dwindled as surrounding birch, pine, and fir trees were cut down.

Although timber floating stopped in the 1980s, its legacy of sterility persists: the diversity of habitats that would have existed along the meanders and wetlands of a natural river system never returned, and the forestry industry continues to deprive these ecosystems from its dead wood. Studies of individual rivers have shown, in some cases, the complete decimation of once-thriving fish populations.

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The stream flowing before us looks healthy enough, but, says Raassina, it is ecologically dead. All the creatures you’d expect to see here, including fish, mayflies, and other insects, have disappeared. An investigation into the tributaries of the Lieksanjoki River did not turn up a single brown trout. “We are basically starting from scratch. Our nation has been so short-sighted,” says Raassina.

He and his two contractors, Janne Ratilainen and Henri Leskinen, were tasked with restoring life to this 12 km (7.5 mi) stretch of the Särkkäjoki, as well as 1.5 km of another stream, the Rännänjoki, which crosses to Finland from Russia. Both flow into the larger Lieksanjoki River in the North Karelia region of eastern Finland.

Janne Raassina and her colleagues move rocks as part of the reconstruction of the Särkkäjoki River in eastern Finland.
Janne Raassina and her colleagues move rocks from the river bank into the water. Photograph: Sophie Yeo/The Guardian

As well as adding dead wood to the water, restoration work has involved adding gravel to the riverbed, recreating old fish spawning grounds, and moving rocks from the riverbank into the water to hide juveniles from predators. “Fish have all the instincts, but they have nowhere to practice them,” says Raassina.

Some might hesitate to call this rewilding; With the need for chainsaws and a lot of manual labor, no one could suggest that they are taking a hands-off approach. However, the emphasis is ultimately on creating an ecosystem that sustains itself over time, without the need for constant intervention.

Raassina’s enthusiasm for the concept is immediately apparent: She’s turned up for the day in a hoodie and baseball cap, both emblazoned with “Rewilding” in eye-catching comic sans. “I think rewilding is a very good term. I haven’t found anything better in Finnish,” he says.

While the initial focus is on creating healthy habitats, the final mark of victory will be if the trout return to them. Ideally, these would repopulate the river on their own, but given the absence of the species in the surrounding area, it is likely that they will have to be reintroduced.

It is a small start to a monumental task. The country has around 650 rivers. About 90 of these are major rivers that flow into the sea or cross borders; the rest are tributaries. But the Finnish public has embraced the task of restoring the river. As 60% of Finland’s forests are divided among hundreds of thousands of private owners, this has created a lot of work for Raassina, who initially rejected the project because he was too busy.

What makes this project remarkable, however, is that the state-owned forestry company Metsähallitus is at the helm. It owns nearly a third of Finland’s land, and without this power plant on board, efforts to restore life to the land of a thousand lakes“It will always be little by little. If the agency can be persuaded of the value of this work, the potential of Finland’s river systems is enormous. Metsähallitus has worked on water-based restoration projects before, but this is the first time it has explicitly addressed small streams and their catchment areas that run through most of the land.

“Metsähallitus has been known to restore swamps and mudflats, but not so much streams, rivers and lakes. But more and more, attention is also turning to these aquatic ecosystems today,” says Arttu Kuiri, who designed the North Karelia part of the program. It adds that each of Finland’s smaller streams would benefit from restoration, but with funding of just under €1 million, they had to be settled in nine river basins.

“People are beginning to understand that rivers and clean waters are like the heart and lungs of the country,” says Kuiri. “Finland really has nothing but nature, and if we’re going to screw that up, it’s not going to end well.”

The scale of the damage means that large-scale river restoration will not be an easy task. At Särkkäjoki, Raassina notes that a layer of sediment has built up on one of the larger rocks. It is barely noticeable (a thin layer of soil) and yet it points to another major problem: soil erosion. Finland’s vast peatlands have been partitioned by drainage ditches over the years, destabilizing their once-flooded soils in the name of timber production. If the country wants to return to healthy rivers, it will be essential to look beyond the banks and to the wider landscape.

Kuiri agrees on the need for humans to set the wheels in motion. “Us Dyed good rivers and they have been healthy, but in a hundred years we have done them so much harm. We need to reverse that, and the stones will not move on their own.”

For now, in North Karelia, the Särkkäjoki seem to have lost a fight with a particularly industrious beaver, and that, of course, is the point. The chainsaw has done its job.

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