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For the sake of our forests, Colorado and Finland should talk

By Mikko Hautala

Guest Commentary

I followed news on the Colorado wildfires in December with a heavy heart. Seeing Coloradans bravely battle the forces of nature hit very close to home. Finland is the most forested country in Europe and we too are feeling the impact of increasingly unpredictable climate. My hope is we can learn from each other’s experiences and become more resilient together.

A closer look reveals Colorado and Finland share striking similarities. There are few other spots on Earth where just five million people have so much going on with the aerospace industry, high-performance computing, cold-weather expertise, and green solutions. That is why I am bringing a Finnish business and research delegation to Denver and Boulder this week.

Besides shared opportunities, we have joint challenges. As the climate keeps taking more and more unusual turns, we have to be increasingly alert with one of our great assets: forests. On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis and I, on behalf of the Finnish Government, signed a document to deepen our cooperation on a range of issues. Climate resiliency of our communities is one of the many areas Colorado and Finland will work on together.

Watching the news last December, I was touched by the bravery of ordinary Coloradans rushing their families to safety away from the flames, and the heroism of first responders heading the other way, towards the fires.

It would be extremely useful for Finnish rescue services to learn from the experiences of their Colorado colleagues. The Finns, for their part, have developed particular expertise in, and specialized equipment for, operating in remote forested areas, and cold winter conditions. They regularly provide training for their international partners.

Forest management is another area of mutual interest. Efficient and sustainable forest management serves many critical purposes at once: Wood and biomass can be a significant source of economic activity and local jobs. With new technologies, wood-based biomaterials are rapidly replacing plastics, concrete, and other less sustainable materials. Finns, more than probably anybody in the world, know how to turn forests into money and prosperity – and do it sustainably.

Finland’s goal is to become climate neutral by 2035. We will not get there without proper forest management and an innovative forestry sector. Forest industry products help mitigate climate change, and healthy forests are crucial carbon sinks. The majority of Europe’s strictly protected forests are in Finland. At the same time, we have a robust forest industry, which has renewed itself over the last decade.

Good forest management helps mitigate the risk of wildfires. Efficient harvesting reduces fuel load in forests and decreases the risk of fires. As trees age, they naturally become more vulnerable to bark beetles. Dead, dry trees are more likely to catch fire.

Sustainable harvesting is also a way to keep carbon sinks active. Healthy, growing forests are essential to slowing dangerous climate change. Growing forests are carbon sinks that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, whereas old forests just store it. To preserve biodiversity and nature, we also need untouched, natural forests.

Managing the vast forests of Colorado and Finland cannot happen with public resources alone, or those of private forest owners. To the contrary, our experience shows it can only happen when driven by innovative, ambitious businesses – small and large. Colorado is famous for innovation and entrepreneurship. Finland’s prosperity is built on innovation and forests. I see great synergies.

Efficient collection and use of data is essential to modern forest management. With new technologies, such as real-time satellite and drone mapping, and Internet of Things enabled harvesters and digital twins, we can better monitor and foresee what happens in forests. We can also identify and prevent risks in a timely manner, and optimize forest management plans for efficiency and minimal footprint.

Another key aspect, which may not be so easily replicable, is forest ownership. In Finland, forests are primarily under private ownership. People tend to take good care of their assets and they do so with their forests.

Finland is already working with Maine and Michigan on different aspects of forest bioeconomy. We are talking about advanced wood construction, bioenergy, research and development of renewable, new bio-based materials and products, as well as sustainable forest policy.

It is high time Coloradans and Finns talked about forests.

Mikko Hautala is Finland’s ambassador to the United States.

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