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Combining local and scientific knowledge benefits forest management

Published: 22 May 2023
Isabella Hallberg Sramek

How, why and for whom should forest be managed? PhD student Isabella Hallberg-Sramek identified these as key questions underlying forest conflicts and expectations on forests in Sweden. Together with local stakeholders and by using different transdisciplinary scientific approaches she worked on identifying practical solutions to adjust forest management strategies to current and future needs. In this interview, she talks about her PhD thesis and highlights the importance to include social and human aspects in forest management planning.

- You analysed which expectations are put on the Swedish forests and how they can be addressed with different forest management strategies. What motivated you to work on such a project at the interface between natural and social science and humanities?

My background is in natural sciences. When I started to study forestry at SLU and also started to work during summers in forestry, I realized that a lot of what we were taught was not really what was practiced. Science and practice seemed to be a disconnected. That is when I became interested in the human aspect of forest management. Forest owners but also environmental organisations, Sami people who work with reindeer husbandry, hunters, people that use the forest for recreation and so on – all the different stakeholders are involved in forest management and the relations between them affects management strategies and acceptance.

When we think only from the natural science perspective, we easily forget that forest management is also a human activity. We can only get a complete picture of forest management and understand all dimensions of it when we understand also the social and human aspects. When Annika Nordin, who supervised already my Master thesis, was offering me this PhD project, I was interested from the beginning.

- Why do the different expectations that are put today on forests in Sweden lead to conflicts?

Forest management historically and today has been very focussed on quantitative research and mostly on knowledge coming from biology, economy, statistics and ecology. However now, forest management becomes more contested with many different stakeholders and various conflicts related to how to best meet all their different expectations. Partly, these conflicts are related to current management practices but there are also more expectations on forests today than in the past.

In the 18th century, when science-based forest management was initiated, the only focus was on wood production and the question was how to achieve this goal. The conflict by then was between people favouring more continuous cover forestry versus even-aged forest management with clear-cutting.

That conflict still persists but now we have also additional expectations on forests and climate change adds an extra spice to it. There are disagreements on what forest management is supposed to provide in terms of ecosystem services such as climate change mitigation, biodiversity, recreation and wood and on who should benefit from forests and on how to achieve these goals.

- What do you consider as the major outcome of your thesis?

I think one main result is that we can learn a lot from practice. We cannot expect science to produce all the knowledge especially with respect to alternative management methods but also need to rely on the local experiences of stakeholders and practitioners. In the project that I was involved in, we really wanted to bring this discussion down to the local level: what expectations are placed on the forests here, now, by whom and what impacts are we expecting from climate change and how can we mitigate them?

We organised forest excursions here in Västerbotten and in Kronoberg in Southern Sweden and invited different stakeholders. These excursions were eye openers for us all because everyone saw and thought of different things even though we all stood on the exact same spot. Exchanging the knowledge helped everyone to understand the other person’s position better and this made it easier to find new solutions and ways for compromises.

The local stakeholders also pointed out that they would like to see more local examples of different managing methods and see what has worked and what not. There are forest owners who are already now practising different methods and we should acknowledge their knowledge and see what we can learn from them.

- You combine practical aspects such as talking to local forest stakeholders with machine learning and modelling approaches in your thesis. What was the benefit of combining such different approaches?

First of all, I think it is fun to test new techniques, try new things and new ways of research. For one part of my thesis, we used the Heureka system, that has been developed at SLU. We quantitatively evaluated different forest scenarios by modelling them over a 100-year period. In the next step, we analysed the different scenarios qualitatively in a workshop together with the stakeholders.

It was so interesting to see that the stakeholder brought forward totally different things than came out from the modelling. They were discussing for example the possible outcome of a scenario on the local level, what kind of conflicts it would create between different types of stakeholders and if it would be socially accepted. These aspects were not captured by our models, but it will be very important to implement them in the management planning. Combining these two types of evaluation side-by-side, the quantitative modelling approach and the qualitative one, was therefore a big benefit.

- Did anything unexpected came out during your analyses?

For me that avenue to use machine learning was very unexpected, more unexpected than the results itself. We wanted to analyse what type of forest related conflicts are being discussed in the media. There were already analyses of specific conflicts available, mostly analysing what different stakeholders have said. However, we wanted to get a broad overview and understand how big the conflicts are in relation to each other.

To read everything myself and sort it manually would have taken too much time but then we end up using topic modelling. This machine learning approach originates from computer sciences but is now used also in bioinformatics, social sciences and humanities and probably even in more fields. With the help of this tool, we could screen a large number of media articles, identify the main topics and cluster them. Then, we could go deeper into the cluster analysis and check for example if a topic or conflict was discussed differently in different parts of Sweden, how it has differed over time and do more spatial and temporal but also relational analyses of these different types of conflicts.

When venturing out to do this machine learning I was really wondering where that will bring me, but it is a very useful tool that I have now used also when doing literature reviews.

- Did you had to overcome any major challenges during your PhD time?

I was working with scientists from history of science and ideas and from political sciences and initially we had these language barriers. Our training and background knowledge was different and we used different references as we came from totally different fields. It took some time to learn to understand each other but also to get to know the main references that the others used and that resurfaced once in a while. I needed to ask stupid questions like just to make sure that we really talk about the same thing. That was a huge challenge in the beginning but now I understand the way they are working and arguing very well. I even managed to set up a new collaboration with a sociologist and a historian of science and ideas, I have not worked together with before, and got them interested to work together with me on one publication.

- Your research is very unusual for your department where most researchers work with molecular plant biology. Do you think your results can also benefit this type of research?

I think that one main aspect of it is to understand peoples understanding of forests: what techniques are used today and why, how are people thinking about the future, what future do they want. We need to get a more holistic perspective on forests and trees. Widening our perspective to understand better the practical implications of science and also the needs of society can help us to see better how and in which areas science can benefit the current transformation. It took courage to step out of my comfort zone and try something new, but my work has profited a lot from this.

- What are you planning to do now?

I will continue as postdoc at SLU and Wageningen University and work with forest owners, their experiences of and their aspirations for the application of alternative practices. It will be close to what I have done during my thesis but more specifically focussing on forest owners. I will be employed at SLU but will be a visiting postdoctoral researcher at Wageningen University.

About the public defence

Isabella Hallberg-Sramek, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, defends her PhD thesis on Wednesday, 24th of May 2023. Faculty opponent is Professor Georg Winkel, Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, the Netherlands. The thesis was supervised by Annika Nordin from SLU together with Camilla Sandström, Erland Mårald, both from Umeå University, and Eva-Maria Nordström from SLU as assistant supervisors.

Title of the thesis: Tailoring forest management to local socio-ecological contexts - Addressing climate change and local stakeholders’ expectations of forests

Link to the thesis:


More information about Isabella Hallberg-Sramek's research

In March 2022, Isabella Hallberg-Sramek was awarded with the “Svenska Humanistiska Förbundets pris”, a prize for a young person who has carried out commendable intellectual work in the spirit of humanism. In connection with the prize, another interview with her was published. Find the interview here on the SLU homepage (only in Swedish)

More about the project “Bring down the sky to the earth” that Isabella Hallberg-Sramek was involved in on the homepage of Umeå University  

News about Isabella Hallberg-Sramek’s article in which she evaluates the different forest management scenarios using the Heureka System for modelling and the qualitative evaluation by the local stakeholders (only in Swedish)

More information about the Heureka System, a software developed at SLU that Isabella Hallberg-Sramek used to evaluate different forest management scenarios via modelling