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Environmental issues

The establishment and possible large-scale deployment of poplar, aspen and willow plantations can be controversial due to, for example, presumed negative and long-lasting influences on biodiversity and the cultural heritage landscape, along with negative public attitudes. Critics of these plantations include those who argue that they harm wildlife, water and soil resources and biodiversity. Those issues are frequently associated with inappropriate location and management of the plantations. Thus, the localization and management of the plantations should be planned carefully, in order to reduce the risks for the environment, and they should utilize at best their potential to actually improve environmental and landscape quality.

For example, plantations of poplars, aspens and willows can increase the abundance and diversity of many organisms, particularly in landscapes today dominated by either conventional agricultural fields or managed forests. However, plantations should be avoided close to open habitats of high conservation values such as certain types of wet meadows and buffer zones along streams. With these and a few other restrictions in mind, especially small-scale plantations may have the potential to positively affect biodiversity in many farmland regions.

Compared to annual agricultural crops, the culture of poplars, aspens and willows can often have positive effects on soil properties due to less frequent use of heavy machinery, especially when the use of harvesters is restricted to the period of frozen ground. In contrast to the potential risks of nutrient leakage from fertilized plantations, poplars, aspens and willows can offer great possibilities for environmental control at a local scale in terms of, e.g. phytoremediation. Thus, based on the large nutrient quantities taken up by those trees, the plantations can be used as recipients for municipal wastewater and industrial sludge and simultaneous biomass production (multifunctional biomass plantations). This possibility has been realized with willow plantations in Sweden.

salix stand

July aspect inside a 2-year old willow stand grown on the island Gotland, south-eastern Sweden. Small-scale plantations of fast-growing trees can enhance biodiversity at landscape-scale. Photo: M. Weih.