The Sagas record that when Iceland was discovered, trees from seas to the mountains covered it. If that were indeed true, the early inhabitants did a pretty efficient job cutting down the trees for fuel and allowing their sheep to finish up by devouring young shoots. You really don’t see many trees at all around Iceland. Some birch trees and some fir-type trees here and there, but no forests to speak of.
I have read that sheep are super efficient destroyers of vegetation if grazing is not managed, chewing plants and young shoots down to the roots and leaving the underlying soil vulnerable to erosion by water and fierce winds. Once the top-soil is blown away, it is almost impossible to restart vegetation. The reforestation program that is going on in Iceland has been quite successful and new clumps of trees are beginning to dot the country.
In Iceland, it is easy to be environmentally correct. The country has a small population, large tracts of uninhabited land, almost no polluting industry, and the ability to live off geothermal and hydroelectric power without using fossil fuels except for automobiles. The lack of natural resources also means that there is very little to export except for products that come out of the ample surrounding ocean. You can’t export hydro-electricity if you are an island nation. The next best option is to bring in industries that are thirsty for electricity. That has set economics and environmental issues on a collision course like everywhere else in the world. The Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric project is building a dam across two glacial rivers Jökulsá á Dal and Jökulsá í Fljótsdal, flooding a remote part of the already remote Eastern Highlands. The power from the project will be used exclusively by the American aluminum company Alcoa in nearby Reyðarfjörður creating jobs in an economically deprived area dependent mostly on fishing. There have been angry protests by environmentalists in the past year and some people have chained themselves to the construction equipment to protest the dam.
It’s hard to have an opinion on it as we were only visitors here, but we did drive by the dam and the local English speaking paper, The Grapevine, had a huge article about the Alcoa smelter underway.