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New winds in dealing with forest disturbances

For a young professional in the field of forestry, reading the news nowadays is a schizophrenic experience. On one hand, I’m scared to death with the heat waves and drought occurring at odd times of the year, continuously increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, alien species invasions in new areas and massive insect outbreaks in various parts of Europe.  On the other hand, it is very exciting and hopeful: climate change awareness is increasing, and actions are being taken, wood product innovations are replacing many fossil-fuel based ones, and biodiversity conservation measures are adopted by many forest managers. Nevertheless, we are facing a serious situation that cannot be fixed with few tricks. With the disturbance frequency and intensity increasing all the time, we need to revise how we manage the risks they are causing to our forests.

Now, of course disturbances are natural part of forest dynamics and people have dealt with them as long as forests have been managed. In Europe, there is a lot of knowledge and know-how on storm, fire and biotic risks. The problem is that this knowledge is often hidden inside a country or even a single forest enterprise in the local language, making it nearly impossible for others to access. Therefore, the knowledge of a successful way to manage for example bark beetle outbreak does not reach others dealing with the same problem. Similarly, we cannot learn from others’ mistakes when we don’t know what they are. In the worst case, we all do the same mistakes that could have been avoided if we had just known about the first incidence. An open platform where examples of best but also worst practices across Europe would be collected could be hugely beneficial to European forest sector. And that is exactly what we are working on in the SURE project.

In SURE, we are following the ideas of the UNISDR’s Sendai framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which is an international agreement signed by close to 130 countries. The framework highlights that “policies and practices for disaster risk management should be based on an understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions of vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazard characteristics and the environment.” It has four priorities: 1) Understanding disaster risk, 2) Strengthening disaster risk, 3) Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and 4) Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Inspired by the framework, we define a crisis management framework that distinguishes four phases in a disaster risk management cycle: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. Currently, the focus in forestry is usually on the response to the disturbance and the direct recovery from it. The SENDAI Framework shifts the focus to put more emphasis on preventing disturbances and preparing to better cope with them.

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The crisis management cycle. Courtecy of Christoph Hartebrodt

However, we need more than a shift in the risk management mentality. As said earlier, we also need actively learn from one another and build capacity together. In SURE, we do this via workshops and exchanges of experts. In the workshops, we gather  scientists, practitioners and policy makers from across Europe who are dealing with one of the three major forest disturbances: storm, biotic agents and fire. The idea of the workshops is to exchange experiences and to identify, what kind of tools have been used in different situations. By  tool we mean any measure that helps in risk management, be it a collection of guidelines, a diagnostic mobile app or a model for predicting insect outbreaks. The objective of the workshops is to produce an open compendium with tools that address each phase of the risk management cycle.

The latest workshop was organized together with the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague (CULS) in the Czech Republic in the beginning of April 2019. The topic was the threat of biotic agents to the forests and it had attracted 32 participants from 18 different European countries. The Czech Republic was a relevant choice of location for this workshop as bark beetles are creating a havoc in the Czech forests. In 2019, this tiny beetle is expected to damage 25 million m3 of timber.

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Adult bark beetles and their larvae galleries. Source: Harald Kloth, Wikipedia.

During the workshop, experts from other European countries presented their strategies on managing forest disturbances. For instance, Katrina Dainton from Forest Research in the UK presented their approach to counteract the oak processionary moth, a threat to human, animal and tree welfare. Sarah Yoga from the EFI Plant Facility in Bordeaux, presented the SilvAlert App (PLURIFOR) as a potential tool for citizen scientists to report on visible damage on pine wood caused by nematodes in south-western Europe. Kateryna Davydenko from the Ukrainian Research Institute of Forestry and Forest Melioration discussed the potential impact of emerald ash borer, which is suspected to have reached the Ukrainian-Russian border.

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We also got to see the research site of CULS, where they measure the tree stress as well as train dogs to smell the trees infected by the bark beetles. As Marcus Lindner, the Principal Scientist of the EFI Resilience Programme, said The workshop underlined how crucial it is to learn from other manager’s experience. You can learn from errors that others have made when dealing with similar disturbance events, so you can avoid those and optimize your management response much faster. Additionally, to sharing existing tools or good practices, new approaches can be identified jointly through the exchange with other experts who bring in different perspectives.Our next steps are to process the identified tools and create an open compendium where people have access to the documentation.

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The biotic agents workshop participants. Picture by Jose Bolaños.

A second example how we promote mutual learning in SURE is the practice of Exchange of Experts. In these days, foresters might face a disturbance that they have no or little experience of. However, it is very likely that there is expertise on that disturbance in some other region or country. The goal of Exchange of Experts is to bring together the expertise and those who needed by having the expert in the area affected by the disturbance or giving to those needing help opportunity to travel and learn from area and people, who have had more experience with the disturbance. Such exchanges have been seen as very valuable and useful by those who have attended them. You can read more from for example here and here.

Participating the workshops and exchange of experts are always immensely useful and fun for me. I learn much more efficiently than I ever could by myself and get to know great people who are dealing with forests. There are many differences in national conditions, but it only makes brainstorming together for better forest risk management more interesting. There are many things we can do to avoid disasters. And while I still sometimes get depressed by the news, I know that we already have a solution for many of the issues. We just need to change how we act and convince the others to do the same.

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Christoph Hartebrodt from the Forest Research Institute of Baden-Württemberg introducing the new risk management approach.

All the documentation of the workshops and Exchange of Experts activities as well as many other forest risk related information is available on the Riskplatform.

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