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When school becomes holiday – Exploring forest resilience from all the angles

It’s funny how one starts to miss the things they previously would have been glad to give up. In my case, I realized I have missed sitting in lecture rooms. That is why I was so eager to participate the summer school “Forest Resilience” organized by the SwissForestLab, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) and NFZ.forestnet. The school took place in Davos, Switzerland from 18th to 24th of August. There were 20 students from 10 different countries and diverse backgrounds.

Resilience is a complex, multiscalar and interdisciplinary issue. It touches topics from tree growth to disturbance regimes, from human behaviour to economics and insurances. The summer school had made considerable effort to fit these different perspectives into a packed but mind-grabbing programme. We started with lectures on the social and economic aspects of resilience. As many of us had more natural sciences background, there was a lot of new information to chew on.

Georg Winkel (European Forest Institute) introduced the trickiness of the term “resilience”: while most agree that we need to increase resilience, not everyone understands the term in the same way and there are confusion on which and whose resilience was meant. Harald Bugmann from ETH Zürich made us discuss the management of resilient forests and how even in the face of climate crisis, we should still keep managing for a portfolio of ecosystem services. Human demands are so multiple that reducing forest management objective to the monopoly of carbon sequestration would be unfeasible in the long run.

Marielle Brunette from Inra talked about resilience, risks and insurances. She explained how the risk profile of a person, i.e. how willingly they take risks, has big effects on decision taking and therefore forest management as well. Marc Hanewinkel opened the discussion for future of the forest industry. We always assume that there are markets for timber, but with climate change and the consequent tree species distribution change we might find ourselves in situation where the value of timber has changed or the market has ceased to exist entirely. For management to be successful, we need to have markets for the products, e.g. ecosystem services. In addition to the scientific content on social and economic side of resilience, we had the chance to hear what and how science journalists communicate the findings of science to wider public. Lukas Denzler, a freelance journalist from Switzerland, told us about his personal experiences working with scientists and gave us some tips on do’s and don’t’ s (hint: the journalist is not a spokesperson for the scientist).

From the socio-economic side we came back to the more familiar ground of natural sciences. However, as Arthur Gessler from WSL and ETH Zürich said in his presentation, there are always trade-offs between ecosystem services. It is the job of the society to decide on their priorities. Therefore, most of the issues related to forests have always a social and economic dimension. That became evident with a stakeholder simulation lead by Dr. Claude Garcia from ETH Zürich. Us students became competing tribes and government workers, trying to make living and protect endangered birds in a common landscape. The game was simple but did bring lot of emotions to the surface. It gave also an important lesson on communication: while it is crucial to all interaction with stakeholders, not all communication is as effective for a desired outcome. To make time for truly listening and working together with all the involved parties in respectful manner is the only efficient way to go forward.

The setting for the stakeholder game: the darker green squares have more biomass than the lighter one which means more birds but also more opportunities to harvest for the tribes.

To balance the adrenaline rush we got from the stakeholder game, we had lectures from Damien Bonal and Ansgar Kahmen. Bonal from Inra presented his work on the interactive effects of drought and species diversity on temperate or tropical forest ecosystems. He stressed the importance of species selection for mixed forests: not all species are complementary to one another and some perform better in monocultures. Kahmen (University of Basel) continued on the topic of drought and showed us the differences in the forests’ reaction to the drought in 2015 and 2018. From his presentation it was clear that 2018 was truly exceptional year: the drought affecting forests was much more severe and the capacity of the forests to recover from that was questioned.

The last full day of lectures started by inquiring how are the insects faring. Alexandra-Maria Klein (University of Freiburg) explained us the causes and consequences of the insect decline with special focus on bees. One prominent reason was the change in agriculture and forestry: many insects prefer open grassland with patches of different flowers to intensively farmed fields or thick forests (although forests are very important habitats for certain species). Martin Gossner (WSL) continued on the topic but on a wider scale. In his lecture on stressed how species network affects the resilience of the ecosystems: loss of highly connected species can lead to extinction cascades that happen in faster rate than predicted.

Tree ring cell formation. From the presentation of Dr. Georg von Arx.

From insects we moved to the secrets of trees. Georg von Arx (WSL) presented us how looking at the cell formation of the tree rings and a bit of detective work we reconstruct climate back thousands of years and even identify which disturbance had hit the tree in the past. Heike Puhlmann (FVA) took us to look deeper into the soil and how more accurate soil water models could give us much more reliable information also on forest resilience. The lecture series ended on a different topic altogether. Erwin Dreyer spoke us about the importance of open data and open access and how these approaches should and are shaping the way we do science. For an early career researcher it gave a lot to think about.

In between the lectures, we had short poster sessions to learn what other participants were working on. The topics ranged from mycorrhizas role on tree diversity to how to create profitable value chains from forest to the communities around them. It was an excellent way to remember everyone’s name too!

The high points of the week where of course the excursions to sides of Dischma valley and to Bergün. Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable and we suffered from some showers. Despite the rain, we still learned much about the protection forests and forest disturbances in Switzerland. It was eye-opening to visit sites, where one had been heavily used just until 1920’s and 1930’s and was then let grown into quite even-aged spruce forest and the other one had been almost untouched: the protection function is very different, not to mention the big difference in biodiversity. The second excursion took us to the area, which was hit heavily by the Vaia storm last spring. The storm fell down around 20 000 m3 of wood, which is three times the annual cutting in the region. Norway spruce made up more than 95 % of the damaged wood.

Regeneration site to protect the new seedlings from deer browsing. After the storm Vaia, the local forest service is testing the suitability of other tree species that Norway spruce to grow to be the protective forest.

Of course, summer schools are not just about studying. They are also about getting to know fellow students and researchers who work on the similar topics with different view points. Spending coffee breaks together, chatting during bus rides and hanging out late night give at least as much new insights as the lectures. And with that inspiring and relaxed atmosphere, school really does become a holiday.

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