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The challenge of managing forests for multiple ecosystem services in a changing world

On 26-28 February 2020, about 200 scientists – forest ecologists, economists, policy analysts and conservationists – as well as interested stakeholders, students and practitioners from Europe and beyond gathered together at the Ceasar Research Centre in Bonn, Germany, to discuss scientific evidence relating to the current state of ‘integrated’ forest management approaches across the globe. Here’s my attempt of a short reportage of three very dense – but extremely interesting – days in the European Forest City 2020. 

Whether you are a regular reader of the Resilience blog or you ended up here by clicking a link in social media, one thing is clear: you are interested in forests. And you are interested to know how forests can be managed in an optimal way, so they provide not only wood but many ecosystem services (for example clean water, recreation, habitat, protection) to our busy society. Well, unfortunately there is not a universal recipe for this. Ecological conditions of forests as well as their governance, policies, and human societies surrounding them are very different across the globe. On top of that, our world is changing with a pace that is faster than the ability of forests to adapt to novel conditions. This demands us to bring together ideas for ‘integrated’ forest management solutions to face major global challenges. This was the reason why the European Forest Institute (EFI) in collaboration with several other research institutions and projects  organised the conference Governing and managing forests for multiple ecosystem services across the globe”.

1st day of the conference at Caesar Research Centre. Photo credit: Maria Schlossmacher

Before the details, however, I would like to clarify a term: what is an ‘integrated’ forest management? The concept of ‘integrated’ forest management was at the core of the INFORMAR project, which the three-days conference in Bonn represented its final meeting. An ‘integrated’ forest management approach is one that aims at providing a multitude of services from forests on several levels. Such an approach should combine nature conservation objectives under the concept of sustainable forest management but also address climate change adaptations and related risks. In my opinion, a truly ‘integrated’ forest management is also an approach that incorporates the participation of multiple subjects in forest management and planning, requiring a close collaboration between scientists, policymakers, forest planners and local managers. Only by ‘integrating’ the participation of all these actors we can be sure to promote management strategies that are practical and feasible at multiple spatial scales – from individual trees/stands to landscapes. Certainly, this is a challenging task.

The conference opened with a long plenary session called “Tour de la Planète”, an overview of how the status of forests worldwide, how they are governed and what are the challenges to manage them sustainably for a provision of multiple services. Our planet is big, so the plenary was necessarily long but very interesting. The speakers made us jump from the African tropics to the Russian boreal forests, from Australia to North America, and from Central Europe to the Mediterranean. My report will mostly focus on this section that, given my passion for geography, I found particularly fascinating.

From left to right: Ewa Hermanowicz, Gesche Schifferdecker (moderating) Natalia Lukina, Ulrich Schraml, Robert Nasi, Eduardo Briales, and Christian Messier. Photo credit: Maria Schlossmacher

Robert Nasi, director of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), started with a simple but bold statement: “The tropical forests are not in a good shape”. His contribution was the only one focusing on the tropics, where governance and societal challenges are very different from the ones in temperate regions. While in Europe forest cover is generally growing – and we discuss increasing the roundwood production and mitigate climate change by stocking carbon in durable goods such as modern wooden buildings – in tropical Africa forests are being cut down for „less noble uses“, such as cooking, heating, subsistence farming or for commodity-based plantations such as to rubber trees, coffee, cacao. In countries like Cote d’Ivoire or Cameroon, the historical top-down approach for a sustainable forest management simply did not work. Lots of people live in these forested regions, a young population in constant growth, a society that does not have much for living and think that they have the rights of exploiting forest resources for their everyday life. How can you tell people that have almost nothing not to go to environmental reserves to get wood and to clear cut to make space for fields to feed their family? You simply cannot, said Robert. The future of integrated forest management in the tropics requires a fully new approach. The integration must first be a societal one, pushing with environmental education of local communities but also to provide basic resources that in the Western world we give for granted (e.g., electricity) so that communities will be less dependent on wood and that environmental reserves can endure.

Logging in Cameroon. Photo credit: Gesche Schifferdecker

Natalia Lukina, from the Russian Academy of Science, gave an overview of Eurasian boreal forests, comparing the status and the governance of the forests in Russia and in Sweden. While in Sweden climate, timber, energy and conservation objectives are highly integrated, in Russia the link between this aim is still weak and the consideration of environmental objectives is not a priority, except for a few realities such as protective forests. Also, the main challenge for Russia in the increasing rate of large-scale disturbances which are causing the loss of 1.8 Mha of forests a year. This will likely make the forest sector a carbon source in the coming years, without counting for the great source of uncertainty related to the increasing thaw of the permafrost in northern regions. In the following, Christian Messier, from the University of Quebec in Canada, provided a brief comparison of forest governance between Australia, Canada, and the US. Australia – with its 1992 National Forest Policy Statement and regional forest agreements – is trying to balance between industry, development and conservation.  Canada has a huge forest extension that comes with major problems such as increasing large disturbances like insects and fires making the country’s forests, for the first time in years, a carbon source. Meanwhile, the  USA is dealing with a sharp division in forest types and ownership, mostly federal forests in the West and private forests in the East due to a very different history of human development. Christian then presented how accommodation of various forest values (ecological, economic and social) can be achieved with the TRIAD forest management method and concluded his talk with a new approach that can be applied to temperate forest landscapes to foster resilience and adaptability to global change. He called it the functional complex network approach, and it is based on increasing functional diversity in stands and the functional connectivity in landscapes to allow forests to self-reorganize after disturbance. This stimulated lots of interest in the room, with people asking whether it could be applied also in Central Europe and what are the traits that can be used to immunize forests against disturbances. Time was limited (and space here too) for a comprehensive discussion, but if you are interested you can read a previous post published in the Resilience blog about this approach.

Boreal forests/Iceland. Photo credit: Ewa Hermanowicz

The next two speakers were Ulrich Schraml, director of the Forest Research Institute of Baden Württemberg, and Eduardo Rojas Briales, from the University of Valencia. The first gave an interactive talk making a metaphor between building of a wall and integrated forest management. Going through a brief history of forest management in Central Europe, he pointed out that forestry has mostly been about ‘de-integration’, putting out all stakeholders and values competing with the main objective of classic silvicultural systems. Now is time to integrate again, and there is a need for new planning instruments, particularly to account for recreation and social values. Following Ulrich, participatory mapping of the perception of forests is a tool that can help in this integration. I liked the overall message, but to be honest, I do not think that he really presented a Central European perspective as most of the examples and information about forest policy and governance were focused on Germany only (i.e., the situation is diverse in France, Czechia, Northern Italy and in the Alps). The second speaker, Eduardo Rojas Briales, brought a Mediterranean perspective to the games. He first highlighted that, despite their small size compared to the extended boreal forests, Mediterranean forests have a strong historical, cultural and touristic relevance. Also, they are found in the only ecoregion where temperature and precipitation are anticyclic (i.e., it rains in the colder or shoulder seasons and vegetation growth pattern is driven by a summer drought), making them more prone to desertification and climate change. The difficulty to draw statistics for Mediterranean forests also comes from the fact that most of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin only share a portion of Mediterranean forests and there are basically no countries that are fully embedded in a Mediterranean climate (this is interesting and I have never thought about that from a methodological perspective). Eduardo also pointed out that, excluding Scandinavian countries, southern European countries are actually the most forested ones and those in which forests have been expanding at a higher rate in the last decades due to the abandonment of slope agriculture. In the Mediterranean zones, forest governance is a late discipline but there are important differences between countries, and it depends strongly on ownership (state vs private). The main ecological challenge in a warming world is dealing with increasing forest fires: until the 1960s large part of the rural population used firewood on a  daily basis, but since the advent of gas and modern technology, firewood logging was slowly abandoned resulting in an increase of woody material in landscapes that are nowadays more and more susceptible to fire.

Prescribed fire in Mafra, Portugal. Photo credit: Alexander Held

What Mediterranean forests need now is an increased cooperation between Eastern and Western countries and adaptive management strategies such as prescribed burning (see a video on prescribed burn by the US Forest Service here) as well as another blogpost here.

The first session continued with a common and interactive discussion, with all plenary speakers replying the audience questions – and also to the remote audience via Twitter. The discussion was mostly focused on the interaction between forest planning and society: the need of forests management actors to listen to people who gain values from the forest, the trend in the society to see forests in an emotional way so that forestry is perceived as “the evil” particularly by urban resident, emotions vs science, the perceptional element of ecosystem services and the uncertainty of future demand in ecosystem services from forests. Probably in the next event we also need to invite theologists, as suggested by Christian Messier, and sociologists to take part of such discussions. Robert Nasi concluded that we are not currently going very far in integrated forest management, not only in the tropics but also worldwide. We need to find a balanced way to have not only an integrated but also inclusive forest management to go way beyond the forest but to embrace a larger vision at the landscape scale. The first day continued with three parallel oral sessions, one that kept us traveling (“Tour d’Europe”), one about involving society in managing forests and one more on forest economics.  Among the talk, one by Marcus Lindner (principal scientist at EFI) was about the concept of resilience in forest management, nicely discussed by Laura Nikinmaa (Junior Researcher EFI) in a previous post in this blog Navigating the World of Resilience. Afterwards we continued with a poster session. I find it a good way to enhance the importance of posters, fostering discussions and forcing the attendees to have a look at posters which, in other conferences, are often forgotten in lonely building corners.

The second day opened with the second plenary, which was focused on the drivers and the outcomes of forest management for multiple ecosystem services. The speakers were very diverse, and each of them presenting a different perspective while keeping the main fil rouge on forests as provider of multiple ecosystem services. Eeva Primmer, from the Finnish Environment Institute, brought a political science perspective stressing the need to address both open and hidden controversies is key to develop a sustainable governance of forest ecosystem service provision. Jette Bredahl, Copenhagen University, shared an economic and market perspective and concluded that we can only judge the sustainability of the changing market if we improved the understanding of the societal drivers and substitution patterns of both market and non-market goods.

Klaus Puettmann, Oregon State University, offered a silvicultural perspective, and – after having kindly asked the audience to wish happy birthday to his wife who was following in live streaming – he reminded us what silviculture actually is: the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests to meet the diverse needs of landowners and society in a sustainable way. He pointed out that silviculture has so far mostly focused on the biophysical stand structure and composition of forests, but that silvicultural research and data collected can now be effectively used to calculate proxies for ecosystem services. Finally, Pierre Ibisch, from Eberswalde University, brought an ecosystem-based conservation perspective, reflecting on how forests should be managed to foster their self-organization and regulating functions, like ecohydrological functions to cool down landscapes and provide fresh water.

Klaus Puettmann during his presentation. Photo credit: Maria Schlossmacher

In the afternoon there were parallel sessions, and I listened to many interesting talks on assessing forest management approached with multiple methods, such as with stakeholders’ interviews, silvicultural long-term experiments, simulation modelling etc. Of course, my focus was on the session of my talk (entitled Future trajectories in fragmented forest landscapes: linking simulation modelling with the functional complex network approach). I had the chance to present the first application of the functional complex network approach in a case study region in Quebec where we combined forest landscape modelling with functional traits and network analysis to show how resilience can be fostered in fragmented forest landscapes (see the book of Abstracts). The audience was quite diverse, and I was very happy with the feedback and the interest by the participants.

Field trip to Kottenforst. Photo credit: Gesche Schifferdecker

Unfortunately, I had to leave Bonn and I could not participate in the field trip to the nearby Kottenforst. It would have been fun because participants had the chance to experience on of the few snowfall of the year in the area!

The conference wrapped up with a public event on Thursday evening in which several experts discussed the future of forests managed for multiple services in Europe in the context of the European Green Deal. If you are interested to read a short summary see the IUCN website at this link or you can re-watch the entire event here.

I very much appreciated the excellent organization of the conference by the EFI team in Bonn and I particularly liked the interactivity, as the main sessions were streamed live and people could attend remotely and even make questions via Twitter. I think this is the right direction, giving the possibility to people to attend remotely and to reduce air travel. This is what is needed to refresh ideas and to stimulate cooperation to build more resistant and resilient forests to global change, making sure that they keep providing a series of crucial services to our busy modern society.

The three plenary sessions have been recorded and are available in the EFI Youtube channel 

Here’s the book of Abstracts of the conference.

Cover picture: forest ecosystem services. Image designed by Ineke Naendrup (OroVerde)

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