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What foresters want

Recently there has been broad political interest in alternative forest management systems, in response factors that call for a rethinking of production-oriented forestry, including biodiversity concerns, resilience issues and socio-economic changes. The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 for example calls for the development of nature-oriented forestry practices to safeguard biodiversity and rural livelihoods. Moreover, it sets a target for 30% of the European land cover to be under some sort of protection scheme, with 10% being strictly protected. Correspondingly, the EU Forest Strategy for 2030 proposes Closer-to-Nature forestry as the forestry concept to help achieve these goals.

So far for the goals and aspirations of policy makers. But how do these aims relate to the reality on the ground, and how keen are forest managers to make that vision come true? Those are the questions we sought to answer in our newly published paper Integrating nature conservation measures in european forest management – An exploratory study of barriers and drivers in 9 european countries – ScienceDirect.

In the case selection we tried to avoid a narrow focus on well-known “best practice” cases, often from Central Europe, the region where much of the impetus for Integrative Forest Management (IFM) originates (cf. ANW, Pro Silva, European Network Integrate). Therefore, we used a matrix based on biogeographical region, management style and urbanity to cover the broadest possible range of forest types in Europe. In total we conducted 42 in-depth interviews with forestry professionals in 9 different countries. The analysis of the data yielded some interesting findings, which are summarized below.

Drivers of nature conservation integration: feedback “from the ground”

A first promising finding was that every forester we interviewed already integrated nature conservation measures to some extent, even in the most intensive forestry regions we studied, like the Landes, the Gascogne, or Central Sweden. The most common measures were the retention of deadwood and habitat trees and setting aside small areas for conservation. On a shared third place, water and soil protection, tree species adjustment and specific species protection came in.

But why would forest managers go through this effort, if they supposedly should only care about wood production and income? The reasons are manifold.

We asked the foresters to name the three most facilitating and impeding factors. Some of them were shared by many, while on other topics the opinions were split. The current demands of the wood market were broadly seen as dissuasive for IFM. Public pressure and policy making were very ambivalent categories, and the personal motivation of the forester was the most commonly accepted positive driver of nature conservation integration.

Finally, we presented the interviewees with a predefined  list of drivers based on a previous study by our colleagues Filip Aggestam et al. Can nature conservation and wood production be reconciled in managed forests? A review of driving factors for integrated forest management in Europe – ScienceDirect and asked to rate the importance of those drivers on a 5-point scale, and to briefly elaborate on their choice.

In terms of socio-cultural factors, many foresters noticed an increase in environmental awareness in society, which they consider conducive to the uptake of IFM. Nonetheless, society is also becoming increasingly vocal, and many interviewees complained about a lack of understanding for forest interventions in general and wood harvesting in particular.

Technological factors had an ambiguous position. Improved forest information and mapping tools were applauded, but many conceded that the mechanization of forestry causes damage to forest ecosystems and is badly perceived by forest visitors.

The economic function was important for every single forester we talked to. The link to IFM was clear: more natural and biodiverse forests were perceived as being more resilient, and resilient forests provide a stable long-term income. On the other hand, the current wood markets are merely equipped for a homogenous assortment, which is not conducive forests with diverse structures and mixed species.

Environmental factors were mostly mentioned in relation to forest resilience in terms of guaranteeing the long-term income. The introduction of more tree species and more broadleaves was generally seen as important, as this admixture was perceived as being beneficial for not only forest biodiversity but also its the general health and stability.

While not every respondent felt enough political support, most were positive about the relevant policies on an EU, national or sub-national level. Legal obligations were considered an important reason for implementing conservation measures but were also sometimes seen as cumbersome.

Lastly, in our inductive coding we found organizational and personal factors to be the most unanimously applauded. First, all foresters expressed an intrinsic motivation, and many saw themselves as stewards of the land. Moreover, they emphasized a positive and supportive working atmosphere as absolutely vital for a successful implementation of nature conservation measures in their forest management.

Shared values and goals despite very different realities

The broad geographic and organizational scope of this study managed to shed light on tendencies toward IFM across Europe, and there is reason for optimism. Nature conservation measures are self-evident in most cases, many policies are positively perceived, and most of the respondents felt appreciated and motivated to implement them. Two fields that clearly need to be studied and improved on, are negative societal perception of forest management, as well as the lack of financial incentives and adapted value chains for non-homogeneous wood production.

Looking at our own methodology, it is also important to keep some nuances in mind. Our study talked about the integration of nature conservation in forestry, not about a specific and well-defined concept of forest management. What one person may see as a step in the right direction, may leave another wanting. We consciously decided not to start out from a desired “ideal” system, partly because the biogeographical, cultural, and economic realities vary tremendously across Europe and dictate which approach is feasible and desirable. What we did find, however, is a surprisingly large number of shared values and goals, and that is the starting point for a transition toward more integrative systems. We expect that this shift will take place across the continent, but at speeds and scales that are tailored to the local circumstances.


Featured image: deadwood in forest managed for wood production in Trendelburg, Germany (photo: Gesche Schifferdecker)

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