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Can our forests still be saved? – Forest experts discuss how our native forests can be adapted to climatic change

Eichhall natural forest reserve, Spessart in Germany | Photo: A. Höltermann
Eichhall natural forest reserve, Spessart in Germany | Photo: A. Höltermann

Putbus/Isle of Vilm, 16 September 2020: In the stimulating conference atmosphere of the International Academy for Nature Conservation Isle of Vilm (INA), 24 forest experts from Germany and Switzerland met at the invitation of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) from 17 to 20 August to discuss ways of adapting our forests to climate change. The conference took place under the impression of the massive forest damages, which are estimated in Germany meanwhile on 285,000 hectares and an amount of fallen timber of 178 million cubic meters.

The conference achieved important progress in many respects, even if the question posed in the conference title “Sind unsere Wälder noch zu retten?“ (“Can our forests still be saved?”) could not be answered conclusively.

It became clear that very different approaches and assumptions of the participating experts from science, associations and administration partly complicate the derivation of recommendations for action: Representatives of an ecosystem-based approach emphasized the importance of the functioning of ecosystems as a basis for the provision of ecosystem services - in times of climate change, regulating functions and services are particularly relevant. They referred to studies that attest forests an inherent capacity for self-regulation and self-organisation. The ecosystem-based approach also includes the consistent promotion of ecosystem structures and processes in order to gain more time for adaptation to climate change. For example, by leaving deadwood in the forest and not unnecessarily thinning the canopy of forests. This supports humus formation, cooling and water retention in forests. Furthermore, an ecosystem-based approach does not only look at tree species, but explicitly recognises the important role of microorganisms and fungi for ecosystem functioning.

In contrast, forestry scientists in particular assume that our forests must actively adapt to climate change in order to be able to continue to offer society the raw material wood and other ecosystem services in the future. Depending on the initial situation and the vulnerability to climate change, differentiated solutions for adaptation would have to be found for each type of forest. By means of thinning, tree species change and mixed stands, it is basically possible and necessary to strengthen the self-organization ability of ecosystems and to improve the resistance and resilience of forests.

Despite these very different starting positions, there was agreement among the participants that in the future the conscious handling of uncertainty and a more competent handling of unawareness must be given more attention in forest management. Neither the climate change itself, nor the reaction of forests to increasing disturbances are predictable due to the complexity of the interactions in all details. This requires a transformation of the forest's self-image and world view and a shift away from traditional control and planning paradigms. Rather, foresters must become "competent companions accompanying the unpredictable".

To cope with uncertainty and unawareness, strategies such as experimental action, risk spreading, step-by-step probing, effective promotion of learning processes, expansion of networks between science and practice and greater attention to the precautionary and precautionary principle were discussed. It quickly became clear, however, that there is further fundamental need for discussion and research in this area, which should be embedded in a broader social discourse.

There was also in some cases considerable agreement on many specific measures of forest management. It was agreed that a part of the current and future calamity areas should not be cleared, but left to natural regeneration. Clearings, which are often carried out even under acceptance of economic losses and supported by public funds, create an unnecessary pressure to act and are no longer justifiable from a public welfare perspective. Disturbances should rather be understood as natural processes that also open up opportunities for biodiversity and should therefore be integrated more flexibly into management in the future. The need for precise threshold values for area shares, which could be useful for larger forest enterprises in particular, was discussed. On the other hand, it was agreed that the obligation to reforest should be extended to up to 15 years in order to give natural processes more time.

There was also consensus that the potential of indigenous tree species should first be exploited in the selection of tree species, before resorting to "new tree species" for planting, for which only little scientific knowledge is available to date and whose risk can therefore hardly be assessed. In this context, the importance of adapted populations of cloven-hoofed animals as a key factor for species-rich natural regeneration was repeatedly pointed out.

The majority of the participants at the event spoke out in favour of continuing the event format and additionally suggested the establishment of a permanent coordination office for a round table on "forest adaptation" from funds of the Forest Climate Fund.

The lectures of the conference are to be published in the BfN script series (in German). The BfN position paper "Forests in Climate Change" (in German) can be downloaded from the BfN website www.bfn.de/ueber-das-bfn/positionspapiere.html.

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