Growing forests: What benefits does natural forest expansion offer to society?

New BiodivERsA policy brief demonstrates the potential of natural forest expansion as a cost-effective nature-based solution in South-West Europe.

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natural forest expansion on a hill in france
Forest landscape in Vaucluse, France. Photo: Jakob Derks.

Forests in Europe are expanding. Despite headlines highlighting threats to forests and their ecosystems, like deforestation and natural disturbances due to the climate crisis, Europe’s forested area is steadily growing. One reason is active afforestation, or planting trees, as a common approach to increase forest area, while forest owners or managers often plant species for future harvesting or other reasons, partially supported by governmental subsidies. Yet, this is not the only explanation for Europe’s growing forested area.

Forests are expanding naturally on abandoned land in some regions of Europe. Although this process has slowed in the last decade, it still is a major trend that warrants attention and research. Significantly, natural forest expansion in Europe has the potential to restore biodiversity and promote nature’s contributions to people in both abandoned rural areas and the urban fringe. It may even present an effective and novel method for mitigating climate change through increased carbon sequestration and genetic diversity, thus improving local resilience to forest threats.

New research reported in a BiodivERsA policy brief clearly shows the benefits of natural forest expansion, but also highlights the importance of considering how these forests are perceived by local communities. The policy brief, “How natural forest expansion in Europe can offer cost-effective benefits to people, summarises the main results of 3.5 years of research and provides recommendations for policy makers to better explore and exploit the potential of this new forest growth.

Click the image to read the full BiodivERsA policy brief.

There are many reasons causing people to abandon lands with forest growth over them. These include demographics and a strong rural exodus in rural areas, political drivers like the impact of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, and ecological drivers such as poor soil quality and changes in climate. In particular, agriculture on marginal and difficult-to-access sites becomes more and more challenging and is less viable than in other regions, affecting the existence of small-scale agriculture and increasing abandonment in these areas more than others.

The SPONFOREST project studied natural forest expansion and its consequences for people and nature in France and Spain. As described in a blogpost highlighting results from the project’s case studies, natural forest expansion happens as a deep transition of landscapes and has huge impacts on the people living in, managing and using these landscapes. Communities are faced with a need to adapt to the new landscapes and learn to deal with arising challenges, such as an increased fire risk in fire prone regions, or simply the shift from an agricultural landscape to an often unmanaged forest landscape. This transition represents a change in historical land use, practiced for centuries, that is interwoven with the traditions and histories of people, animals and the land.

Although these shifts can be a shock to rural communities and their histories, there are also opportunities arising from these new forest ecosystems, be it on a societal or on an ecological level. Forests can provide new forest-related goods, wilderness creation, or the development of forest-dependent biodiversity. This was made clear in the project results, which are based on interviews with local stakeholders in the case studies in France and Spain. The results show how natural forest expansion affects nature’s contribution to people, a concept used in the interdisciplinary part of the research.

This process is entwined with the history, cultural use and attachment to the landscapes; indeed, the project found that cultural beliefs – values and basic assumptions about the relationship between humans and nature, including how we can and should use nature – form a prerequisite for the perceptions of natural forest expansion. At a basic level, this suggests that a farmer who relies on agriculture for their subsistence, a rural resident who avidly gathers mushrooms, and a resident at the rural-urban interface who spends time in rural areas for recreational activities, might all have different perceptions of these new forests, and on what transformations are needed in a humanised Europe. 

Ecological results showed that the characteristics of forest expansion depend greatly on the land-use legacy, namely the type of land use implemented on the land before. For instance, when forests grow on former agricultural land, natural forest expansion can increase connectivity in the landscape, enhance biomass accumulation and improve carbon sequestration. This again supports the approach that local context matters.

The results of SPONFOREST and prior research clearly show that the process of natural forest expansion is complex and highly context dependent. This means it is difficult to make a judgement on the potential benefits of natural forest expansion to people and the environment without knowing the local ecological, land-use, and social conditions of the land. The policy brief argues for a more open approach towards natural forest expansion, as it is often treated as a challenge or a threat, or else is not considered at all. Instead, the brief recommends that scientists, policy makers and local communities should explore the opportunities that forest expansion could offer, and address them politically and through future research so that these benefits to people and nature can be realised.

Read the full policy brief here.