OptFORESTS, a new EU project to improve the diversity and resilience of future forests

The 5-year project aims to support the protection and sustainable use of forest genetic resources in Europe in the face of environmental and societal challenges.

Consortium group photo in Vienna on 24 November during the kick-off meeting of the OptForests project, involving 20 partners from all over Europe. Photo: Michele Bozzano

Faced with the challenges posed to forests by climate change, new European policies call for increased efforts to restore forest ecosystems through massive tree plantations by 2030, in full respect of ecological principles. This objective can only be achieved if forest genetic resources (FGR) and Forest reproductive material (FRM) such as fruits, seeds, cones and plant parts are protected and sustainably managed while establishing a well-developed nursery sector to support planting and restoration efforts. The Horizon Europe OptFORESTS project aims to generate new knowledge in this field, systematise data and create network partnerships for the production, deployment, management and conservation of diversified and adaptable FGR and FRM in the face of climate change.

The main mission of OptFORESTS over the next 5 years (2022-2027) is to ensure a greater number of species-rich (natural or plantation) and well-managed forests in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change. To this end, it will conduct research on the selection of diverse FRM, including mixtures of species and provenances, adapted to future climates, promote the sustainable use and resilience of natural forests by testing and implementing new forest management adapted to mixed forests that will maintain high genetic diversity, help expand and diversify nursery production, and develop nature-based solutions (NBS) relying on FGR, tools (e.g., expanded Information Systems by linking EUFGIS with FOREMATIS, the  European FRM Information System) and cultural trajectories to promote forest biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Santiago C. González-Martínez (INRAE), coordinator of OptForests, discussing with the consortium ways to reduce the carbon footprint throughout the project. Photo: Anna Maria Farsakoglou

What challenges lie ahead?

To achieve these ambitious goals, OptFORESTS brings together a consortium of 19 partners from all over Europe, coordinated by the French National Institute for Agricultural, Food and Environmental Research (INRAE), including the European Forest Institute (EFI) and more than 100 researchers and stakeholders with expertise in ecology, forest management, genetics, modelling and socio-economic analysis.

With this multidisciplinary team, OptFORESTS will evaluate adaptive and biomass traits in existing common gardens and newly-established next-generation ones that will evaluate performance not only for single species or provenances but also their mixtures, promote the conservation and use of unique tree lineages for ecosystem restoration and management (e.g., ecologically marginal provenances), model future adaptation of trees at different life stages integrating genomics into the current modelling framework, and conduct low-input breeding for a large number of underused tree species in European forestry.  

This will be complemented by studying the effects of silviculture and landscape heterogeneity on genetic diversity and developing new silvicultural options for genetically mixed forests, which will be implemented via training software (marteloscopes) and long-term demonstration plots showcasing biodiversity restoration solutions across different European biogeographical regions. To enable optimal supply of diversified FRM, OptFORESTS will assess the European nursery sector in-depth, forecast future FRM needs, develop plant production technology and promote cooperation between nurseries. Finally, Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) and tools will be co-designed with local and EU-level stakeholders and a cost-benefit and gap analysis of key socio-economic, governance and policy issues will be developed.

OptFORESTS stands as an instrumental project to achieve long-term impacts related to tackling climate change and natural disasters while maintaining or increasing forest biodiversity and ecosystem services, and to support international agreements and EU policy under the European Green Deal, linking with similar initiatives in other continents.

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101081774.

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European Forest Institute
The European Forest Institute is an international organisation established by European States with the objective to conduct research and provide policy support on issues related to forests. EFI works to promote forest research, facilitate and stimulate forest-related networking and support the dissemination of policy-relevant information on forests and forestry.