10 scientific recommendations for keeping forests alive

Catalonia's forests are facing unprecedented challenges. CREAF proposes 10 science-based solutions to protect and restore these vital ecosystems.

Image: Laura Fraile

Faced with persistent droughts, heatwaves, erosion due to torrential rain, nutrient loss, infestations and major fires, Catalonia’s forests are alarmingly vulnerable at present. Meanwhile, the population is demanding more and more from the rural world, and seeking to use local wood as a sustainable, homegrown material. How do we go about managing all that? CREAF has summarized 10 science-based proposals for improving the management of Catalonia’s forests and presented them on the premises of the European Parliament in Brussels. The presentation was given on 7 November by CREAF’s director, Joan Pino, as part of a seminar entitled “The need for forest management. The case of Mediterranean forests” organized by the MEP Jordi Solé.

The key message CREAF’s 10 recommendations convey is that forest management must aid forests – living, dynamic systems – in overcoming three challenges at once: maintaining their biodiversity, becoming more resilient to climate change, and providing the services society wants from them. CREAF advocates achieving that through science-based forest management with which local stakeholders are in agreement. It is necessary to identify management practices that allow for sustainable development of the forest bioeconomy, making it possible to use forests’ products and services without damaging their health or stopping them from functioning properly. CREAF is also in favour of diversifying management practices, with levels of intervention adapted to individual sites and objectives. In that respect, the centre is aware that not intervening (apparent non-management) should also be regarded as forest management, if it is a planning-based choice with a clear goal.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to forest management

CREAF’s 10 recommendations emphasize the great diversity of Catalonia’s landscapes and forests. Each forest is in a specific state and has a unique set of climatic, topographical, socio-economic and historical circumstances. With that in mind, the approach taken to management should depend on the functions targeted for restoration, maintenance or improvement in each territory or landscape. We cannot expect to get everything we want from every single forest.

CREAF also points out that ecosystems, and forests in particular, are multifunctional; in other words, at the same time as contributing to our wellbeing, they perform different functions, such as regulating the climate and providing us with everything from leisure options to wood and mushrooms. Thus, there will have to be different models of forest management, depending on the functions needed in each location and what each forest can offer That will require coordinated land management by the competent authorities, with help from experts and the participation of stakeholders (forest owners, stockbreeders, conservation groups, entrepreneurs from the green tourism sector, etc).

The 10 recommendations draw special attention to the threats and vulnerabilities caused by the climate emergency. In that context, management needs to be preventative, because of the risk of fires, and adaptive, to help forests cope with climate change. The measures required will differ from area to area; the same measures cannot be applied everywhere, partly because of the financial and social costs involved and partly because they are not always effective. In areas that are more accessible and deemed strategic in terms of fire control or where the risk to the population is greater, it will be necessary to create landscapes with lower fuel loads and more firebreaks. In less accessible or more remote areas, forest management will ultimately have to be left to the dynamics of nature, including fire and drought.

Lastly, management must ensure that forests are kept healthy and full of life. Accordingly, a substantial proportion of the best-preserved forests should be left to become more mature, managed only by the dynamics of nature.

Montserrat, Catalonia. Photo: Sarah Adams

10 ideas and proposals for the future of forests

The product of an internal reflection process in which most of the centre’s forestry experts participated, the following 10-point list is a summary of CREAF’s road map for forest management:

  1. Forest management must deal with new, rapidly changing climatic and social circumstances, which are causing alterations in species composition and loss of biomass The response from forests, whether gradual or more abrupt, will be mass tree mortality, triggered mainly by drought, infestation and/or fire. Forests are already facing new demands from society, adding to the pressure the ecosystem services they provide are under. We must help them adapt to their new socio-environmental context.
  2. The primary objective of forest management in Catalonia must be to restore, maintain or improve the health or ecological functionality of forests. That is the only way to ensure the conservation of their biodiversity and the long-term availability of the wellbeing and services they provide Forest management must buy us time and make it possible to avoid traumatic transitions that could involve loss of soil, the breakdown of ecosystem services and collapses in biodiversity, as well as the risks to the population that disturbances such as forest fires entail.
  3. Management must be aimed at making forests multifunctional, maximizing the number of functions and services they offer, although this must be adapted to the specific objectives pursued in each case, based on each forest’s potential. In some cases, for instance, management focused on forestry activities may be combined with management geared to fire prevention or biodiversity conservation. That need not always be so, however; choices must be made.
  4. Maintaining forest functionality requires highly diverse forest management tools with incremental degrees of intervention that range from letting forest areas evolve freely to replacing them with crops or pasture, and also include allowing logging, the frequency and extent of which would depend on each forest’s specific objectives and socio-environmental context. Such management is inevitably complex. It has to be applied to very different spatial scales and integrated into local socio-ecological systems. It has medium and long-term results.
  5. Forest management must be based on scientific knowledge. It must factor in each forest’s current state of health, functions and potential services, as well as current environmental circumstances and those that will arise from climate change. Furthermore, it must take different time scales (spanning decades, at least) and very different spatial scales (stand, landscape, basin, region) into consideration. In Catalonia, there are numerous bodies involved in research which could provide high-quality information and data that ought to be used to plan management.
  6. Forest management must prioritize nature-based solutions, which allow forests to retain the complexity they need to be resilient to changes and capable of offering multiple functions and ecosystem services There is little chance of a monospecific forest with a simplified structure being able to give us everything we seek from it. The concept of nature-based solutions should enable us to harmonize Catalan, Spanish and European strategies for forestry, land management and biodiversity conservation.
  7. Management must be combined with the recovery of lost natural processes that regulate forest dynamics, such as herbivory and flood and fire regimes. The combination must also include processes linked to human activity, such as timber harvesting and domestic livestock grazing A holistic perspective is required; it must encompass natural and human systems, their respective dynamics, and assessment of the risks associated with these processes. This recommendation is entirely in keeping with European and Spanish forestry and biodiversity conservation strategies, as well as with the concept of nature-based solutions.
  8. Territorial forest-use planning is required to ensure that management maintains landscape complexity and multifunctionality. Forest management must be underpinned by territorial planning. Such management must be a shared endeavour and integrated into territorial socio-economic dynamics. It is necessary to work towards a model of forest co-management, with strategies and indicators that take both environmental and socio-economic factors into account and upon which the relevant stakeholders agree.
  9. There must be both specific and global reflection on the problem of forest fires, with assessment of the appropriateness and feasibility of using different management tools in different socio-environmental situations. It is not possible to reduce fuel loads across the board, nor to manage entire landscapes with a focus on fire prevention, for various (ecological, social and economic) reasons. It will therefore be necessary to accept fires happening every so often, and to decide where to intervene more forcefully and where it would be more reasonable to use fire as a natural process and promote free ecosystem dynamics.
  10. Forests must be regarded as key ecosystems; they must be valued for their role in conserving biodiversity and for the essential functions, goods and services they offer society. To make that so, we must broaden our concept of forest management to include the recovery and maintenance of natural processes as an essential tool.
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CREAF is a public research center dedicated to terrestrial ecology, territorial analysis and global change, pursuing excellence in the production and dissemination of knowledge, in addition to the innovation, development, and transfer of methodologies.