The topic of 2021’s International Day of Forests is “Forest Restoration” – but why do we need it? What does restoration mean? Dr. Elisabeth Pötzelsberger, Head of EFI’s Resilience Programme, answers some questions from her perspective.

The topic of 2021’s International Day of Forests is “Forest Restoration” – but why do we need forest restoration?

Undoubtedly, you will have recognized that there is something going in our forests, no matter where you live in Europe. Forests are suffering from long drought periods and high temperatures, causing common tree species to shut down their body functions. Shutting down body functions means that trees drop their leaves early in the season and sometimes these trees do not recover and die. Weakened trees are also easy prey to pests like bark beetles. You may have also witnessed how heavy storms have blown over forests on entire hillslopes, or possibly seen the columns of smoke from forest fires that easily spread when the rain has been absent too long and the forest floor has turned into perfect fuel. These disturbances make it necessary to restore either single forest patches or entire landscapes. However, restoration is necessary not only on disturbed land, but also required for degraded forest ecosystems. Also there, the aim is to make forests healthy and fully functional again so that forests can again provide all the important ecosystem services like clean air and water, carbon storage, wood production, support of human health and wellbeing and – what fortunately receives a lot of attention today – be again the home to the wealth of animal and plant species that naturally live in our forests.

What does restoration mean exactly – does it mean bringing the forest back to its previous state or planting something else?

Restoration does not always means restoring to a previous state, because the previous state may have contributed to the severity of the disaster, like monocultures and inappropriate tree species. Restoration instead is often targeted at a more natural forest state with a higher structural and functional diversity that makes the forest more resilient. But because climate change is progressing and even natural forests may be suffering, it is important to plan ahead, and maybe find better adapted species and tree genetic materials.

What role does forest restoration play for EFI’s Resilience Programme?

We aim to understand the dynamics of disturbances and the traits and characteristics that make a forest landscape less vulnerable to disturbances – that’s the important first steps for forest restoration and adaptation to rapidly changing conditions.

We bring together scientists from a wealth of disciplines, forest practitioners and policy makers in order to find feasible approaches for restoration and for keeping forests in a healthy and fully functional state. Forest restoration is by far not only a scientific question, but it needs policymakers that can set – well-informed by science – the suitable framework and incentives. Most importantly, we need forest managers and practitioners – those working out there in the forest – to be integrated into the process of finding solutions, because they have the wealth of experience of what actually works and doesn’t work in practice.

What we in the Resilience Programme eventually aim for, is that forest practitioners have all the knowledge they need to restore and sustainably manage European forests in times of rapid changes and big challenges, and that the policy frameworks allow foresters to actually do the required work – in an ecologically as well as economically feasible manner. We are not satisfied with just envisioning healthy, functional forests – we want to see them actually grow!

In your experience, what has been a major challenge when bringing scientific knowledge and practice together for forest restoration? What solutions do you suggest to better communicate? 

First and foremost, we need to talk to each other at eye level so that each side can recognize the hard work of the other side on finding out and doing what is needed to restore and adapt our forests.

A major challenge is that scientific solutions are often developed without involvement of practitioners. However, the work of foresters has many real-world constraints, that any solutions that scientists propose need to respect. This means for example limitations on the availability of labor, costs of forest operations including planting, tending etc., availability of forest reproductive materials, pressure from wildlife damaging the seedlings and more.

Therefore, we need regular opportunities for exchange. For this, we ideally move to places where everyone feels comfortable and inspired. From our experience, regular meetings in the forest are very valuable for both sides, to discuss the issues out there, also with the concerned communities. This allows participants to learn and gain mutual trust, and bring knowledge to action.

Photo: Fotolia/Stephan Leyk


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