Is a “forest” an ecosystem or just a set of trees? How can forestry be less damaging to biodiversity? How can we rewild our forests?

Presentation: Mats Niklasson – Nordens Ark foundation & Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

   “Nature must be managed” is a common belief in western culture. The idea that nature cannot be left on its own is especially strong in forestry and forest management. “Managing nature” or “taking control over nature” has been so influential over such a long time that even protected forest sometimes is managed with methods identical to commercial management. The idea that nature cannot be left unmanaged has strong implications for our attitude towards conservation in general, and for the concept of rewilding in particular.
However, it is an undisputed fact that forestry and forest management, especially as implemented in northern European countries, has been detrimental to a large part of the original fauna and flora. In the temperate and boreal forests of Scandinavia, 100+ years of commercial forest management has driven several species to local extinction and has put
more than 2 000 species on the National Red Lists. The main reason, beside plain habitat loss and fragmentation, is the large-scale loss of key elements and processes in managed forest such as: old trees, deciduous trees, large tree
dimensions, dying trees, dead trees, flooding, natural forest fires and grazing.
In a rewilding process, traditional forest management concepts and principles have limited value. A major problem is that a “non-management” regime was and is never an option in forestry. Active incorporation of the “let it be”- or “non-intervention”-tool as a legitimate management option in the forestry toolbox could perhaps be one way to prepare and develop forestry for a future with more complex demands from society. In the presentation Mats showed some examples of species and processes that have decreased or disappeared due to forest management. Many of these species would strongly benefit from rewilding of large areas.
In order to preserve biodiversity, natural processes can rarely be substituted by human controlled disturbance regimes. Forest management is a good example of a human disturbance regime with known negative effects for flora and fauna.

In a process of rewilding forest landscapes, formerly forestry managed areas often need active ecological restoration to reach a state closer to the original, natural state. Restoration as defined historically by forest managers, “forest
restoration” will not improve the situation for threatened species since it usually involves replanting and management of mono-species conifer forest that indeed are “green” but with very low biodiversity. In ecological restoration emphasis is instead on bringing lost species back by providing suitable habitats and underlying natural processes. Mats discussed and gave examples of restoration practices that can be used in order to “rewild” set-aside areas. Many of these practices can also be easily integrated into traditional forest management in order to decrease its negative impact. Allowing natural processes is definitely a challenge. However, some processes are easy to allow or mimic even in a managed landscape.

1. Leaving dying and dead trees in the forest. One example: Many large herbivores feed on bark of various trees in winter. The resulting damaged and dying trees is an important habitat for other organisms. Leave such trees in nature!
2. Creating dead and dying trees. It is possible to imitate natural processes and also speed them up. Trees can be damaged and killed and then left behind for nature to take over. Many organisms benefit from artificially killed trees.
3. Fire. This is probably the most controversial subject in conservation today since wildfires may destroy lives and properties. Nevertheless, prescribed well-controlled fires for biodiversity is increasing in a number of situations. Controlled fires, with or without grazing, is a useful tool in heath and grassland management and for restoring biodiversity in many forest ecosystems. There is a close association between ground fires, grasses and large herbivores, probably very well known for our hunter-ancestors.

sursa: Proceedings of the Rewilding Europe seminar at WILD10