Restoring after forest dieback: First Public Engagement Workshop in our German demo area

The pressure to act and restore the forest ecosystem is immense in our German demo area in North-Rhine Westphalia: Having suffered massive pest outbreaks 6 years ago, the region still struggles with widespread forest dieback. As many forest owners have been challenged in the past years, restoration efforts in the area remain at early stages.

After spending the morning with diverse stakeholders from forestry, tree nurseries, nature conservation, hunting and more, discussing restoration goals and different expectations to forests, we continued with a 2.5-hour public engagement workshop walking through one of our SUPERB demonstration sites close to Arnsberg.

Photo credits: Rahel Könen

To set the stage for the public engagement workshop in the forest, Gesche Schifferdecker shared some insights from an analysis of Facebook posts around the NRW forest area implemented by Rina Tsubaki. These ranged from red deer loving nature photographers to hunting associations emphasizing the role of game management for forest natural regeneration and afforestation to representatives of the City of Arnsberg introducing the forest management plans for a climate resilient mixed forest. The participants were very interested in the online debates and surprised about some of the opinionated comments below the posts. This led to a reflection upon the role of social media in public engagement, and how for example forestry practitioners could proactively contribute to a more balanced debate.

Photo credits: Rahel Könen

The discussions continued in our SUPERB demo area, with a guided tour by SUPERB demo manager Catharina Schmidt. As our SUPERB interventions focus on both environmental and social factors of forest restoration, we discussed in the field diverse topics from climate resilience, selection of tree species, impressions of trellis and tubes covering the newly planted trees, walkability, the role of deer pressure for forest restoration, to the importance of deadwood for biodiversity. Amongst other questions, we asked: “How does this site look to you?, “how do you perceive the role of hunting in the forest?”, and “how does the sight of lying and standing deadwood make you feel?” 

With over 15 participants, these questions led us to insightful and open-hearted discussions about the struggles and needs of this forest area, its ecosystem and its people. 

Resist, survive, respond, restore

Exploring resilient forest responses across countries 

#RestorationStory from Jo O’Hara

The SUPERB project already touches many places and people through its demos and partners. Yet we must stretch its synergies even further if we are to achieve the scale of our European-wide forest restoration targets. Therefore, we planted new collaborative seeds in November 2023, when senior staff from the Irish state forest service, namely Coillte, were hosted by German SUPERB partners Wald und Holz NRW in North Rhine Westphalia to discuss forest resilience and prestoration approaches. While there is no formal Irish involvement with SUPERB, when introduced to the project, Coillte managers were extremely keen to learn from our work and establish new professional networks. 

Coillte forests are mostly plantation-based (Ireland had less than 1% forest cover at the start of the 20th century) and strongly dominated by non-native spruce (Picea sitchensis). The forests are mainly managed on a commercial clear-fell / replant system, and many are at the end of their first rotation. This gives the organisation great opportunities to re-structure and ‘prestore’ their land to become more resilient and ecologically positive, while maintaining their commercial performance. Recognising this, Coillte has just launched a new strategic plan (2023 – 2050) for managing the country’s forests. This plan includes specific ambitions to:  

  • Enhance and restore biodiversity by increasing the area of [the] estate managed primarily for biodiversity and environmental enhancement from 20% to 30% by 2025  
  • Transform areas of forests so that 50% of [the] estate is managed primarily for biodiversity and environmental enhancement in the long- term  

Discussions on and in the forest

Catharina Schmidt from the SUPERB NRW demo, worked with me to organise a packed and insightful programme surrounding the spruce-forest calamity area and the development of alternative silvicultural approaches. Over the course of two days the group visited public, communal and private forests, all of which had been hit by drought, windstorms, and beetles. We discussed all stages of the ‘resist, survive, respond, restore’ cycle – including a deep-dive evening discussion about the conditions leading to the explosion in bark beetle damage, and the operational challenges of the response (including contractors, sawmill, markets, and nursery stock).  

The SUPERB demo site was both a daunting and profound example of the actual reality and risks forests face: a huge area of ‘lost’ forest where tough decisions need to be made about how and what to regenerate. We could see and find insights into the resilience of alternative approaches nearby in the ‘Rothaargebirge Naturpark’ and on the ‘von Hatzfeldt’ estate. Wald und Holz NRW state forests, blown over 15 years ago in the ‘Rothaargebirge Naturpark’, managed to regenerate in a way that multiple species survived the beetle explosion quite well. Having been converted from single storey monocultures over the last 30 years, the ‘von Hatzfeldt’ private estate (despite losing much spruce) also proved more ecologically and financially resilient in the face of the calamity. 

Sharing experiences to anticipate risks and explore lessons-learned

It is essential to adopt a global perspective on forests to address the climate and biodiversity crisis effectively”, commented SUPERB demo coordinator from Wald und Holz NRW, Catharina Schmidt. “Forests offer a multitude of ecosystem services, serving as carbon sinks producing the sustainable raw material wood and providing habitats for numerous species. It is therefore important to preserve our forests globally. I am glad to share our experience, so others can learn from us to take proactive steps sooner to mitigate risks. Timely transformation of forests is important under global change”. 

Ireland has not yet been hit by significant forest damage due to climate or other environmental changes. This was hence a powerful opportunity for Coillte foresters to look into a potential future for their own forests and consider risks and mitigations by learning from what they saw. SUPERB brought to life the reality of the risks and set-up conversations between a fantastic range of professionals, all dealing with the challenge of multi-functional forest management in a changing and uncertain future environment.  

10 key learning points for Coillte

Coillte took away 10 key learning points from the visit that they aim to consider in the implementation of their strategic plan. As mentions Director Ciaran Fallon, “The visit was highly informative in terms of understanding lessons learned from the catastrophic Ips beetle outbreak of 2018 and how German foresters are creating more resilient forests in response to climate change impacts. Developing a strategy for resilience and adaptation to climate change, including the increasing risk of a major pest outbreak, for our estate is critical. Building on the learnings from continental Europe, we are working with partners to model, with the most accurate data, future climate scenarios and associated impacts. Identifying risks and testing scenarios will enable us to develop the best resilience and sustainability for our forest estate.” 

Finally, I would like to highlight the importance of engaging in collaborations such as this: Within SUPERB, much of the upscaling attention is focused on the Nature Restoration Gateway, an online portal offering a broad range of tools and best practice for ecosystem restoration. But it might be even more vital that we recognise the importance of networks and connections to bring our learnings to the field. Computer-based information will only get us so far – people will make it happen. 

Jo O’Hara is leading SUPERB’s WP8 on Further Upscaling.

SUPERB presented to new forest research network in Germany

SUPERB Demo area – North Rhine Westphalia – SUPERB (forest-restoration.eu) lead Catharina Schmidt introduced the project work on October 30th and 31st in Arnsberg, Germany, to a group of ca. 40 scientists and practitioners from various organisations based in NRW. Aim of the “Forest Research NRW“ event was to discuss the latest scientific results and practical challenges related to how we can better prepare and adapt our forests in times of climate change. The agenda of the symposium included topics such as the opportunities of digitalization in the forest for climate change adaptation, the performance of forest soils, questions of forest governance as well as reflections on how to combine climate protection and timber construction. The event was organized on the initiative of the NRW Ministry of Agriculture and Consumer Protection with the objective to establish a new forest research network in NRW, formally announced by NRW Minister for Agriculture and Consumer Protection Silke Gorißen on October 30th.

The workshop also included an excursion to SUPERB’s demo sites in Arnsberg, where participants learned about ongoing forest restoration measures: reforesting beetle-infected spruce forests into more diverse, mixed-forest ecosystems by using a combination of natural regeneration and replanting.

SUPERB meets international students

What is SUPERB? How does our research look like? And why do we talk about a “Prestoration” approach? Recently, Catharina Schmidt, leader of SUPERB’s NRW demo, and Simon Fleckenstein, PhD student from University of Freiburg presented SUPERB at the poster session of the International Forestry Students’ Symposium (IFSS) in Freiburg. Simon provided the audience, consisting of approximately 100 international forestry students from around the world, with a general overview of the project’s objectives and structures, while Catharina shared some hands-on experiences from the German demo and discussed their specific approach to “Prestoration.”

IFSS is the largest annual meeting of the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA). It provides students with the opportunity to participate in various forestry activities, exchange information, and share their experiences. The theme for this year’s event was “Transforming Forestry – Staying Ahead of Current and Future Challenges,” which thematically aligns perfectly with the SUPERB project. IFSA students traveled throughout Germany for two weeks, gaining insights into German forests and forestry. During their weekend in Freiburg, they were also joined by IFSA SAN, the IFSA Alumni Network.

“Forest restoration needs to look ahead, not backwards, in face of climate change”: An interview with SUPERB coordinator Elisabeth Pötzelsberger on World Habitat Day

This 3rd of October is World Habitat Day! To celebrate the occasion, SUPERB coordinator Elisabeth Pötzelsberger, Head of Resilience Programme at the European Forest Institute (EFI), explained the importance of “prestoration” – the combination of restoration and climate adaptation – for resilient and functional forest habitats. She discussed how it differs from classical restoration approaches, highlighted its relevance to the new EU Nature Restoration Law and listed concrete examples of how prestoration is being applied within the SUPERB demonstration areas in Germany and in the Czech Republic.

Watch the video interview on YouTube or read it below!

What is prestoration? How does it differ from more classical approaches to forest restoration?

Why do we actually restore restore forests? There are large restoration needs, for example, when forests are impacted by hot temperatures, forest fires, and also by prolonged droughts that will also cause outbreaks of pests and pathogens, which can kill forests on large landscape levels. But also to make our forests more diverse again in Europe and to bring back important habitats that, for example, are associated with deadwood and old-growth elements, which have become rare across Europe.

When people talk about restoration, they might think of different objectives that may be located along the so-called restoration continuum. The classical restoration continuum ranges from fighting the drivers of degradation over remediation of ecosystem functions up to full ecological restoration, where species diversity, ecosystem structure and function are restored. However, climate change adds a new dimension to this restoration continuum. Therefore, the consideration of adaptation in restoration, what we can call prestoration, is becoming so important.

Forest researchers and practitioners are therefore supporting this concept, which means the combination of restoration ambitions with the need for adaptation. Adaptation of tree species composition and forest structure in order to increase the resilience of forests under climate change and also ensure forest functioning in the future.

Can you give a few examples that illustrate how prestoration works?

There are already good examples where we are practising prestoration, like in our two SUPERB demonstration areas in central Europe – in Germany (North Rhine-Westfalia) and in the Czech Republic. These regions are naturally dominated by beech forests but some decades or centuries ago have been converted into Norway Spruce plantations.

Now with prolonged droughts, these Norway Spruce forests have been severely damaged by subsequent bark beetle infestations. In SUPERB, we are not only restoring them back into native beech forest ecosystems but already looking into more drought-tolerant habitat types like oak/hornbeam forests and mixing them with even more broadleaved tree species to increase forest resilience and functionality also for future climate conditions.

What challenges does prestoration entail?

Prestoration is neither simple nor straightforward. With climate change, we are really entering uncharted territory. We will be and already are experiencing conditions that we have never experienced before. Also our native forest species are not adjusted to these new conditions. Looking for more adapted species in the Mediterranean may be an option. However, there is also large uncertainty associated with it because we don’t know, for example, whether these species will be truly suited to the climatic conditions that will occur in 100 years’ time, because there is still a broad range of possible climate change scenarios.

And then there is another challenge: forests do not consist only of trees. There are many other plant and animal species that live in these forests and are also dependent on these tree species. So, will they be fit to survive in these climatic conditions and will they be happy to thrive in these forests which may consist of different tree species than today?

What are the prerequisites for successful prestoration?

Due to this large uncertainty, in SUPERB we are convinced that we need flexible approaches and to revisit decisions as we go along. And of course, with SUPERB we are also providing continuous scientific support which will allow us to find out which are the right species compositions and how we can assist the migration of other plant and animal species across the landscape so they can find in the future forest habitats and climate conditions that they are adjusted to.

How is prestoration relevant to the new EU Restoration Law?

So this prestoration concept, this idea of integrating adaptation into restoration, will be of crucial importance if we want to achieve the overall goal of the new EU’s Biodiversity Strategy and the EU’s Forest Strategy, which is to restore European biodiversity and continuous provision of ecosystem services in the future.

These Biodiversity and Forest Strategies of the EU now will be supported by the Nature Restoration legislation which is currently being debated at the EU level. It remains to be seen how much space will be given actually to adaptation in this new restoration proposal.

But already experiencing this high-speed climate change, I think it is pretty clear: we have to look ahead and not backwards if we want to be prepared for what is coming.

Creating resilient forests for the future

1st Stakeholder Workshop in German SUPERB demo 

by Catharina Schmidt

Did you know that many forests in Germany’s demo area North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) have been severely affected by drought and bark beetle outbreaks since 2018? By now, approximately 140.000 ha of Norway spruce forests have been damaged due to spruce bark beetle attacks, and 10.000 ha of pure beech stands are severely affected by drought. To ensure that our forests provide the ecosystem services we need, those areas need to be restored. Therefore, the state of NRW already developed a silviculture and reforestation concept in cooperation with several stakeholders. The concepts are now being tested – amongst others – in SUPERB’s demo sites. These include a total of at least 35 ha in 7 demo sites with at least 5 ha of restoration area per site which will be established across NRW. One “best-practice forest stand” will have the average size of 1 ha.

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