“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 or read the transcription 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.

Visions for forest restoration in the Bohemian forest

Stakeholder Engagement Workshop in SUPERB’s Czech demo

Since 2018, massive bark beetle attacks caused widespread damage to the Norway spruce forests in SUPERB’s Czech demo, leading to heavily degraded areas and clearings. The infestations also had devastating social impacts as they negatively affected the forestry sector and deprived local communities of important spaces for recreation. To gather broad support for the forest regeneration efforts in the area, our Czech partners brought together a diverse group of stakeholders from forest enterprises, value chain, policy, NGOs, environmentalists, forest owners, hunters, and the public in a 1-day workshop. Aim of the workshop was to discuss different restoration approaches and how to tailor them to public and private interests. Another important topic was the need to increase the resilience of the future forest to pest outbreaks with the objective to enhance ecosystem services, such as wood production, carbon storage, biodiversity conservation, soil protection, recreation, water provision, and educational activities. A crucial part of the workshop was an excursion to the demo area which allowed for mutual learning and deepening the discourse.



Meet the managers of the SUPERB demos in Spain, Sweden and Croatia!

Promoting peaceful coexistence between bears and humans, reconciling indigenous and industrial forest uses, and creating climate-change adapted forests in a former war zone: these are some of the challenges faced by our SUPERB demo areas in Spain, Sweden and Croatia.

At the SUPERB Governance Innovation Lab, the managers of the SUPERB demos in these three locations introduced their approaches to forest restoration and worked on solutions to their governance challenges together with a panel of experts.

Do you want to find out more about their work and meet the faces behind our restoration case studies? Then watch the video interviews below, recorded at the Lab:

Interview with Judit Torres (CESEFOR), SUPERB demo area in Spain

Interview with Anders Esselin (Man & Nature), SUPERB demo area in Sweden

Interview with Martina Đodan (Croatian Forest Research Institute), SUPERB demo area in Croatia/Serbia

9 take-home messages from the SUPERB Governance Innovation Lab 

Forest governance is a complex topic, and we are living in complex times. A quick analysis of the EU and global policy environment in 2022 results in an intricate puzzle of overlapping but also contradicting sectoral policies in the fields of agriculture, energy, climate and environment that are relevant to forests. National and municipal forest strategies and plans add another layer of intricacy to the equation. And that’s not to mention the many ecosystem service demands by society that often compete at the local level! 

To unravel the complexity of the topic and work out different perceptions of governance challenges in forest restoration, SUPERB researchers and practitioners gathered at the SUPERB Governance Innovation Lab, hosted by project partner Prospex Institute in Opatija, Croatia, between 27-29 June. There, participants exchanged innovative local and regional approaches to forest governance, discussed how these could apply to the SUPERB large-scale demos, and created first synergies with partners outside the project consortium. 

For those who missed the event, we from EFI have compiled a list of 9 take-home messages from the Governance Lab: 

  1. Innovation goes beyond technology  

Despite the frequent association between innovation and technology, innovation doesn’t always come with the use of new tree monitoring gadgets, more powerful drones and other high-tech inventions. Simply put, innovation is the process of making changes to something established by introducing something new.

An innovative governance culture can be instilled by the adoption of a new strategy, novel modes of collaboration and coordination, the creation of a new institution or the reconfiguration of existing processes, said Carsten Mann, from the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development and the InnoForESt project. For example, developing partnerships and co-creating forest management solutions with the general public and the private sector can lead to the adoption of new practices that seemed unthinkable in the context of top-down decision-making. 

EFI’s Senior Researcher Marko Lovrić presented the EU forest policy environment as a complex puzzle of sectoral policies which entail synergies as well as trade-offs (Source: Harald Mauser)
  1. Scarce resources can spark innovation 

Lack of funding often limits forest management options and can even mean the end of a restoration project. But it might as well make people creative! In one of the protected areas of Croatia’s Istria region, the lack of resources for monitoring biodiversity led to the establishment of a citizen science programme which garnered the active participation of local communities, said Silvia Buttignoni, Managing Director at Natura Histrica

  1. When it comes to management goals, sometimes, less is more 

Amidst the growing demand for forest ecosystem services (such as biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, clean air and wood production), forest managers might end up suffering from goal overload. Having too many goals in parallel creates administrative burden and makes it hard to choose between different needs and interests. Dieter Mortelmans from Belgium’s Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO), shared a simple but ingenious solution applied by the Contracts 2.0 project: creating scorecards to analyse and compare the effective provision of environmental public goods. The scorecards enabled land managers to identify synergies and trade-offs between different ecosystem services and prioritise those that were most important, making well-informed decisions on which goals to pursue based on multiple criteria. 

  1. From decision support to discussion support 

Although generating knowledge and creating new tools to inform decisions can be helpful, reinventing the wheel isn’t always necessary. In certain cases, it can be more efficient to build on pre-existing knowledge and focus instead on creating trust and a strong basis for cooperation between stakeholders involved in restoration, such as public administration agencies, forest owners, local communities, forest enterprises, nature protection groups and others. “Listening to people in real life instead of reading reports allows us, if not to reach consensus, to live with the decisions we have chosen to make”, said Mortelmans, from the Contracts 2.0 project. 

  1. Multiple forest benefits are good – but fair distribution is equally important 

Creating protected spaces for stakeholder dialogue is not only useful to gain acceptance and legitimacy for forest restoration. More importantly, it helps to ensure a fair distribution of restoration benefits. Liisa Tyrväinen from the Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE) highlighted that picking forest restoration sites that are easily accessible to the public improves societal support for restoration and creates synergies in terms of recreational and cultural ecosystem services. On a similar note, Marcel Hunziker, from SUPERB partner Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) stressed the need for a wide societal debate on who should have a say in the future development of forests and contribute to their restoration visions. “Forests do not belong only to forest owners and to nature conservation areas, but in touristic areas, they also belong to the general public”, he stated.

  1. Don’t overlook the importance of human resources 

Forest restoration is a long-term endeavour, meaning that natural conditions, funding scenarios and policy environments might change along the way. Finding the right people with intrinsic motivation, good interpersonal connections and committed leadership is of utmost importance to the continuity of restoration efforts throughout the years. “Restoration requires upfront investments, and actors are hesitant when the outcome is uncertain. Therefore, it is key to have powerful stakeholders on board who take over the leadership”, said Carsten Mann from the InnoForESt project. 

  1. Monitor failures as much as successes 

Keep an eye open for what works but also for what doesn’t! Too much pressure to succeed can hamper innovation, while concentrating solely on what is going well takes the focus away from areas in need of improvement. Remember that success is also relative: it depends heavily on the selected success criteria and on how success is being measured. 

  1. Consider different scales but don’t take the local perspective out of focus 

There is no point in trying to implement a top-down restoration vision that is incompatible with local conditions. Factors such as environmental stressors, species threatened, forest ownership structure, market dynamics, involved stakeholders and institutions are all particular to each forest landscape. “There are many vertical issues of governance, but decisions are ultimately taken on the municipality level”, said Hunziker, from WSL. To better align different scales of governance, Marko Lovrić, from EFI, suggested contrasting local restoration activities with wider policy objectives and available instruments to see where potential synergies are.  

  1. Be inquisitive 

Finally, asking the right questions is key, said Lovrić. Who makes decisions? Who stops decisions? What are the true interests of those involved? How does institutional context shape decisions? What is one’s own positionality in the forest restoration ‘space’? Being inquisitive can help forest managers identify unforeseen challenges and be open to new solutions and ideas. 

By Priscila Jordão (EFI)

New publication: Policy responses to the Ukraine crisis threaten European biodiversity

SUPERB researchers Niels Strange from University of Copenhagen and Joseph William Bull from Kent University have recently contributed to the “Correspondence” section in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, elaborating on the policy movement away from Russia as a response to the Ukraine crisis and how the recent EU changes to land use policy could jeopardize hard-won gains in efforts to combat biodiversity decline in Europe. The authors emphasize the expected market pull that will increase pressure on forest and open land, and urge the EU Commission and member states to retain an ambitious and long-term perspective on restoring biodiversity. This requires that biodiversity and land-use policies are robust in times of crisis and shifting political priorities — because the current crisis is not the first, and will not be the last. Read more about the recommendations (paid subscription) here.