A really nice forest chat

#ForestRestorationStory by Åsa Granberg, practical coordinator in SUPERB’s Swedish demo

Last Friday, I had one of the best forest moments in a long time. It all started in the morning when I scanned through the post of the day. I have recently helped our Swiss project colleagues Moses Kazungu and Marcel Hunziker to distribute letters of invitation to a digital questionnaire about people’s perceptions on forests and forest restoration among 1500 randomly sampled citizens in my county. Since not everybody lives at the address where they are registered, I have had a couple of letters returning each day the last week. When checking these letters on Friday morning I noticed that one of them had a note written on it: “Sorry, I can only participate with pen and paper. I have sold my forest to a bird hunter. You can erase this 85-year-old lady”. I imagined the old lady, smiled, and put the letter aside. Then I picked it up again and looked at the address… And realized it was in the village next to mine. I started thinking, what if this lady actually wanted to complete the questionnaire, but was unable to do so because it was digital? After a short search I found her phone number, called and she answered almost immediately. – “Yes, I would very much like to answer your questionnaire!”. We decided that I would take an earlier bus home from work that day to drop by at her house and help her fill in the questionnaire on my computer.

In the afternoon the rain was pouring down as I got on the earlier bus. Once on the bus, I called her back to check that she still wanted to participate. Absolutely! she answered, and 30 minutes later I knocked on her door.

And it turned out to be one of the nicest conversations about forest I have ever had! Margareta, 85 years old, shared with me the story of her life and how the forest had been part of it the whole time. She told me about the forest she inherited some 30 km away, her thoughts on how to manage the forest to keep the berries, the mushrooms, and the wildlife, but also the trade-offs when it came to economic outcome from the forest. She also explained that her sister, who had inherited the neighbouring forest but had other interests, had chosen to manage her forest in a different way. Margareta also introduced me to her “everyday forests”. How she and her husband had run, walked, and biked almost everywhere in the forests surrounding where she lives. That she knows almost all paths. Finally, Margareta told me about the joy she felt when meeting the children from the day-care next door, hand in hand, happily announcing to her that they were on their way to “their” forest – a small forest patch nearby Margareta’s house, not very special for a grown-up, but an adventure for small children!

After one and a half hour, several cups of coffee and a handful of biscuits, we had managed to fill in Margareta’s answers in the questionnaire. Best spent Friday afternoon in ages!

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. 

Trade-offs and synergies between European and national forest restoration policies and laws 

#RestorationStory by Simon Fleckenstein and Antonio Basilicata on a stimulating exchange at the science-policy-practice interface 

Climate resilience and biodiversity are mutually reinforcing preconditions for forests to deliver what we as societies need: e.g. wood and other forest products, and opportunities for recreation. But how can we reach this, considering incoherencies and unexplored synergies between European and national forest policies and laws, mirroring different societal interests, values, and knowledge? As such, they act as important drivers of forest management practices that directly shape the resilience of forests and the provision of forest ecosystem services. In light of an increasing need for restoring degraded forest ecosystems in the European Union, we need to bridge critical gaps between different stocks of knowledge, values and interests. For this, we require a better understanding of how this can be done and of what forest restoration actually means to different stakeholder groups. To tackle this question and further aspects, the EU Horizon 2020 SUPERB project organized an enlightening and interactive expert workshop in the heart of political Brussels on 15th February 2024.     

The event was jointly organized by project partners Prospex Institute and the University of Freiburg. It facilitated fruitful discussions on key policy, legal and technical challenges and solutions for European forest restoration within the European multi-level governance system. This included expert exchanges on i) the practical implications of EU and national forest restoration policies, ii) the reconciliation of emerging restoration policies such as the proposed Nature Restoration Law (NRL) with existing European and national forest policies and laws, and iii) opportunities to foster cross-sectoral and multi-level synergies and reduce potential trade-offs. With around 35 representatives from different Directorate-Generals (DGs) of the European Commission, Member State authorities, stakeholder groups, and scientists gathering in a beautiful venue, everything was set for a productive and enriching exchange. 

Two bird´s-eye- views from science and practice 

After a welcoming address and introduction to the SUPERB project by our coordinator Prof. Magda Bou Dagher Kharrat, the workshop started with an insightful presentation from SUPERB partner Prof. Bart Muys from KU Leuven. He provided different and partly competing definitions and understandings of forest “restoration” and emphasized the role of (forest) biodiversity as the foundation for ecosystem functions. Bart argued for a stronger emphasis on biodiversity as a key asset and highlighted the importance of integrating climate considerations into emerging forest-related legislation. Finally, he concluded that forest restoration is a policy and management choice, thus building a bridge to the next keynote speeches.  

Following this, Dr. Peter Löffler (DG CLIMA) provided insights into daily political affairs. He underscored the high-risk exposure of forests to climate change and called for increased investment in risk management strategies, including through forest restoration. In this context, he pointed to various existing and emerging EU policies that necessitate streamlining with national and regional/local policies. The aim is to provide added value to local restoration practitioners by incorporating their practices and experiences into policymaking. Peter emphasized that this approach is crucial for promoting climate-adapted restoration of forests in the European Union. 

Insights from SUPERB on policy and legal aspects of forest restoration in Europe  

Our team from the University of Freiburg provided important insights from our ongoing work in SUPERB. First, Dr. Metodi Sotirov set the scene in his keynote presentation by offering definitions of vertical and horizontal policy coherence from the political science perspective. He then presented an overview of SUPERB results about different, partly conflicting EU and national sectoral and vertical policy priorities ranging from (i.) forest biodiversity conservation and restoration to (ii.) carbon forest management/forest sinks to (iii.) multi-purpose forestry to (iv.) timber yield forestry and to (v.) bioenergy and carbon forestry. Metodi concluded by presenting some illustrative examples for cross-sectoral and vertical policy trade-offs and synergies between new and existing EU forest-related policies and laws. 

Next, we (Simon Fleckenstein and Antonio Basilicata) presented more detailed insights into SUPERB results on EU and national policies and laws governing forest restoration. Based on our findings from an expert interview and analyses of policy documents, we provided an overview of soft and hard law instruments from forest, biodiversity, climate, and agricultural policy areas that directly or indirectly govern forest restoration indicators and practices (e.g., protected forest areas, close-to-nature forests, riparian forest zones, invasive species, and wildlife management). We concluded our presentation with an overview of institutional, administrative, and organizational supporting and hindering drivers of forest restoration.   

To bridge the gap between policy and practice, our SUPERB partner Sara Filipek from Wageningen University & Research introduced the diversity of the twelve demo regions covered by SUPERB and highlighted the multiplicity of restoration challenges prevalent in different regions. She further drew attention to the issues coming along with poorly coordinated restoration policies for local municipalities and restoration practitioners and outlined opportunities to mitigate them in the future.     

Fostering discussions across political levels and Member States 

The diverse program of the event was further complemented by a high-level expert panel skillfully moderated by SUPERB partner Jo O´Hara (former UK Forestry Commissioner) who is responsible for coordinating the work package on “Upscaling”. The panel brought together representatives from the Pan-European ministerial forest policy process, the EU Commission, national forest authorities, and European state forest managers. Facilitating fruitful discussions, the addressed questions ranged from high-level forest restoration policies and their priorities over the potential of transnational cooperation to concrete implementation challenges faced by forest owners and industry on the ground.  

For instance, while it was emphasized that the implementation of forest restoration, as suggested under the proposed Nature Restoration Law, will primarily lie in hands of national administrations, there were calls for a stronger balance between restoration priorities and a better communication between policymakers, forest owners and practitioners. National insights on forest restoration implementation were, inter alia, provided from Spain and Italy, where highly decentralized political systems and exacerbating impacts of climate change call for a certain degree of flexibility in the implementation of forest restoration. Lastly, panelists were asked to write down one key word/statement they deem most relevant to foster forest restoration in the European Union. They included building trust, sharing knowledge and experiences. In addition, they suggested improving communication and interaction across political levels and sectors.  

Harnessing national expertise and experience 

But what would an expert workshop be without providing space to share the valuable experiences, knowledge and opinions of policy and practice experts working in the field? The core part of the event consisted of two interactive breakout sessions. In five small and diverse sub-groups, participants were encouraged to 1) discuss opportunities to streamline potentially diverging interests on forest restoration across policy sectors (such as in the context of promoting uneven-aged and mixed species stands) and foster collaboration towards a common forest restoration goal, as well as 2) jointly identify the potentially optimal multilevel governance model and necessary policy toolbox to promote forest restoration in the European Union. The results illustrated the richness of ideas and common ground in navigating the multifaceted system of European forest restoration politics among the workshop participants. 

Conclusions and way forward  

The one-day Expert Discussion on Forest Restoration Policy and Practice turned out to be a big success, not least due to the active engagement of the diverse range of stakeholders who joined the event. This demonstrated that, during the policy-making process and in related research activities, close cooperation with national experts and restoration practitioners is crucial to ensuring practicability and added value.  

Moreover, while there may be some disagreement on how to achieve forest restoration in the European Union, the shared goal of securing climate-adapted and biodiverse forests transcends policy sectors and political levels. It remains essential that relevant stakeholders talk with each other and exchange knowledge as well as context-specific experiences/best practices on forest restoration in a mutually beneficial way. The good news is that with the vast practical and scientific experience and knowledge in this field, also very much gathered in SUPERB, we have the necessary tools at hand to foster and scale up forest restoration in Europe. 

Restoring forests on poor sandy soils

Restoration Story by Silke Jacobs & Lisa Raats

When visiting the Dutch SUPERB demo area at the end of January, one could see a grayish dust cloud coming from a helicopter that was flying over the forests. The helicopter was covering the forest soil with rock dust: a much-needed measure in forests growing on dry sandy soils.

The forests in the Dutch demo area depend on very degraded sandy soils which are poor in nutrients, dry and have a low pH, meaning stronger acidity. This is not what the trees are hoping for in terms of environmental conditions. While walking around, one can notice that the trees, mostly Scots pine, are quite small both in height and diameter. They are longing for a healthy forest soil.

Within SUPERB, Bosgroep Zuid Nederland will implement measures to make the forests more vital and healthier. The aim is to treat approximately 60 hectares of forests owned by 16 private forest owners. It was a huge task to track these people and involve all of them in the project.

But after this hard work and conducting research, one of the restoration measures has finally started. The helicopter is thus spreading the rock dust in the area. Rock dust contains nutrients that the forest soil could use and gradually releases calcium, magnesium and potassium.

We had a great viewpoint to see the actual restoration activities being carried out by the helicopter. It was impressive to watch! The route flown by the helicopter can be visualized after the flight and we have been told that it is very accurate thanks to a skilled pilot.

The helicopter stayed in the air the whole time we watched it, except during a short break to refuel. It has also lowered so that a shovel could add the rock dust again to its basket for another flight spreading dust over the forest.

In the picture above you can see the big pile of rock dust that still needed to be spread. After flying a couple of hours, everything was gone and it’s time for the rock dust to do its work within the soil.

Alongside the use of rock dust, another implemented measure includes planting rich litter tree species in this area. The intention is for species such as hazel, lime and maple to gradually become more prominent contributors to the leaf composition in the litter layer. As these leaves decompose, they release nutrients into the soil, replenishing the system with essential elements over time. Additionally, this results in a more diverse forest in terms of species composition.

The experiences gained from both restoration actions and involving forest owners and other stakeholders can be valuable for future forest restoration projects, especially considering the prevalence of other degraded sandy forest soils in the Netherlands.

First-year anniversary at SUPERB’s Po Valley Demo  

In the municipality of Legnano, the first restoration plot of SUPERB’s Po Valley Demo is celebrating its first-year anniversary. The team has divided the land here into 12 different stands to experiment with different densities of tree and plant cover (1500, 2000, and 2500 p/ha).  

Po Valley is one of Italy’s most important economic regions, in which agricultural and urban developments have gradually led to forest reduction and fragmentation. As biodiversity is increasingly under pressure, SUPERB aims to restore approximately 10 hectares of land in the administrative area of Lombardia. The aim here is to introduce biodiverse-rich, small patches of forest, as well as enhance ecological connectivity by planting trees, bushes, and hedges.  

Aside from this very first plot of land, the team has started to expand their restoration efforts across new municipalities: 

“It was close to impossible to find a continuous 7 ha patch so close to Milan, therefore, this year we will plant trees in 4 separated plots in 3 different municipalities”, says Michel Saini, project coordinator of the Po Valley Demo.

The restoration efforts were thus divided over the municipalities of Inveruno, Villa Cortese and Vittuone, with a total cover of 9 hectares of land. With plant species from Northern Italy, Central Italy and Southern Italy, the team is specifically dedicated to the study of genetic provenance, planting 3 different strands in each of the 4 areas. This means that they will actively explore how the different plant species, native to the above-mentioned regions, adapt to their new environmental conditions. 

In collaboration with the University of Trento, the team will also test the benefits of hydrogel for the survival of small saplings.  

“We will implement a layer of hydro-retentive gel at the bottom of the planting hole, with two main variables” explains Michel Saini, “one is control, irrigated by rain only, and the other is regularly irrigated saplings”.  

At the same time, the project focuses on several other studies, including: 

  • A focus on monitoring of zoonotic disease by monitoring and estimating the mosquitos and ticks’ population with traps. It’s a study in collaboration with Fondazione Edmund Mach

  • Studies on the effects of reforestation of former farmland on soil ecosystem services within Parco Nord Milano. The evaluation of reforestation effects is thus carried out through 3 indicators related to soil characteristics: Carbon stock, water regulation and soil biodiversity.

  • The monitoring of pollinators in the meadows close to the chrono sequences sites with the aim of studying the change in urban biodiversity after afforestation. This is a collaboration with the University of Milan – Bicocca 

  • The analysis of the contribution of vegetation in mitigating the urban “Heat Island Effect” with physical sensors. 

Stay tuned for more information! 

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.

The Vaia storm five years later – lessons for forests and people

By Alberto Pauletto, FSC Italia

At the end of October 2018, tropical storm Vaia brought heavy rains and winds of up to 200 km/h to Northern Italy, killing 37 people and unleashing damage estimated at almost 5 billion euros. Vaia also affected parts of France, Croatia, Austria, and Switzerland, but Italy sustained the worst forestry destruction in its recent history, with more than 14 million trees felled. The Asiago Oltre Vaia project was an initiative of the Municipality of Asiago  –  with the support of numerous entities such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Italia, Treedom, and the University of Padua  –  designed to draw lessons from the catastrophe to create more resistant and resilient forests for the future.

Storm Vaia destroyed about 2,300 hectares of woods on the Asiago Plateau, north of Vicenza in the Veneto region. This was the second huge destruction of the region’s forestry heritage after that of the First World War, which wiped out almost 70 per cent of the forests in the area. After the war, the forests of the Asiago Plateau were reconstituted using species with high economic value, such as spruce, to drive economic recovery of the affected areas. That reforestation was in part the reason for Storm Vaia’s impact.

“The wind arrived up here and found woods all of the same species and age,” explained Marco Pellegrini, forestry technician in charge of the Asiago Oltre Vaia project. “The intense rains of the previous days then loosened the ground. It was like bowling; the trees fell like skittles.”

Diego Rigoni, councilor for forestry heritage of the Municipality of Asiago at the time of the storm, agreed. “For the local community it was a very hard blow. Our lives have always been inextricably linked with those of our forests. In the days following the storm the surrounding area resembled the scenario of death and destruction left by the Great War. For many of us it was a very bad return to the past.”

At the same time, the woods, weakened by the storm, were under attack by an insect. The spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) feeds and breeds under the bark of trees, which results in damage from drying out. In some areas, the consequences of this little insect were even worse than those of Vaia.

“We noticed trees were drying in groups, and those patches were spreading. Hot, dry summers have led to an uncontrolled proliferation of the bark beetle,” said Marco Pellegrini.

Initiatives to plant new trees began as soon as the woods were cleared of trunks and branches. The Asiago Oltre Vaia project aimed to create more resistant and resilient forests by planting 6,000 seedlings in clusters of eight different species: conifers such as red and white fir and larch, and broad-leaved trees such as beech, birch, willow, whitebeam and European rowan.

“Vaia taught us that greater variability in species and age of trees can contribute not only to minimizing the effects of extreme weather phenomena, but also can increase biodiversity. The flowers and berries produced by the species we planted are in fact food for numerous animals, which can return to colonize these areas,” Marco Pellegrini said. This kind of information is also explained on information boards at the planting sites.

“From a scientific point of view, we are monitoring the progress of the plantings with the contribution of the University of Padua, and testing different solutions,” he added. These include the use of FSC-certified cardboard shelters to protect young plants. “Classic plastic tubes would have meant further burdening areas that suffered from Vaia’s effects with polluting material from the tubes.” The cardboard protection did not withstand the heavy snowfalls of the winter of 2020, but, said Marco Pellegrini, “we still believe that they are a much better ecological solution.”

Asiago Oltre Vaia is the first study of this kind in Italy, a real open-air laboratory to try to envisage the forests that will populate these areas in 100 or 150 years, and it continues to attract not only technicians but also students and tourists.

“We don’t have a magic wand,” concludes project technician Marco Pellegrini. “We can only proceed by trial and error, using science and our knowledge of forest management. The rest is up to nature, which is more patient than people.”

This Restoration Story is authored by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a member of SUPERB’s Advisory Board.

All photos by Alberto Pauletto

 “Making people part of ecosystem restoration in Europe”  

#RestorationStory by Lyla O’ Brien, European Forest Institute

It’s early morning on an abnormally cold October day, yet I hurry past the steaming coffee prepared outside the meeting room. It’s the second day of the workshop Making people part of ecosystem restoration in Europe hosted by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and I’m running a little late. I don’t want to miss the chance to pour over and vote for my favourite take-home message from yesterday’s session on public perception of ecosystem restoration and stakeholder engagement. My eyes, like many others, go to one quote in particular among the sea of sticky notes on the online board: “Create space for meaningful engagement as open as possible, as early as possible, as personal as possible”. The workshop, which took place from the 17th-19th of October in Bonn, Germany, was packed full of memorable quotes like this one from European experts from science, policy, and practice that came together to discuss how the inclusion and acceptance of stakeholders can be strengthened in ecosystem restoration. Not only were participants from diverse sectors, but they were experienced in ecosystem restoration of diverse types all over Europe, whether it be beech forests in Italy, grasslands in Germany, steppe plains in Georgia, or wetlands in Finland.  

Ecosystem restoration can face many challenges when it comes to stakeholder engagement. For example, when participants were asked to help create an online word map by submitting a few words on what they thought was the greatest challenge for successful grassroots initiatives, it was just a few seconds before “lack of funding”, “lack of commitment”, “no meaningful engagement of local communities” appeared on the screen in large letters. I came to the workshop to present our work in SUPERB’s WP5 T5.2 on identifying conflicts that affect forest restoration in SUPERB’s 12 demonstration cases, so I was already somewhat aware of such stakeholder difficulties. However, I was surprised to learn about some of the more creative ways participants had explored to engage stakeholders more meaningfully. 

When you close your eyes and think of ecosystem restoration, an image of planting a tree might come to mind, or the return of a certain species that has been missing from the landscape for a long time. But what about a sculpture made of over 80,000 aromatic plants spread across two hectares in the shape of a local cave painting in Spain? Or a video filmed together with local communities that aims to capture the sounds or “symphony” of a natural landscape? To ecologists or conservationists like myself, these may not be conventional approaches to restoration, but over the course of the workshop I was surprised to learn about the success that art can bring to our efforts. Art can act as a way to reconnect people to a landscape by helping them to express their emotional connection to it. It can make restoration more fun and hope-filled, take a multifaceted range of forms including work with textiles, media, dance, and sculpture, and engage a wide range of people including young people. I found myself thinking about what the “symphony” of the landscape surrounding my hometown would sound like: the sound of a lazy river meandering through meadows, the melody of so many songbirds all at once, the sound of a dairy cow grazing. It was not hard to see how these types of engagement that touch home can encourage people to participate in restoration.   

Over the next two days, I heard more inspirational stories of stakeholder engagement, grassroots initiatives, tools and guidelines for ecosystem restoration, as well as conflicts and trade-offs. As to be expected, discussions on conflicts were sometimes difficult to have, but were always centred on finding ways for conflict resolution. Participants stressed the importance to stop trends of working in silos and engage also with stakeholders that may not support their restoration efforts. As one participant summarised, “Disagreements can be opportunities to learn about ourselves, others, and our community. They can help us grow as individuals and build stronger relationships”.  Overall, the workshop was a valuable opportunity to talk about SUPERB’s work, but also an opportunity to think outside our usual boxes on how to ensure ecosystem restoration in Europe is not just for the natural environment but for the people, too.  

Restoring the “European Amazon”: a journey through Serbia’s riparian forests

#Restoration Story by Ajdin Starcevic, Wageningen University and Research

If I had to encapsulate my recent journey to the Serbian forest in just two words, they would undoubtedly be “pleasantly surprised”.

Our arrival in Belgrade took place on a hot late September day, amidst the warmth that characterizes the Balkans’ phenomenon known as “Miholjsko ljeto”. A period of unseasonably warm, dry weather that sometimes occurs in autumn.  It’s rather amusing, in retrospect, how serendipitous it felt as we embarked on our journey to the final destination, Novi Sad—the hometown of a renowned singer-songwriter who has a tune coincidentally named ”Miholjsko leto 95’”, which I would listen to during my teens. But let’s momentarily set aside my high school nostalgia and return to the narrative.

Our expedition to Serbia served a dual purpose, each with its distinct goal. The initial part of our journey was dedicated to the EFI Annual Conference, a commemoration of the European Forest Institute’s three-decade-long journey. En route to Serbia, we pored over the pages of “An Idea Becomes a Reality”, a book that had been published on EFI’s 10th anniversary. Our supervisor Gert-Jan Nabuurs, professor of European forest resources at Wageningen University and Research, amused us with the intricate tale of how it all commenced and evolved. By the time we touched down, my colleague Bas Lerink and I had a profound respect and a sense of honour for being able to be a part of the beautiful EFI family.

The two days of the conference flew by, filled with engaging conversations with both familiar and new faces. Each of us from the Wageningen team played a role in it; Bas participated as a panelist in one of the discussions, Gert-Jan took on the role of a managing senior, exploring new opportunities for us to make a positive impact on the European environmental scene, and I had the privilege of being a presenter in the Young Scientist Session.

The team alongside the beautiful oak trees in the first chronosequence site (Photo: Martina Zoric)

The second part of our journey offered a stark contrast to the formalities of the EFI Annual Conference – no more suits, fancy city halls, or gala dinners. Instead, we swapped that for boots and forest green pants as we met our hosts, Zoran, Martina, and Velisav from the Institute of Lowland Forestry and Environment, on an early Friday morning, with the sun rising over the Petrovaradin fortress in Novi Sad. Accompanied by Magda Bou Dagher-Kharrat, the SUPERB project coordinator, and Bart Muys, professor of forest ecology and forest management at KU Leuven, we set off to explore the local SUPERB demo site.

After a scenic hour-and-a-half drive northwest of Novi Sad, passing through the vast golden- coloured cornfields of the Vojvodina region, we finally reached the local office of the Special Nature Reserve “Gornje Podunavlje”. Here, we were warmly welcomed by the dedicated team implementing the SUPERB project on the ground in Serbia: Slađana, Radmila, Andrea, Peđa, Ognjen and Srđan. From there, we ventured into an enchanting oak forest that seemed taken right out of a fairy tale to visit the first chronosequence site. It teemed with biodiversity, evidenced by the wild game tracks in the mud and different types of oak galls, some of which were new to all of us. Our hosts explained that this is the legacy they aim to leave behind; the work they are doing today will ultimately result in forests like this thriving a century from now.

Adjacent to this forest, we encountered a vast clearing of approximately 30 hectares, which was once a poplar plantation. Zoran confidently declared, “This is where we will implement the SUPERB restoration measures”. I must admit that at least the Dutch members of our team were initially sceptical. We doubted the possibility of oak trees successfully establishing themselves in such a large clearing. However, as we would soon discover, we were mistaken.

Afterwards, we took a brief boat ride along one of the Danube’s channels to look at the “European Amazon” from a different perspective.

Upon returning to the shore, we hopped back into our Dusters and made our way to a site that had been previously restored 12 years ago—a crucial chronosequence for the SUPERB project. After opening a sturdy fence, we were greeted by the sight of oak trees reaching a towering height of around 8 meters, growing alongside hornbeam, ash, and black locust, all thriving naturally. This site had been sown with acorns 12 years ago and was flourishing, proving that it was indeed possible.

However, it was evident that our hosts had put in tremendous effort, involving extensive manual labour, to erect strong fences to keep out the ca. 2000 red deer and hundreds of wild boars inhabiting the area. This region is, after all, one of Serbia’s largest hunting areas. Additionally, various interventions were necessary to eliminate weeds and other competitive vegetation, allowing the oaks to grow and prosper.

The second chronosequence, an 12 year old oak stand (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

Following this, we visited another oak stand that had been established just five years ago. While it looked promising, the soil quality posed a challenge, making it hard for us to believe that these saplings would reach the impressive 8-meter height we had seen earlier in only seven years. However, Zoran assured us it would work out, and by now, we had learned to trust his expertise.

Our learning experience related to the forest restoration measures we’ve seen illustrates the importance of local knowledge and expertise in projects like SUPERB. Another crucial factor to consider is the strong partnership forged between the managers and scientists. This collaboration has been nurtured and strengthened over the years, primarily grounded on a foundation of trust. We might have dismissed such an endeavour, but local forest managers and scientists understand what is possible and what they can achieve.

The team at the third chronosequence site, 5-year old oak stand with retention trees (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

View of the area where restoration measures are being implemented for SUPERB (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

On the second day, we were accompanied also by Christophe Orazio from the European Institute of Planted Forest, leader of SUPERB’s demo in France who specializes in plantation forestry. Together, we visited sites similar to those we had seen the day before. We also observed an area where SUPERB measures had been implemented but, unfortunately, achieved little success due to an unusually hot and dry summer that left the planted oak seedlings struggling. Here, additional work will be done, with new oak acorns to be sown in place of the earlier seedlings. Trees grown from acorns exhibit greater vigour, but during the initial campaign, there was a shortage of acorns, and time constraints forced the use of seedlings instead.

In addition to the oak forests in various stages of development, we also had the opportunity to explore poplar plantations, which are the backbone of the Public Enterprise Vojvodinašume. At one point, we observed two stands, one of oak and one of poplar, planted in the same year. The difference in size was striking (see picture below). As I took this photo, I noticed that the soybean field I stood on was perfectly divided between the two stands. The field next to the poplar plantation had already been harvested, appearing brown and dry, while the field opposite the oaks remained fresh and green. This observation perfectly encapsulated the work of these foresters. They are transitioning from a potentially dry and impoverished scenario, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change associated with poplars, toward a more climate-resilient oak forest. This oak forest is not only promising and green but also biodiverse and beautiful, reflecting their dedication to a sustainable and prosperous future.

Oak on the left, poplar on the right: difference in height of an oak and poplar stand planted at the same time (Photo: Ajdin Starcevic)

This is one of the key reasons why I would describe this trip as a pleasant surprise. The eagerness of the local foresters to shift from their conventional business practices towards a more climate-smart approach to forest management, all while considering the long-term effects of climate change and willingly sacrificing short-term profits for the betterment of future forests in the Vojvodina region, felt truly refreshing and makes me optimistic for the future of the European Amazon in challenging times.

SUPERB team where the Drava river meets the Danube

Modeling assisted migration to adapt forests to climate change

#RestorationStory by Debojyoti Chakraborty

Did you know that forest trees have evolved at species and population levels to adapt to the local environment in which they grow? Such local adaptations lead to genetically differentiated populations, with traits that enable them to adapt to biotic and abiotic stress factors. Climate change is likely to exert tremendous pressure on forests and their ecosystem services. As the climate changes, forest tree populations are likely to respond in three possible ways: adapt, migrate, or become locally extinct. Natural migration and adaptation are slow processes that cannot keep up with this rapidly changing climate and would result in maladapted tree populations in the future, with reduced capacity to provide multiple ecosystem services. Given the limitations in natural tree migration and rapid adaptation, researchers have realized that we need human-facilitated realignment to match the populations to the environment to which they are adapted. Such facilitated movement is commonly referred to as assisted migration, assisted colonization, assisted relocation, or facilitated migration. On a practical level, such strategies include the choice of adapted species and seed sources. We can use provenance trials where several seed sources of a tree species are planted under a common environment. These offer a unique opportunity to model tree species and their population’s response to climate change. Such models include species distribution models, and response functions.

Our summer school on assisted migration

We, a team of researchers from the Austrian Research Center for Forests (BFW, Vienna) recently hosted a six-day summer school aiming at providing in-depth insight into the concept of assisted migration of forests under climate change, and with a focus on models to guide decision support.

The summer school was organized in collaboration with The EVOLTREE network and the Czech University of Life Sciences (CZU) and took place at the Forestry Training Center at Traunkirchen from July 30 to August 4, 2023. We broadly discussed several topics including climate change and its effects on European forests, options for adaptation and mitigation, and the importance of genetic diversity. We also explored ways of incorporating genetic diversity in decision-making, especially data sources for developing models for assisted migration, provenance trial history and current use, and elaborated the current discourse on assisted migration, challenges, and opportunities.

One of the objectives was to familiarize the 23 participants from across Europe and Australia with different concepts of modeling on assisted migration, issues on genetic diversity, and climate change. Later, the participants analyzed real-time provenance trial data which were systematically provided by BFW and developed their models showcasing seed transfer under climate change.

Outdoor Activities – from seedlings to hiking and homebrewed beer

As part of the summer school we organized an excursion to visit LIECO forest nurseries and provenance trials in St-Martin Austria. LIECO is a forest company producing high-quality containerized forest seedlings in Austria. There, the participants had firsthand experience of planting seedlings and further understanding the process of growing sustainable forest planting materials. This was followed by a hike to a traditional Alpine Hut (Alm-Hochstein) where we exchanged ideas over homebrewed beer and lip-smacking food. Finally, the perfect location of Traunkirchen by the beautiful Traun lake offered many recreational opportunities for both the participants and the organizers.