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.

What can Google Image search results tell us about human-forest relationships? 

#RestorationStory by Rina Tsubaki (EFI) 

While public perception research on forests often uses surveys and questionnaires as data collection methods, there are many other ways to inquire about how society perceives and interacts with them. These include repurposing online and social media data to understand what forests mean to people and how widely used digital platforms portray relationships between people and forests.   

For the past few years, EFI has been experimenting with research approaches that repurpose born-digital data from the web and social media in collaboration with digital researchers from the Public Data Lab, King’s College London, and DensityDesign Lab in Milan.  Alongside our project Out of the Flames, which looked at online engagement around the Amazon rainforest fires in 2019, we’ve also explored public issues and narratives around  the UN COP27 Climate Conference and forest restoration through Twitter hashtags and images and YouTube videos. Yet, there are many other interesting platforms to take a closer look at, including Google, the most used search engine with over 86% global market share.  

So, what do Google search results tell us about human-forest relationships? How do they portray our connections with forests? 

As part of exploratory research in support of the SUPERB forest restoration project, a student group from the Master’s Degree in Communication Design at Politecnico di Milano, led by Gabriele Colombo (King’s College London / DensityDesign), looked at Google Images showing different life cycle stages of reforestation and other related activities (read about the course here). Using 40 keywords such as tree planting, afforestation and forest and land restoration, the group collected and manually categorised 1200 images, resulting in a beautiful digital archive called ‘Plant Forward’.  

Exploring the Plant Forward image collection, it is possible to draw lines between human presence and absence in different forest lifecycle phases. The image collections under ‘wasteland’ and ‘forests’ show almost no human presence.  Although some landscapes in the images indirectly depict signs of human activities, such as roads and crop fields, human actors rarely appear in these image sets.  

Instead, human actors are visible in other lifecycle stages such as ‘sapling’.  Interestingly, these images portraying human involvement show human actors not only “regenerating” but also “cutting down” forests. 

When zooming into the images with human actors, one notices different ways people associate with forests. For example, not just people digging the soil and planting trees can be seen in these images, but also those sheltering, touching, measuring, and marking trees, indicating that forests are something people manage and care for. In addition, many images showing human hands holding or planting seedlings and saplings appear to be generic stock images used in different contexts. For example, there is a photoshopped image of a seedling growing inside a light bulb. We find image stamps and company logos, giving a sense of the commercial activities revolving around forests and forest imagery. 

Finally, we find images which suggest a diversity of people, communities and activities engaging with forests. Not only foresters and other professional practitioners are captured, but so are local communities, school children, families, women and religious groups, businessmen and military officials in different parts of the world.  

Repurposing search engine outputs can help us understand how online devices are involved in producing, framing and ordering different kinds of visual narratives about forests and human-forest relationships. You are invited to explore the  Plant Forward image collections to learn more about how relations between people and forests are portrayed in one of the world’s most widely used entry points to the web. We are curious to hear what you may find going through this image archive.  

Forests: why “doing nothing” can’t be the cure

#RestorationStory by Maaike de Graaf

A few weeks ago, I visited my son who is studying in Scotland. He took me for a walk in the Cairngorns, the UK’s largest National Park, which is a fantastic area. Only afterwards, I realised what we have lost in our densely populated Netherlands: the decreased diversity in landscapes, gradients and biodiversity became painfully apparent. For instance, in Scotland, I have seen lichens with the size of a fist, at the end of the branches of oaks. I have never seen that in my home country. Most likely this is due to air pollution as lichens are very sensitive to this. I suppose I do not have to remind you of the atmospheric nitrogen concentrations in the Netherlands, nor of the acidic rain in the past. 

Oak moss (photo: Rudolphous – Wikimedia Commons)

But why am I telling you this? I have been working in several ecosystems as a restoration ecologist but have not seen such a large public dispute on the need of rehabilitation as in the field of forests. It seems that we have 17 million forest managers in Holland, all having a strong opinion on forest management. It must be our country spirit, having strong opinions, as we also have 17 million soccer coaches. Most of these millions of forest managers are convinced that our forests are natural by origin (which they are not). As a consequence, they consider ‘doing nothing’ to be the best way to improve the quality and health of our forests. They completely ignore human impact on forest, which we apply not only by planting, management, and recreation, but also by invisible processes such as impacts of climate change and hydrological changes. Acidic and nitrogen deposition have significantly accelerated the weathering of sandy soils: in the last decades, the same amount of calcium and magnesium have leached from the top of the soil as in the 17.000 years before. And is still continuing. In Brabant, we often measure pH-values below 3. To better understand this: pH-value 3 is compared to vinegar. Imagine being a tree in such conditions: your roots develop poorly, and your capacity to take up nutrients and water is seriously hampered. Your vitality sucks, and you will feel a little unstable. On top of this, you would have to deal with lowered ground water tables, imbalanced nutrient availability (due to nitrogen deposition) and climatic changes. You are stressed by multiple factors. And in addition, you struggle with the loss of connectivity to other forests and pollution by light and sound, all factors that diminish the size of suitable habitat for forest plants and animals.  

Diversifying Pine forest in the Dutch demo: Maaike and her team cut some trees, planted others (e.g. Tilia cordata, Quercus robur; with bamboo as wild life protection bamboo)
Diversifying Pine forest in the Dutch demo: Maaike and her team cut some trees, planted others (e.g. Tilia cordata, Quercus robur; with bamboo as wild life protection bamboo)

Personally, I do not believe that ‘doing nothing’ will be the cure for large scale forest recovery. Even if we were to stop forest management, we humans still affect the forests through the processes I have explained above. This is precisely why I believe in using all knowledge, tools and means we have to help our forest to survive. This entails reinstalling higher ground water tables, cutting, planting, leaving dead wood. Introducing missing species, adding rock dust to complement leaching. We have to do it! And I am happy to see it is being done in the Netherlands and beyond, with a great variation in management being applied. Because I also believe that when the future is uncertain, we need to diversify risks, and try different approaches to find out what works and learn from practice. 

So why are many people in resistance to forest management, even in forests that should serve multiple purposes? One of my Belgian colleagues recently said that urban societies are alienated from forest practice:  Her words were: “They think the forest is their pet”, which I can truly relate to. I can understand that you don’t want to cut your pet, but why don’t you want to pamper it either? Why not revitalizing the forest, supporting it to be healthier?

Demo in Groote Heide

  

Here we forest practitioners should dare to look at our own acting. We send different messages, and we are thereby confusing our audience. We tell them about small-scale forest management in the Netherlands, reducing clearcut areas to less than 2 times the tree height. Meanwhile we proudly present pictures of helicopters spreading rock dust, in order to reduce acidification impact. Small-scale management? Such images convey the implicit message of large-scale actions, in a way that many associate with noise, air pollution and nitrogen emissions. Is this how we understand forest restoration? Let us be aware of the messages we send in our enthusiasm on forest management and put them in perspective. Let us work against the Zeitgeist pushing us to convey simple stories, and instead tell of the complex reality of gradients, nuances, and diversity, that needs a variety of solutions. 

So, to conclude, we have work to do. Both in restoration and in communication.  


On April 14th 2023 Maaike presented this column in Dutch language to the KNBV, the Netherlands organisation of Forest Managers. The column is also published at their website.  

All photos except oak moss by Maaike de Graaf

Monitoring biodiversity around Europe’s largest planted forest

#Restoration Story by Priscila Jordão (EFI)

Is there room for biodiversity around Europe’s largest planted forest? The second SUPERB General Assembly took our 36 partners and Advisory Board members on a trip to the Landes forest in Aquitaine, France, to dig out the answer: a definite yes for biodiversity! There, the SUPERB partners INRAE, IEFC and Alliance Forêts Bois are planting 10km of hedgerows to protect Maritime pine plantations against windstorm and fire damage and provide corridors for wildlife.

While many people think of hedges as bush vegetation, they can also consist of trees. In the case of our demo, pairs of broadleaved and coniferous species such as oaks and stone pines will be planted in rows with enough space between them to create a barrier against fire, wind and pest dispersal. At the same time, the hedgerows will be connected in strategic locations to allow wildlife to move between them, explained the lead of the SUPERB demo in Aquitaine, Hervé Jactel, Director of Environmental Research at INRAE, during the excursion.

What will start with 10km of hedgerows has the potential to expand to approximately 850.000 hectares of pine plantations in the same area. But since upscaling can only happen with public acceptance and buy-in, the SUPERB team is monitoring already-planted, mature hedgerows so that their biodiversity and resilience benefits can be clearly demonstrated to land owners, forest managers and the wood industry.

For a glimpse of what this monitoring work looks like in reality, the project team visited one of 30 forest stands where classic and modern biodiversity monitoring techniques are being applied, including the use of classical traps but also of aerial drones and LIDAR systems. They are helping researchers from SUPERB and other projects to detect the presence of birds, bats, fungi, bacteria, insects, small mammals, butterflies, different shrub and tree species – and even reptiles – in the area.

The visit to the Landes forest wrapped up three days of intense collaborative work and meetings at INRAE’s and IEFC’s Bordeaux premises. As part of the SUPERB General Assembly, our project participants updated each other and helped connect the dots between the fieldwork that is taking place in the project demos and SUPERB’s different workstreams, spanning a wide range of topics from forest governance and biodiversity to restoration finance and stakeholder engagement.

One of the highlights of the meeting was the third day, dedicated to discussions around upscaling and how to make restoration resources available to a diversity of users. To accomplish this mission, a SUPERB “Gateway” is in the making: a platform providing a comprehensive information to stakeholders interested in forest restoration (from restoration best practices to modelling data, from decision support tools to information on potential funders). Stay tuned to learn about the next steps!

Stories as enablers for ‘deepscaling’ forest restoration 

#RestorationStory by Rina Tsubaki (EFI)

Science is the key to the future of our forests. Without it, we cannot restore and make forests resilient to climate change. But is science really all we need? What about the role stories play in forest restoration and, thinking even bigger, in systems change?  
 
If we want to change a system and foster lasting improvements in our society, we need to tackle the root cause of societal issues. Through SUPERB, we are ultimately aiming at systems change by collectively restoring forests and biodiversity in twelve locations in Europe. Part of this work involves exploring how people see, feel and value these places in their neighborhoods so that the work can continue beyond the project.  

So, why am I bringing up “stories” here? What’s that got to do with forest restoration and systems change?  

When you start looking into the literature about systems change, you won’t miss the work by Donella Meadows, an American environmental scientist who authored Thinking in Systems. According to Meadows, there are different leverage points to intervene and impact how a system operates. Whether it is a new project or a policy, most interventions we make are unlikely to persist for a long time. Instead, Meadows proposes a mindset change and emphasizes that the ability to see the paradigm differently is more effective for a big, long-term shift. From this point of view, what we need is to scale ‘deep’ in addition to scaling ‘up’, since the former addresses shifts in culture and relationships, while the latter replicates existing initiatives. 

Undeniably, the future of forests we restore through SUPERB will be in the hands of local communities, practitioners and decision-makers. Not only will the existing narratives transform, but new narratives will emerge. These narratives connect interested individuals and groups and bring new people into the conversation. While some narratives may support and build on the work we leave behind, others may use it with specific interests. That is why understanding the power of story is important, as it can impact how people see, feel and value restored forests in their surroundings (For more about the role of story in systems change, I invite you to read this beautiful piece by Ella Salmarche). 

So, what can we learn from the existing restoration stories? In search of successful stories, I used a YouTube Data Tool to collect the most viewed YouTube videos with the keywords, ‘restoration’ and ‘forests’. While some of them are linked to other types of restoration, we could use these examples to identify the elements that contribute to making these stories visible online. 
 

no. channel video title view count url 
National Geographic 50 Years Ago, This Was A Wasteland. He Changed Everything | Short Film Showcase 5160840 https://youtu.be/ZSPkcpGmflE 
Andrew Millison The Canal That Accidentally Grew A Forest In The Arizona Desert 3814238 https://youtu.be/jf8usAesJvo 
Happen Films Man Spends 30 Years Turning Degraded Land Into Massive Forest – Fools & Dreamers (Full Documentary) 3363467 https://youtu.be/3VZSJKbzyMc 
Leaf of Life How Spain Is Turning It’s Deserts Into A Farmland Oasis – Greening The Desert Project 1754190 https://youtu.be/nmOX622P-OU 
Down To Earth How A Farmer Turned 90 Acres Of Wasteland Into A Lush Green Forest In Odisha 1577571 https://youtu.be/C08FAa-Vlj0 
Mossy Earth We’re Bringing Back Iceland’s Forgotten Forests 751498 https://youtu.be/K-r2EetCtO0 
Trees for Life Restoring The Ancient Caledonian Forest Alan Watson Featherstone TEDxFindhorn 677705 https://youtu.be/nAGHUkby2Is 
DW News Justdiggit: Restoring Dry Land In Tanzania | Global Ideas 431109 https://youtu.be/RPJ9T4yAEGs 
XAG Official Application | Forest Restoration By XAG Agricultural Drone In Brazil 398272 https://youtu.be/CqivF6PaFfY 
10 Mossy Earth We Are Reforesting The Ocean – Here’s How 371184 https://youtu.be/pzmc8ztD4e8 
11 Growing Small Turning Degraded Land Into Forest, Woman Builds Natural Homestead 303170 https://youtu.be/T145drzKhGc 
12 Mossy Earth Bringing Back The Ancient Viking Forests Of Iceland | Rewilding Iceland 300703 https://youtu.be/5lAegYUc1lU 

While different storytelling techniques are employed in these videos, the top four have something in common; they focus on one simple solution. These videos also use a narrative that praises the power of nature. For example, the National Geographic documentary highlights planting grass as a solution to percolate the water into the ground, eventually transforming a wasteland into a biodiversity-rich area. Another video by the permaculture practitioner Andrew Millison also talks about the raised canal structure as an accidental solution for native forests to grow in a swale, emphasizing how nature makes it possible. Three out of five top videos also discussed biodiversity as a positive byproduct resulting from forest or nature restoration.  

Protagonists as “heroes” is another commonly used technique in the top videos. Among the top five, three feature one “hero” throughout the story. For example, the Down to Earth’s video features a female farmer in India who bought the degraded land in the 1980s to experiment with organic farming techniques, eventually resulting in a lush forest cover. Other stories added personality to the protagonist by showing their daily routine and interviewing family and friends. 

Unsurprisingly, journalistic videos talk about conflicts, disagreements, risks and disasters. The example from Happen Films highlights the conflicts between the protagonist, who believed gorse could transform farmland into forests, and local pasture farmers who were sceptical towards his idea. In addition, a Lead of Life video with 1.8+ million views treats desertification in Spain as a risk. 

While third-party YouTube channels produced the top 5 videos, some were also filmed by those involved in forest restoration. A good example is Mossy Earth, who filmed their own on-ground restoration actions in Iceland, indicating how a forest practitioner could take a viewer on a journey to forest restoration.  

But a powerful story does not require high-end video editing techniques and journalistic skills. This is portrayed in the TED talk by the Tree of Life founder, Alan Watson Featherstone, who listed key restoration principles in his inspirational talk. 

While these are some takeaways from the top YouTube videos, a story can also be told at a much more grassroots level. A story we tell our families, friends and colleagues can be as powerful as the story told in a professional setting. As Alan Featherstone says, “Restoration is about reconnecting the stands in the web of life, but it’s also about reconnecting people with the rest of the web”. Similarly, a story can bring the web of life closer to people, and people closer to the web of life. 

Forest fires, field recorders, and four females

#RestorationStory by Sara Uzquiano

It is Monday, 6 am. My Colleague Patricia and I (working for Land Life Company) are leaving our office in Burgos heading to Ribera de Folgoso (León), where our SUPERB colleagues from CESEFOR Judit and Rocio are waiting for us. Today we will accompany them to collect and place again field recorders in the plots of our Spanish SUPERB demo in Castilla/León. 

Within the SUPERB project, we have 12 Demo-areas across Europe. In our Spanish demo we amongst other activities investigate degraded areas after a recent wildfire, and look at different states of forest recovery. In this regard, the aim of the field recorders is to identify different bird and bat species present across all these different recovery levels. Birds and bats play a very important role in many habitats as pollinators, insect controllers, dispersers, “reforesters” by regurgitating, defecating, or burying seeds, and they help the tree to “awake” the seed as it passes through their digestive system. Finally, they are of course indicators of biodiversity. Thus, their presence, or absence, can tell us a lot about the state of our forest. 

After a 3 hours’ drive, we finally arrived at our meeting point with Judit and Rocio, who explained to us the plan for the day. We would look for the six field recorders which were placed one week ago, transfer the recordings to the laptop and place the field recorders again in other plots of our demo area. It sounded like an easy task to do, but as we soon discovered, nothing could be further from the truth.  

The first challenge in each of them was to find the less risky entrance, as the majority of the plots are located in the middle of very steep terrain and we had to look for trees and bushes to hold on to and thus, to avoid slipping and falling while looking for the plots. And then we had to walk among the tangled forest to the center of the plot either to pick up or place the recorders. 


Plot after recent fire (photo: Sara Uzquiano)
Plot after recent fire (photo: Sara Uzquiano)

Throughout the entire day, we were able to witness the recovery of nature after a wildfire. Our first stop was the most shocking for me. We walked on the black grass looking for the field recorders, soon our hands and boots were also black. This used to be an oak forest which suffered from a wildfire last year. The smell of burning logs could still be distinguished as if it had just been burned the day before. We pictured a landscape where it is very difficult to think a recovery is possible after all, much less any kind of life surviving in the surrounding area.

Finally, we visited plots totally recovered from the fire they suffered 40 years ago or more. Surprisingly, it was not obvious at all anymore that fire destroyed this landscape once. We could see a very diverse forest structure, with some big oak trees at the canopy level, but also small trees making their way and some natural regeneration surrounded by shrubs. This is what we, foresters, call an irregular forest, which means the trees within that forest cover the entire age spectrum, and thus, the forest presents a complex structure with trees at different levels that make it more resistant and resilience face to disturbances, and providing the perfect habitat for many special and shy species as this little viper we could see in one of the plots. We were so lucky to get to see it – vipers are endangered species and usually quite shy. 

What an impressive viper! (photo: Sara Uzquiano)

We did not realize we were a working group of four women until we stopped in a small village to replenish our energies, looking for a cup of breakfast coffee and a “Pincho de Tortilla” to eat. The moment we entered, we attracted the attention of the place, and soon, two men were not long in approaching us: “Are you on holiday?” they asked. “No. We are working.” – we replied. They could not hide their amazement and were even more curious about what we were doing. – ”Oh! As we saw you in mountain clothing on a weekday, we thought you were on holiday” they said,  as an apology, I guess. The same happened again to my colleague Patricia and I when we stopped to have lunch. The waiter could not help but approach us and directly asked how the hike was. 

Certainly, we still need to improve our understanding how ecosystems function to find the best way to help nature to build resilient forests but also, in our way doing that, we need to continue “normalizing” that four women in mountain clothing during a weekday are most probably working and not on holiday. And all this is what we are contributing to with SUPERB!  


Featured image by Sara Uzquiano. Sara is a Forest Data Analyst with Land Life Company.

Restoring Forests, One Peck at a Time

#RestorationStory by Silke Jakobs and Ajdin Starcevic

It was an early arrival at the airport for departure on Saturday morning, packed with several layers of clothing and warm shoes. This time the trip was up North, with final destination Umeå to visit SUPERB’s Swedish demo area. We were first flying to Stockholm and from there taking the train onwards to Umeå. While looking out of the window from the airplane close to Stockholm, we noticed that everything was still very green, no snow in sight. Or at least not yet.  

At the train station we met with Magda, deputy project coordinator of SUPERB, who was also joining us. As we didn’t see any snow yet, we made a bet after how much time on the train we would see full snow cover. Of course, a full snow cover needed to be defined; “Enough snow to not wreck your skis.” Apparently, this was still open for own interpretations. In the end we were all too optimistic. It took longer than expected to reach our expected “winter wonderland”. But we had some beautiful views during the train ride, and the sunset was spectacular.  

During dinner that night in Umeå we had our second Swedish experience, eating reindeer. We would learn more about the role of reindeer for Swedish forests and forest-depending communities later. But now, after such a long travel day and a tasty dinner, it was time for a good night of sleep, so we would be well rested for the next day, exploring the demo area.

It seems that every time we visit a SUPERB demo, the sun is out. This time was no exception. We were picked up by Åsa Granberg and Johan Svensson (the Swedish demo leads) and Ruben Valbuena, our colleague from SLU. Åsa and Johan were also our personal guides for the day and took us to our first stop where forest restoration activities have been performed in 2019.  

Felled conifer trees

The restoration area was located just outside of Umeå, a popular bird-watching destination for locals. The goal of the Ume river delta restoration activities was to improve the habitat quality for the white backed woodpecker. This was primarily accomplished by removing Norway spruce and Scots pine from the site to promote the establishment and growth of broadleaved trees, primarily birch.  

As we have heard from our colleagues, the white backed woodpecker tends to avoid forests with as little as 5% Norway spruce in the species composition. It appears that some forest managers in Central Europe could learn a thing or two from a bird. But anyway, some spruce trees were mechanically felled and left in the forest to increase the amount of deadwood and favor some wood decaying fungi species, while others were girdled to become snags and provide future habitat for other wildlife. Our host, Åsa, even shared a rumor of a great grey owl making the restored forest its home.  

Signs of a woodpecker feeding on a birch tree

We concluded that the restoration efforts here were a success which left us optimistic and hopeful for the restoration activities to be done on the SUPERB demo site.  

The second stop was at a possible SUPERB restoration site where the municipality has already been trying for four years to restore the forest. In 2023 it might finally happen. Marlene Olsson, one of the ecologists at Umeå municipality told us about the restoration activities which aim to improve the habitat for the white backed woodpecker. This white backed woodpecker is a national focus point in Sweden. But why is that? Can you imagine that around 200 different species benefit from creating good habitats for the woodpecker. Another national focus point in Sweden is to have more broadleaf trees and a better connection between those broadleaved areas. In the case of our SUPERB demo this implies that the conifer species alongside the riverbed will be removed. Besides a positive impact on the biodiversity our demo partners expect that this will also improve soil stability and prevent soil erosion as root systems of the broadleaves reach much deeper into the ground.  

Before continuing our trip to the next location, we needed to refuel our bodies. Åsa and Johan took us to this cozy place called the Brännlands Wärdshus. The food was delicious, it left us all speechless for a while with only the sound of a crackling fire in the corner. We could have stayed a bit longer, but there was more to be seen and daylight is scarce in Northern Europe’s winters.  

The Skatan ecopark, another of the SUPERB project’s restoration sites in Sweden was the final stop on our Sunday trip. We even had a chance to look at our previous night’s dinner in the eyes on the way there. 

Reindeer close to the SUPERB restoration sites

Reindeer herding has a long tradition in Sweden within the Sámi culture, and it represents their main livelihood. The activity is legally reserved only for the Sámi who own about 250,000 reindeer in Sweden. Climate change and intensive forest management have posed an increasing threat in recent years. Because of the nowadays shifting winter temperatures, the snow melts and freezes repeatedly even in the middle of the winter and forms an ice crust above the soil, making it difficult for reindeer to reach the lichens on the forest floor, which are a main source of food during the winter months. Moreover, the cover of ground lichens has decreased a lot (70% over a time period of 50 years) due to soil scarification and too dense forests Furthermore, because of the dense forest hanging lichens, an as important winter grazing resource, are not easily accessible. The Sámi work with forest managers to address this issue by thinning certain areas and opening up the forest canopy. This promotes lichen growth and increases the amount of fodder available to reindeer.  

Finally, we were unable to visit any of the exact locations where the SUPERB restoration activities will be carried out in Skatan ecopark because the forest roads leading there had not been cleaned. Instead, we stood on the frozen lake, with one of the sites on the other side, which allowed us to see the big picture both literally and figuratively.  

View at the SUPERB demo site
View at the SUPERB demo site

One of the restoration activities, according to our hosts, will be to simulate fire disturbance, a natural occurrence that has been suppressed in recent decades. This should improve the forest’s naturalness while also supporting ecosystem services other than commercial timber and biomass production, such as recreational values and biodiversity. 

Driving back to Umeå, we could look back at another great SUPERB demo visit thanks to Åsa, Johan and Marlene. And we hope next time we visit we’ll meet one of those famous woodpeckers.   


All images in this Restoration Story were provided by the authors Silke Jacobs and Ajdin Starcevic. Silke and Ajdin are PhD students with Wageningen Research.