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.

 

Predicting the future of our tree species

#Restoration Story by Albert Ciceu

Did you know that due to the rapid development of climate change some species are unable to adapt fast enough to the new climatic conditions and might reduce their distribution or even face possible extinction?

In such cases, species distribution models (SDM) come handy since they can be used to identify areas with a potential biodiversity loss and assist species migration to more suitable areas. SDM uses advanced computer algorithms, georeferenced biodiversity observations and geographic layers of environmental information to build predictive models that can be used to make inferences about the potential distribution range of species in space and time.

In the SUPERB project, we use species distribution modelling to develop a European tree species and seed provenance recommendation system called Seed4Forests. Currently, the SUPERB partners in our demonstration areas count on our species and provenance recommendation list when considering restauration activities such as planting, and we hope that in the future this will be a common practice also for other forest restoration projects.

To obtain such a model, well-developed hard skills are required for data wrangling, data manipulation, algorithm selection and fitting, as well as data visualisation. Especially because these tasks are usually executed via a programming language. In late June this year, our team at Federal Research and Training Centre for Forests, Natural Hazards and Landscape (BFW) in Austria decided that it would be beneficial for some of us to improve and polish some of these skills by attending a species distribution modelling course.

In early July last year, one of my colleagues and I booked early bird tickets to the 8th edition of the Species Distributions Modelling course held in Evora, Portugal, by two renowned and well-established scientists in this field: Miguel Araújo and Babak Naimi. The course was scheduled to start on the 7th of November and last 8 days, during which we would go through all steps involved in building and testing models of species distribution.

The summer passed as fast as you can say ‘Schnitzel’ and here we were catching a flight to Lisbon at 3:30 AM Sunday morning. We had the whole Sunday to wander around amazing and hilly Lisbon were we – despite being sleepy – enjoyed a long walk.

As two tree geeks would normally behave we couldn’t resist the temptation to visit the botanical garden and test our tree identification skills. We both performed well with small exceptions when it came to some Mediterranean tree species and non-native tree species of Europe. Early in the morning we took the bus to Evora, a beautiful, lively university city. We would later learn that Evora’s streets are not ordinary. You can easily hear the sound of Fado music drifting while encountering students dressed as if they are coming from a Quidditch game between the Gryffindors and the Slytherins (the main inspiration of Harry Potter’s uniforms came from Portugal).

But back to our arrival: when we arrived in Evora, the first class was ready to start. We joined the small group of around 12 young scientists who were physically present and 2 more attendees online, eager to find out how and when species distribution models can be useful.

 After a quick round of introductions, I was surprised to find out that although we were drawn by the same interest for this course, our backgrounds were very different. Based on their presentation, I could easily divide the group in 3 main clusters: those interested in birds, plants lovers, and marine life enthusiasts.

The course started with a short introduction of the terminology used in species distribution modelling. Prof. Miguel Araujo was mostly responsible for the theoretical aspects of the topic, describing in detail the timeline from the ‘early days’ of SDMs to the cutting-edge research that is now conducted in the world as well as in his labs in Evora and Madrid. He filled our memory citing and describing methodologies applied in different research papers that tackle aspects of species distribution modelling in time and space. Throughout the course he gave us a good understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of ecological niche models while emphasizing the strengths and limitations of those models in the context of different uses.

Prof. Babak Naimi, on the other hand, was responsible for developing our hard skills. He introduced us to the sdm package, a package developed by himself and Miguel with the main purpose of building species distribution models. Throughout the week he described the main functionalities of the package, while during his intense coding sessions we discussed extensively the use of the package in tacking our research questions. It was indeed the perfect mixture of theory and practice.

The 8th and last day of the course was reserved for presenting our work through short presentations. We had been split in small groups of 3 to 5 people and given the task to design and build a species distribution model. Using some data already available at European scale, my group and I developed 3 SDMs for 3 oak species (Quercus frainettoQuercus cerris and Quercus pubescens) which is of big interest for the SUPERB demo areas. We predicted the current and the future distribution of these species under different climate scenarios. In order to improve the ”projection power”  of our model we also predicted the SDM of a new invasive insect species (Corythuca arcuata) as this species has a huge potential to threaten the stability and limit the distribution of the oak species in Europe.

Soon it was time to fly back to the country of Mozart and the city of Johann Strauss. The course was a treat and we are ready and excited to apply our newly acquired skills in the SUPERB project helping you choose the most suitable species for the forests of our future.


All images incl. featured image are by Albert Ciceu. Albert is a Post-Doc researcher at Austrian Research Centre for Forests (BFW)

What Twitter images tell us about COP27 issues: A focus on the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership and Biodiversity Day

#RestorationStory by Rina Tsubaki

In our previous social media exploration, we looked at how Twitter hashtags can help us inquire into emerging public issues around global events like COP27. In our rapid investigation, based on the digital methods recipes developed by SUPERB partners at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London and the Public Data Lab, we identified different ways people engage with forest restoration through keywords like #conservation, #afforestation, and #rewild. Hashtags such as #forestsarenotfuel and #lettreesgrow problematised the economic use of forests. Political matters also came up, linking the Amazon rainforest and changing politics in Brazil.

COP27 was undeniably an important meeting to follow up on last year’s Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forests and Land Use, where over 140 world leaders pledged to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”. This year’s COP also saw dozens of governments collectively announcing the Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP), and the day dedicated to biodiversity acted as a platform to discuss the progress of the Glasgow commitment.

Read More

COP27 on Twitter: Forest restoration issues and narratives through hashtags

#RestorationStory by Rina Tsubaki

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has prompted confusion among its users and concerns about the platform’s future. Musk’s tweets are gathering daily attention due to large-scale layoffs and safety concerns around the new paid blue verification mark. To make things worse, as its engineers are on their way out of the door, users are also experiencing various technical glitches on the platform. Millions of users – including journalists, researchers and organisations – are already signing up on alternative platforms to be prepared for the platform’s deterioration and demise.  

While no one can predict Twitter’s future, it remains widely used by politicians, scientists, companies, NGOs and influencers who are still busy posting on the platform. This includes COP27 in Egypt, where Twitter was one of the main platforms to report on the event. #cop27 has been tweeted over 2.85 million times since 5 November 2022.  

Social media platforms can give us additional insights into how broader publics make connections between forest restoration and other social, economic and environmental issues. To see which issues and narratives around forest restoration have been brought up on Twitter in the lead-up to the event, we’ve carried out a series of small explorations based on the digital methods recipes developed by our colleagues at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London and the Public Data Lab, who are part of the SUPERB consortium led by EFI. This has been a good way to see if we could use these methods independently to understand international events as they unfold. 

We usually see a spike in hashtag usage a few days before global events like the COPs. Using #cop27we collected 217,189 tweets between 5 and 7 November 2022. We then examined the top 1000 hashtags to see which kinds of forest-related issues are present.  

To provide a way to explore some of the other themes and concerns, here are the most frequently used 1000 hashtags shown as a tag cloud, with those related to forests highlighted in green:

You can find an interactive visual here.

We also ranked issue-related hashtags in the top 1000 list. 

You can find an interactive visual here.

As can be seen in these visuals, we saw quite some forest and restoration-related hashtags amongst the most common hashtags, the most visible being #greenlegacy (1333 tweets), a hashtag referring to Ethiopia’s forest restoration initiative to plant 20 billion trees by the end of 2022. Notably, one also sees #ethiopia (5023 tweets), #ethiopiaprevails (2580 tweets), and #ethiopiaraising (1404 tweets), along with #plantyourprint (53 tweets), a campaign hashtag associated with #greenlegacy. While further exploration is needed, it indicates that Ethiopia’s green commitments, including its forest restoration actions, have gathered some attention on COP27 Twitter.  

While other policy initiatives were rarely addressed through hashtags, #eugreendeal (43 tweets) was also found in the top hashtag list. 

Tropical forest issues also came up, however, in smaller numbers, including #deforestation (34 tweets), #rainforest (14 tweets), along with the Amazon-related hashtags, calling to ‘save’ the Amazon through tags like #savetheamazon (52 tweets) and #salvemoslaamazonía (29 tweets) in Portuguese.  

The only hashtag immediately related to ‘forest restoration’ as such was #treeplantation (191 tweets). No hashtags referring to the word ‘restoration’ or ‘restore’ could be found in the top list. 

Apart from restoration, other associated issues could be seen in the set. For example, several hashtags referring to soil emerged, including #savesoil (216 tweets), a global movement launched by Sadhguru, to address the soil crisis, along with #drought (142 tweets). #biodiversity (92 tweets) and #landrights (34 tweets).  

Some forest-focused organisations’ hashtags also came up, including #onecgiar (23 tweets), a hashtag referring to CGIAR’s transition to strengthen its partnerships, #glfclimate (20 tweets) by the Global Landscape Forum, and #trees4resilience (17 tweets), a hashtag used for the CIFOR and ICRAF’s COP27 session on “Trees and forests: An investment in climate resilience”. 

While exploring the top hashtags tells us which forest and restoration-related issues surfaced in hashtags in COP27 Twitter, it does not tell us the relations between different hashtags associated with COP27 and forests (for those interested, check out Marres (2015), which discusses frequency-based and co-occurrence measures). By querying #cop27 AND forest (without brackets to collect tweets that mention, for example, ‘deforestation’), we’ve collected 3000 tweets from 30 days ahead of the COP27 and visualised the hashtag relations based on this recipe

An interactive visualisation here.

A network visualisation of hashtags found in tweets mentioning both #cop27 and the word ‘forest’ give other insights into associations between different issues.  

For example, we’ve detected a cluster of various risks facing global forests, including #desertification#wildfire#forestfire#degradation#drought and #deforestation (see the following screenshot).

The role of forests in removing and capturing carbon (e.g. #carboncapture, #carbonremoval, #carbonsink) can be observed close to #rainforest and #amazonrainforest

Global trade issues were raised through hashtags like #supplychains, #commodities, and #deforestationfree. 

Brazilian political issues emerged through hashtags like #lulapresidente2022 and #bolsonaropresidente2022, appearing closely with #amazon and #amazonia, making links between the Amazon rainforests and Lula’s comeback after almost four years of Bolsonaro presidency. One may imagine that this event may have contributed to the prominence of Amazon-related hashtags.  

While #treeplantation was the only hashtag with an obvious link to both ‘forest’ and ‘restoration’, we identified other associated terms, such as: #rewild

#afforestation, 

#fragmentation, #permaculture, #forestmanagement, 

#conservation, #preservation#agroforestry, and #restoration, which appeared closely with two campaign hashtags, namely #trees4resilience and #letstalktrees by CIFOR and ICRAF and #thinklandscape by the Global Landscape Forum. However, these hashtags were found far from the centre, indicating that they were not used frequently with other hashtags.

The word “restore” also came up in hashtags #restoremothernature, and #generationrestoration, a UN campaign hashtag for ecosystem restoration. 

Another forest-related campaign hashtag is #teamingup4forests, an initiative between IUFRO and Mondi Group. It appears closely with #sdg17 or “Partnerships for the Goals”. #forestsector can also be observed here along with #lettreesgrow.

Finally, there is a large cluster of biomass-related hashtags around the International Day of Action on Big Biomass (#internationaldayofactiononbigbiomass). Quite a few hashtags in this cluster criticised the use of forests as fuel, including #forestsarenotfuel and #stopburningtrees. These hashtags imply that the voices opposing the economic use of forests emerged in the Twitter conversation around COP27.

As part of this small Twitter exploration, we’ve also collected a handful of tweets that mentioned the word ‘forest’ and #cop27 from the period of 5-7 November 2022 to get some examples of narratives that circulated on Twitter. 

For example, the top tweets from this period included those posted by the ministers from Mexico and Colombia addressing reforestation and deforestation issues as their governments’ priorities. 

The UN-REDD Programme also called for the need for corporate investment to protect tropical forests and to reach below 1.5 degrees.

While Climate Council, an Australian non-profit, pointed out that restoration activities are not enough to reduce CO2, 

Dr Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, argued that preventing deforestation could help establish “efficiency” in reducing CO2 emissions.

The last example is Alexander Verbeek, an independent advisor on climate issues with more than 304K Twitter followers. He referred to Lula’s re-election as a “sign of relief” for Amazonia.

We’re sharing this work in progress to give an indication of how hashtag analysis can be used not only for academic research but also to help organisations, journalists, campaign groups, and others to trace social media practices and issue composition around events as they unfold. 

Building on collaborations with our colleagues at King’s College London and the Public Data Lab, over the coming years, we will be continuing to explore the use of arts and humanities-based digital methods to explore forest issues as part of the SUPERB project. This includes exploring forest restoration issues, situating forest restoration practices and mapping broader societal engagements with restoration efforts across the project’s demo sites and beyond. We’ll continue sharing work in progress and hope that some of the techniques and approaches we’re developing can be used by others working on environmental issues. 

Are you interested in this type of exploration? Read another post on our previous analysis of the Amazon rainforest fires.


Rina Tsubaki is a communications manager with European Forest Institute.

Rise from the ashes

#RestorationStory by Bas Lerink, supported by Judit Torres and Iñigo Oleagordia Montaña

The sun peaks over the roof of Cathedral Santa Maria as I make my way downtown the city of León. The huge stained-glass windows light up in red and yellow, as a promise for a hot day. I am meeting our Spanish SUPERB colleagues in their CESEFOR office, to catch up with recent activities in our SUPERB demonstration site. It is great to meet again with the demo representatives Judit Torres (CESEFOR) and Iñigo Oleagordia Montaña (Junta CyL) and to get to know Rafael, the forest manager of the El Bierzo sites. A lot has happened since we last met, so we take the time to discuss the events of the past weeks.

The Castilla y León demo gives a fascinating insight in the relationship between men and bear. The aim of the demo is to improve the habitat of the brown bear, while simultaneously engaging the rural population. If not challenging enough, there is always the lurking danger of forest fires in the region. Two weeks ago, Judit organised the demo’s stakeholder workshop, uniting friend, and foe of the bear. They discussed the forest restoration measures planned by the local partners, with room for adjustments. The presence of the brown bear can incidentally trouble activities of the local population, especially for beekeepers. But they already found a solution by subsidising e.g. electric fencing around the beehives, to fend off curious bears with a sweet tooth. In the coming weeks, the workplan will be finalised, with detailed descriptions of the restoration measures on specific sites, and I am already curious to read them.

Stand with excessive regeneration
Mature stand with barn owl nest

Meanwhile, we finish our discussions in the CESEFOR office and hit the road to El Bierzo region, where the sites are located. We pick up Santiago, forest ranger of the Igüeña site, which we will visit first. In the selected stands, our local partners will carry out silvicultural measures to improve the habitat of the brown bear. This involves thinning out dense Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) stands to create easier passage, while in Pyrenean oak (Quercus pyrenaica) stands trees are selected to increase acorn production. In recently burned stands, they plan enrichment planting to provide new shelter. Judit drives us in CESEFOR’s 4×4 Landcruiser to the different stands of the Igüeña site.

The stands have been chosen based on a gradient of degradation, e.g. from severely degraded, up until the ideal reference situation. We visit a recently burned stand, where the blackened trees clearly indicate where the fire blazed. Where possible, they plan some enrichment plantings to help this stand to recover. Iñigo explains how current management shifted from creating large ‘cortafuegos’ (long clear-felled strips), to decreasing the available fuel in the stands. This was decided because the cortafuegos deform the landscape, have to be maintained a lot and are often not effective for crown fires.

The cortafuegos are visible as long brown strips (photo: Bas Lerink)

The middle section of the chronosequence consists of Pyreneanoakstands with overdue management. Santiago takes us to a dense stand with very slender trees and a blanket of oak root regeneration, prone to fire. Right next to it is a reference stand, where low thinning and enrichment planting of e.g. rowan and whitebeam (Sorbus aucuparia and S. aria) were successful. Santiago shows us a picture that he took here 20 years ago of a big capercaillie, which were once abundant in these forests. The end of the chronosequence is a fantastic mature stand of Pyreneanoakwith many microhabitats. The trees have large crowns, capable of producing lots of acorns for the brown bear and the forest structure is resilient to forest fires. Iñigo is clear on his goal: ‘In the future, most of the forest area of El Bierzo will look like this’.

Happy with what we have seen, we head for an old molino where Santiago used to mill back in the days, but which is now transformed to a restaurant. We enjoy a tasty lunch with local ingredients and then drive up in the mountain range to see the Corullón site. In the midst of a 200-hectare soto (orchard) of sweet chestnut trees, there is a burned patch of a few hectares. Here, our local SUPERB team will plant new grafted chestnut trees to increase the production of sweet chestnut. With this measure, Judit, Iñigo and their colleagues aim at engaging the rural population, as sweet chestnuts are valued a lot by the local people.

While the sun sets behind the Corullón mountain ridges, we call it a day. In the past 12 hours, we have seen the challenges that the Castilla y León demo has to face. However, above all, we have also discovered great opportunities to restore the forest lands, for men and bear. This demo is one to watch!


Featured image: SUPERB demo area with sweet chestnut orchard on the right side, with holm oak on the left (southward facing) side of the slope (photo: Bas Lerink). Bas is a PhD student with Wageningen Research.

Exploring Romanian forests – an unexpected journey

by Silke Jacobs, Sara Filipek, Gert-Jan Nabuurs & Bas Lerink

‘Timber Mafia’, ‘Notorious corruption’ and ‘Destruction of last virgin forests’. News articles about Romanian forests and their management are dominated by headlines like these or with a likewise tendency. But we were wondering: Is that really the only thing we should know about Romanian forests? Or are there also examples of good and sustainable forest management – as well as protection of primary forests?

As the Wageningen University & Research team of the SUPERB Project, which aims at upscaling forest restoration, we were eager to explore Romanian forests and to get in touch with its foresters. Although we heard the stories of the impressive untouched forests, our expectations were mixed. After our SUPERB conference in Sibiu ended, we headed north-east to Suceava for an introduction to the last remnants of Europe’s primeval forest. We were looking forward to the wilderness, but also curious about regular forest management in the productive spruce and beech stands of the Suceava district.

Oncoming traffic on our way to Suceava
Oncoming traffic on our way to Suceava

The journey from Sibiu to Suceava was an adventure on itself: zigzagging between horse drawn hay carts and putting our rental car and our driving skills to the test on unpaved forest roads. Unscathed and in awe of the Transylvanian landscape we arrived at our hotel in a suburb of Suceava. After some leg stretching, we went off to bed quickly, as we all knew we had a great hike scheduled for tomorrow.

The next morning appeared to be a beautiful hiking day and we were excited to meet the famous forest professors couple Laura and Olivier Bouriaud. With our company of six, we went off to pick up a local forester from ROMSILVA as seventh companion. He is an active forest manager in the Suceava forest district and knows his way through the vast Carpathian forests. It was until later that day, when we realised how essential it was to be guided around by someone with the knowledge and skills for wandering around.

Information sign on the left and regeneration gap on the right

Around 40% of Romanian forests are FSC-certified, which means that wood is harvested in a sustainable manner in these areas, respecting wildlife and other ecosystem services. We visited a recently thinned certified forest stand, with imposing spruce trees on fertile calcareous soils. Gaps that were created earlier by selective thinning or smaller clear-cuts were quickly claimed by regeneration from primarily spruce. Ferns dominated the understorey, but also gave way to species like Paris quadrifolia, which is in decline in Europe due to loss of habitat and might soon be on red lists. What we saw in this forest stand very much contrasted with the harsh media stories. At the border of the forest stand, an information sign was placed, to inform visitors on e.g. the measures, the volume of removed wood and the exact planning. We walked through the stand discussing the measures and the related communication to stakeholders.

We hiked along the mountainside, clutching the stems and branches from large beech trees for support. Finally, we reached a ridge that pointed out above the canopy. Here we had a great and rather humbling view on the surrounding forest area and the outskirts of the Slatioara town. After this highlight and catching our breath, we were ready for the descent. The first few meters were so steep that we agreed to slide down from a seated position, until we were able to stand up again and walk carefully over the old trail. We descended to the creek running through the reserve, where we washed our hands and drank some ice-cold water. Later that day, Laura and Olivier took us to their home for a fantastic BBQ, after which we returned to our hotel for a well-deserved rest.

Exhausted but extremely happy after intense hiking in the Codrul Secular Slătioara

The day after this fantastic field visit, we were invited to give a lecture about our work and projects on the Ştefan cel Mare University of Suceava. Silke presented the SUPERB project to an enthusiastic group of students from the forestry department. Gert-Jan backed that up with a lecture on his IPCC work, while Sara and Bas spoke about their projects related to climate smart forestry. After an interesting discussion with the audience, it was time for us to leave the university and prepare for our return journey to the Netherlands with our own impressions of the Romanian forests or at least part of it.