Resist, survive, respond, restore

Exploring resilient forest responses across countries 

#RestorationStory from Jo O’Hara

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

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

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

Discussions on and in the forest

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

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

Sharing experiences to anticipate risks and explore lessons-learned

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

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

10 key learning points for Coillte

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

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

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

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

By Alberto Pauletto, FSC Italia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos by Alberto Pauletto

Creating resilient forests for the future

1st Stakeholder Workshop in German SUPERB demo 

by Catharina Schmidt

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

Read More