Rise from the ashes

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)

“Forest restoration needs to look ahead, not backwards, in face of climate change”: An interview with SUPERB coordinator Elisabeth Pötzelsberger on World Habitat Day

This 3rd of October is World Habitat Day! To celebrate the occasion, SUPERB coordinator Elisabeth Pötzelsberger, Head of Resilience Programme at the European Forest Institute (EFI), explained the importance of “prestoration” – the combination of restoration and climate adaptation – for resilient and functional forest habitats. She discussed how it differs from classical restoration approaches, highlighted its relevance to the new EU Nature Restoration Law and listed concrete examples of how prestoration is being applied within the SUPERB demonstration areas in Germany and in the Czech Republic.

Watch the video interview on YouTube or read it below!

What is prestoration? How does it differ from more classical approaches to forest restoration?

Why do we actually restore restore forests? There are large restoration needs, for example, when forests are impacted by hot temperatures, forest fires, and also by prolonged droughts that will also cause outbreaks of pests and pathogens, which can kill forests on large landscape levels. But also to make our forests more diverse again in Europe and to bring back important habitats that, for example, are associated with deadwood and old-growth elements, which have become rare across Europe.

When people talk about restoration, they might think of different objectives that may be located along the so-called restoration continuum. The classical restoration continuum ranges from fighting the drivers of degradation over remediation of ecosystem functions up to full ecological restoration, where species diversity, ecosystem structure and function are restored. However, climate change adds a new dimension to this restoration continuum. Therefore, the consideration of adaptation in restoration, what we can call prestoration, is becoming so important.

Forest researchers and practitioners are therefore supporting this concept, which means the combination of restoration ambitions with the need for adaptation. Adaptation of tree species composition and forest structure in order to increase the resilience of forests under climate change and also ensure forest functioning in the future.

Can you give a few examples that illustrate how prestoration works?

There are already good examples where we are practising prestoration, like in our two SUPERB demonstration areas in central Europe – in Germany (North Rhine-Westfalia) and in the Czech Republic. These regions are naturally dominated by beech forests but some decades or centuries ago have been converted into Norway Spruce plantations.

Now with prolonged droughts, these Norway Spruce forests have been severely damaged by subsequent bark beetle infestations. In SUPERB, we are not only restoring them back into native beech forest ecosystems but already looking into more drought-tolerant habitat types like oak/hornbeam forests and mixing them with even more broadleaved tree species to increase forest resilience and functionality also for future climate conditions.

What challenges does prestoration entail?

Prestoration is neither simple nor straightforward. With climate change, we are really entering uncharted territory. We will be and already are experiencing conditions that we have never experienced before. Also our native forest species are not adjusted to these new conditions. Looking for more adapted species in the Mediterranean may be an option. However, there is also large uncertainty associated with it because we don’t know, for example, whether these species will be truly suited to the climatic conditions that will occur in 100 years’ time, because there is still a broad range of possible climate change scenarios.

And then there is another challenge: forests do not consist only of trees. There are many other plant and animal species that live in these forests and are also dependent on these tree species. So, will they be fit to survive in these climatic conditions and will they be happy to thrive in these forests which may consist of different tree species than today?

What are the prerequisites for successful prestoration?

Due to this large uncertainty, in SUPERB we are convinced that we need flexible approaches and to revisit decisions as we go along. And of course, with SUPERB we are also providing continuous scientific support which will allow us to find out which are the right species compositions and how we can assist the migration of other plant and animal species across the landscape so they can find in the future forest habitats and climate conditions that they are adjusted to.

How is prestoration relevant to the new EU Restoration Law?

So this prestoration concept, this idea of integrating adaptation into restoration, will be of crucial importance if we want to achieve the overall goal of the new EU’s Biodiversity Strategy and the EU’s Forest Strategy, which is to restore European biodiversity and continuous provision of ecosystem services in the future.

These Biodiversity and Forest Strategies of the EU now will be supported by the Nature Restoration legislation which is currently being debated at the EU level. It remains to be seen how much space will be given actually to adaptation in this new restoration proposal.

But already experiencing this high-speed climate change, I think it is pretty clear: we have to look ahead and not backwards if we want to be prepared for what is coming.