Managing your forest or not? Find out with the INFORMA Forest Management Platform

By Jonas Simons and Bart Muys (KU Leuven)

Imagine you are responsible for a large, forested area in Europe. Will you manage it, or let nature run its course? If you decide to manage your forest, what would be the consequences? Would it store more carbon? Would it use its resources more efficiently, or produce more wood? What about biodiversity conservation? Would the unmanaged choice have more bird species? Another factor to consider is the frequency of disturbance events, such as fires and windstorms, which is increasing due to climate change. Since you will want to keep the resilience of your forest high, which management option would contribute better to this goal?

Unfortunately, current research answers these questions ambiguously. The relationships between the management of forests, provisioning of several ecosystem services and resilience to disturbances remain rather unclear. In addition, several of the ecosystem services we expect from forests have trade-offs between each other. The bottom line is: before deciding what to do with your forest, you should know your viable management options (including the decision to not manage), and which consequences different implementation options have on how your forest functions. In Work Package 2 (WP2) of INFORMA, led by KU Leuven, we will investigate this knowledge gap. To do so, we are developing the INFORMA Forest Management Platform: a new, large database that is specifically designed to answer management-related questions for European forests. 

The idea behind the Platform is to compare adjacent managed and unmanaged forest patches all over Europe. This is being done by linking unmanaged patches with one or more managed patches in their vicinity (as shown in the banner image of this post). We can then compare ecosystem functioning between the forest patches in such a cluster.

However, if we want to statistically extract the effect of forest management, we should keep other factors that influence ecosystem functioning as similar as possible. This is why forest patches within a cluster should differ as little as possible in terms of climate, soil, topography (elevation, slope and aspect) and land use legacy.

Also the species composition is accounted for. This variable is somewhat more complex: within the cluster, we make sure that there is at least one managed patch that has a similar species composition to the unmanaged patch. This allows us to investigate the effect of management that influences forest structure (such as thinning, logging, etc.) in all clusters. Since the choice of species can be a management decision in itself, if a cluster contains more than one managed patch, we allow for one of the patches to have a different species composition. In any case, the other properties, such as soil, climate etc., should still be as similar as possible.

Europe has multiple forest types. In order to make the database representative, we need to make sure that the major forest types are represented with a sufficient amount of clusters. To achieve this, five INFORMA core regions will be used for the Platform: the Woods of Brabant (Belgium, Atlantic forest), the Segre-Rialb Basin (Spain, Mediterranean forest), the Northern Karelia region (Finland, boreal forest), the Northern Limestone Alps (Austria, alpine forest) and the Râșca Forest District (Romania, continental forest).

All of these regions link to partners within the INFORMA project. These are local experts that help with the design of the Platform through 1) suggesting clusters to include in the Platform based on their expert knowledge of the region, 2) provisioning data that can be used to delineate the patches and perform analyses and 3) suggesting context-dependent variables to include in the analysis (for example, whether we should rather incorporate soil texture or soil depth in a specific region). In addition to these five regions, the Division Forest, Nature and Landscape (FNL) of KU Leuven will use its international contacts to expand the Platform into other European countries, thereby increasing its representativeness and quality.

The delineation of the patches happens in several steps. First, the WP2 members write a protocol, discussing in detail what the Platform should look like, as well as the minimum requirements for the patches and the clusters (e.g. size). In a second step, the local experts suggest several clusters in their region based on this protocol. Next, a session with WP2 members and the local experts is organized to discuss 1) whether the requirements have been met, 2) whether there have been obstacles and 3) whether there are more opportunities for finding additional clusters, or whether there are other things to consider. Once this has been resolved, we do a final checkup of the requirements based on existing databases and satellite imagery, and then delineate the final clusters to be included in the Platform. In a last phase, every patch in the database will be populated with site information derived from existing databases, as well as values indicating ecosystem service performance derived from satellite imagery, e.g. carbon sequestration and water-use efficiency.

Once the database has been populated and analyses have been done, it will finally be ready to be used in practice! For instance, the database can help guide policy-making: which ecosystem services require management and which do not? It can also be used by forest managers to determine whether and how they can optimize certain ecosystem functions in their forests. Furthermore, it can support scientists in further research, adding detailed and different analyses, field data campaigns etc.

Lastly, it can contribute to answering your very difficult question… what to do with your forest: to manage or not to manage? To find out the answers, stay tuned to the INFORMA website, where we will announce the launch of the Forest Management Platform in the course of the project.