INFORMA’s Scientific Committee Chair hands Foresters Board award to Spain’s former PM Felipe González

Destructive forest fires are increasing in Spain, and so is awareness of their connection to climate change. A topic worth more visibility, however, is how societal factors such as the abandonment of rural areas contribute to catalyse forest fires. With this in mind, the Spanish Board of Forest Engineers (Colegio Oficial de Ingenieros de Montes – COIM) distinguished the work of former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González in drawing public attention to the issue. The award of COIM Honorary Member was handed to González this October in Madrid by INFORMA’s Scientific Committee Chairman and COIM dean, Eduardo Rojas Briales, from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV).

According to the COIM, González has worked since 2016 to disseminate the circumstances surrounding the problem of forest fires and, simultaneously, promoted practical solutions, emphasising the importance of sustainable forest management and the development of the rural economy as the most effective means of prevention.

Eduardo Rojas Briales said “This is a well-deserved recognition because the informative work carried out by Felipe González is in line with the work that the COIM has been doing for years. We have always shared in our institution the concern about forest fires, but in recent years, this concern has intensified due to the significant growth of our forest area. It is worth remembering that Spain is not experiencing deforestation, but quite the opposite. This is largely due to the abandonment of rural areas. The lack of timely action exposes us to the serious risk of facing mega-fires that could jeopardise everything we achieved in recent decades”.

For the COIM, it is essential to focus efforts on land planning and management. In this sense, Felipe González emphasised that “when the degrees reached by this mass of fire exceed a thousand degrees, as if it were the La Palma Volcano, there is no water to combat it. All the water that falls on it simply evaporates before it hits the ground, but everyone is calling for more seaplanes, more helicopters… and specialists know that they are not working. This is really one of the things that shocked me the most because I was really focused for a long time on the technology and the available means of firefighting”.

The Board also believes that measures such as revitalising forest management and supporting extensive livestock farming are essential to reduce the intensity of fires should they occur. Furthermore, it stresses the importance of encouraging extensive farming to create and maintain effective separations between forest areas, while at the same time combating the abandonment of the rural environment in a coherent manner. As Felipe González commented: “We have to know this, because it is essential for governance and for the media, the landscape and the countryside. Local people will not always be right, but you have to listen to what they have to say. There is nothing that protects the forest more, and nothing that improves the fight against forest fires more than a landscape that is aware of what it is worth, especially if it has a communal value”.

Finally, the COIM considers it necessary to address the barriers that hinder the implementation of these actions, such as excessive restrictions on primary activities or the lack of management of small properties in the adverse context of climate change.

Source: Adapted from COIM press release “Felipe González, nombrado Colegiado de Honor del Colegio Oficial de Ingenieros de Montes“, 6 October 2023.

Preventing megafires and land abandonment in the Mediterranean: INFORMA’s case study in the Segre-Rialb basin

The combination of climate change and land abandonment is creating the perfect conditions for mega forest fires in the Mediterranean. Higher temperatures, erratic rainfall and longer droughts are becoming increasingly commonplace, as well as claims that megafires “are here to stay”. Still, not all hope is lost. Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) can help prevent fire disasters by reducing the amount of flammable biomass that accumulates in forests, among other adaptation measures.

The INFORMA case study in the Segre-Rialb basin, Spain, is an example of an area that has suffered decades of continuous rural exodus and the decurrent lack of forest management. There, the project will equip forest practitioners with insights on how to adapt to increased climate variability while ensuring the provision of ecosystem services such as water quality and quantity, wood and non-wood forest products, recreation, and biodiversity conservation.

The Segre-Rialb basin area comprises 35,000 hectares covering the six municipalities affected by the construction of the Rialb water reservoir in the 1990s: La Baronia del Rialb, Bassella, Oliana, Peramola, Ponts, and Tiurana.  Continuous rural exodus led to a significant decrease in the local population during the past century. For instance, the population of La Baronia de Rialb decreased from 1.244 to 835 inhabitants between 1900-1950 and currently amounts to no more than 229 inhabitants.

As in other Mediterranean countries, rural abandonment ensued a forest transition in the last sixty years. Depopulation, associated with decreasing agricultural activities, led to land abandonment, which induced land use change in former fields which naturally evolved into new forests.

The water reservoir of Rialb is the second largest and newest water reservoir in Catalonia. It was built in 1992 and caused the submersion of the lowest and most fertile pieces of land in the valley. Eventually inaugurated in 2000, the reservoir provides water to 80 municipalities. In 2008, the Consortium Segre-Rialb was created to coordinate economic development and tourism promotion in the six municipalities. Thanks to the touristic appeal of the water reservoir, the forested landscape aesthetics and opportunities for hiking and mushroom picking, tourism is now an important source of income in the area. For instance, La Baronia de Rialb counts the highest number of rural tourism homes in Catalonia, with over 150 rural homes.

The main tree species in the case study area are black pine (Pinus nigra), holm oak (Quercus ilex), and Portuguese oak (Quercus faginea) and forests are mainly privately owned. While the most common management objective is wood production, truffles are also a good source of income for forest owners. Forestry is limited because it is considered a non-profitable activity due to the complex topography of the area and the typical low productivity of Mediterranean forests, which was further reduced by regular heavy tree thinnings or after the occurrence of wildfires.

Thirty-six per cent of the total private forest lands are under a forest management plan, in accordance with the average for Catalonia, where forest management plans are voluntary, but this figure varies considerably between the six municipalities. The highest percentage of private forests under a management plan occurs in La Baronia de Rialb (47%), due to an increase in truffle production in the municipality over the last decade.

Observations regarding non-managed forest areas indicate that they may increase the risks of large forest fires, diseases, and mortality during drought episodes, which are only expected to be exacerbated by climate change. While tree cover in the basins is essential to water quality, increasing vegetation cover impacts the amount and efficiency of water use by forests, potentially decreasing water availability for humans.

Wood production is usually the only objective for private forest owners although fire prevention measures are more and more being taken into account. The Catalan Government has recognised the threat of more extreme fires and droughts and is promoting and pushing for more sustainable forest management practices. Hence, the government is providing tools (i.e. maps with priority areas) and incentives for private forest owners to engage in forest management in strategic locations, mainly for fire prevention. Direct investments in private properties for fire prevention are also being made. In addition, research is being conducted to identify the most promising locations for water production.

Management alternatives to the current approaches foresee an increased integration of biodiversity conservation within managed forests as well as the improvement of water management. For contributing to forests as a carbon sink, enrichment plantations are also considered. They seek to introduce or increase the proportion of one or more species into the pre-existent forest. The overall aim is to increase the complexity of forest composition and structure, thus improving the resilience of forests to disturbances and taking advantage of the productive potential of the most favourable micro-sites (e.g. valley floors, ditches, affixed areas). Besides this, holm oak is planted for truffle production on former agricultural lands.

The INFORMA case study in the Segre-Rialb basin is led by CREAF (Ecological and Forestry Applications Research Centre) and Catalonia’s Forest Ownership Centre.

Forest fires near Valencia: “It’s not enough to control fires – we need prevention through Sustainable Forest Management”, says INFORMA coordinator

After the large forest fires that affected Begís (Alt Palancia) in the Region of Valencia, Spain, last September, another fire of great proportions already burned more than 4.000 hectares of forest in the province of Castellón since it broke out on Thursday last week.

In an interview with local media broadcaster À Punt, INFORMA’s coordinator and professor at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV) José Vicente Oliver highlighted the importance of Sustainable Forest Management to prevent forest fires. “We were warning that the area had a high risk of forest fire and, unfortunately, the forecast was fulfilled”, he said.

Large quantities of biomass such as dead trees and branches accumulated in forests in the interior districts of Castellón after heavy snowfalls in 2017. The fact that they remain without management has contributed to fueling and amplifying last week’s fires.

Oliver warned that once forest fires start to spread, they might be impossible to control, particularly under unstable wind conditions. However, he stressed that such fires can be avoided through investments in Sustainable Forest Management for fire prevention.

“If we put all our efforts into fire brigades and extinguishing fires but not in their prevention, it is difficult to act in an efficient manner, that is sustained through time. And it is hard to create a virtuous cycle where forest and agricultural management also benefit our communities”.

Read a summary of the interview or watch the video below (in Spanish).