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The (hi)story about Europeans and their forests

Below is a short story of how sustainable forest management changed the destiny of European forests, and how it will help to address challenges in the future. Scientific and historical accounts are used to piece together an indicative chronology of the relationship between forests and people in Europe. 

By Mr. Roman Michalak

Forestry Officer, UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section

The beginning

Though forests are often perceived as almost eternal they are relatively young in Europe: the first forest formations appeared less than 400 million years ago. One third of the continent was covered with ice just 22,000 years ago, while most of the remaining land was occupied by tundra and steppe. With the retreat of the ice sheet and the development of warmer and moister climatic conditions, around 11,000 years ago, forests started to spread throughout Europe. Europeans, at that time hunters and gatherers, made limited use of their forests, with very little impact on them, although they sometimes used fire to clear forests for crops and to create openings to hunt game species.

From the Neolithic to the Middle Ages

The expansion of forest area inevitably conflicted with the development of civilization, which in the period of the Neolithic Revolution was moving from hunting and gathering to agriculture. In Europe communities started to develop farming around 9,000 years ago, which was a turning point in the relationship between humans and forests. With the growth of human population and settlements, pressure on forests locally increased. Forests were seen as the main “source” of new land for crop production and grazing as well as the main “supply” of wood, the basic material for building shelters, tools and the main fuel.

Despite the clearing of the Mediterranean region (begun around 5,000 years ago), 80% of the continent was still covered with forests at the onset of the Common Era. The distribution and intensity of the deforestation process was uneven - in Central Europe deforestation occurred in early medieval times, and later in Northern-Eastern Europe. At that time, deforestation was not perceived as a negative process and often abundance of forest was an indicator of socio-economic underdevelopment. Forest management was primarily limited to the exploitation of resources, and the first protective activities focused on the preservation of hunting and fishing territories and some strategic resources, like yew trees - basic material for the production of bows.

With the growth of European population the demand for agricultural land and raw material increased, leading to the continuous decrease of forest areas. The loss was particularly harmful as specific, fertile forest types were those which were first converted to agricultural use. It is estimated that forest coverage reached its lowest level in the 18th century, when forests covered less than one tenth of the continent’s land area.

The industrial revolution: decline and recovery

The lowest coverage of forests, which were often degraded by overexploitation, coincided with the rapidly growing population and economies of the 18th century. Although, in this period many traditional uses of wood were replaced by other materials (such us iron and coal), wood still remained a major construction material, and was used for mining and as a fuel for metal smelting. The growing demand and danger of extinction of forests led to action, which can be seen as the roots of sustainable forest management.

Managers realized that forest resources are limited and cannot be regenerated in a short time. The concept of modern forest management, which started at the beginning of the 18th century, recognized that the regeneration cycle in forestry is long (often longer than 100 years). Management and harvesting activities need to take into account the availability of wood over the whole productive period. In practice, it meant that forests had to be used evenly over the whole productive cycle, and any harvest had to be followed by regeneration of the removed resource, in order to maintain the productive potential and preserve the future harvest. 

At its onset, the concept of forest management focused mainly on production aspects, while other functions such as natural hazard mitigation or biodiversity conservation were not accounted for. New forests were often monocultures planted without respect to the natural adaptation to a particular landscape, making many managed forests vulnerable to outbreaks and natural threats. Nevertheless, new forests addressed the primary goal for which they were established – to provide raw-material on a sustainable basis.

Modern forest management was not universally understood and applied evenly in different parts of the continent and not all negative impacts had been addressed promptly. However, the process of restoration of European forests had begun. Since that time, sustainable forest management has been evolving, increasingly addressing and including a variety of social and environmental aspects, essential for maintaining healthy and resilient forests able to address needs of the society.

European forests in the XX century

The restoration process was hampered by the two world wars. Forests were destroyed not only as a result of direct military activities, but also they were affected by the increased demand for material for war purposes and shortage of fossil resources. Intensive use of forests also continued after the wars, due to the reconstruction processes. However, immediately after World War II major afforestation efforts were undertaken in many European countries to compensate war time losses and to achieve timber self-sufficiency. Increasing forest area was possible as a result of the growing awareness in society of the importance of forests, but also because of increasing efficiency in agriculture, which meant that less land was needed for production. This was also the time when UNECE and FAO joined their efforts to promote forest management in Europe. The joint session of the UNECE Timber Committee and FAO European Forestry Commission, held in 1947 is considered as the corner stone of this action.

The rapid growth of European forest area observed in the first two decades after World War II has slowed down since the beginning of the 1970s. The slowdown can be explained by the exhaustion of the “pool” of land designated for reforestation and by increasing competition with other land uses, such as agriculture and urban development. By end of the 20th century, as a result of the afforestation and conservation efforts, forests in Europe covered 35 percent of the land area.

European forests now 

Forest area has also been increasing at the beginning of the current century, and grew by almost 8 million ha – an area equivalent to the size of the Czech Republic – between 2000 and 2010. This growth, as well as the maintenance of existing forest is carried out according to the principles of sustainable forest management, which in addition to the economic dimension of forest production, also addresses environmental and social aspects of development.

At present, European forests are in general diversified and better prepared for addressing the needs of a contemporary society; although they are still often fragmented and vulnerable. While the area of forests protected for biodiversity is increasing, forests in Europe fully satisfy the demand for timber, indeed they export to other regions more than they import. Sustainably managed forests provide amongst other things, clean air and clean water generally free of cost. European forests are in most cases accessible for society and managed in a way that makes them suitable for touristic and leisure activities. They remain a major and still growing reservoir of terrestrial carbon, while they still provide a significant source of employment and revenue.

Addressing the challenges

The successful reforestation and recovery of European forests does not conclude this story; there are still numerous challenges resulting from past use as well as from changing climatic, economic, social and environmental conditions and ever evolving needs and expectations. European forests are often fragmented. Increasingly forest owners are losing interest in their management and the forest workforce is aging and shrinking. Working in the forests is no longer perceived as an attractive job. Biodiversity conservation is still a concern and it is hard to predict how European forests will be affected by climate change, and how they should be managed in order minimize the possible impact while securing the ecosystem services provided by the forest.

The UNECE and FAO continue to work to address all the emerging challenges, by further developing and implementing sustainable forest management. Their joint programme ensures that European forests and their health continue to be monitored, their economic, social and environmental challenges addressed, and policies developed.

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© United Nations Economic Commissions for Europe – 2013