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Multifunctional forests

22/11/2018 | Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung

Timber production, recreation, carbon storage - forests have a lot on their plate. A study now reveals that diverse and old forests generally fare best in terms of services they provide.


European forests have a lot on their plate: they are supposed to produce timber, offer spaces for recreation and store carbon. A new study by scientists of University of Bern and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre now reveals, that forests with old trees, many different shrub species, and gaps in the canopy may be best suited to achieve this. This indicates how forestry may be optimized. However the ‘perfect forest’ does not exist, making compromises inevitable the researchers write in the journal “Nature Communications”.

The main objective of forestry in Europe is usually timber production but some are managed more for other purposes, such as habitat conservation or recreation. All of these forests have something in common: while they fulfill their main purpose,they could also perform many other services much better. Previously, it was not clear how to manage forests to provide this wide range of benefits.

“Forests with old trees, many different shrub species, and a heterogeneous structure, including gaps, are best able to perform many different – but not all possible – services”, says Dr. Peter Manning of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, an author of the study.

In a previous study a research team including Manning had revealed that few forests in Central Europe supply multiple services at high levels at the same time. In the current study the researchers took a closer look at these forests. They measured 14 different forest attributes such as the number of tree and shrub species the forest contained, how variable its physical structure was and how old the trees were. Afterwards they identified which of these attributes promote specific services.

The study has practical management implications for foresters who seek to create more more multifunctional forests. The lead author of the study, María Felipe-Lucia from the of the University of Bern, says: "Diverse and old forests generally fare best in terms of services they provide. Depending on which services they want to promote, foresters should, however, concentrate on specific forest attributes."

Using a new approach the reserachers also investigated trade-offs and synergies between forest attributes and the services they underpin. One useful synergy occurs as the trees get older: increases in carbon storage are linked to a higher potential for birdwatching. But the study also shows that some compromises are unavoidable, Conifer forests, for example, produce a lot of timber but store less carbon and harbor fewer culturally useful plants than other forests.

The study’s senior author, Eric Allan from the University of Bern, Institute of Plant Sciences, adds: "Our results show that promoting certain forest attributes is good for a lot of services but there is no forest type that can deliver all of the service we might want. We therefore probably want a mixed management system where we design diverse forest landscapes which contain a mix of patches with different attributes."

Original publication

Felipe-Lucia, M.R.et al. (2018): Multiple forest attributes underpin the supply of multiple ecosystem services. Nature Communications, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-07082-4.

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Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (SGN)
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