Ecosystem services of alpine rivers

Only 14% of alpine rivers are in a good ecological state, according to a brochure of the project “Strategic Planning for Alpine River Ecosystems” (SPARE). Climate overheating impacts sensitive river ecosystems much stronger than other regions. Therefore, the general director of the Alpine Convention, Markus Reiterer, stresses the immense importance of trans-alpine co-operation. In particular, to preserve the many ecosystem services that healthy rivers provide for our society.

The SPARE project is one such example of trans-alpine co-operation. Over the past three years it has been developing and testing methods for sustainable river management. The project partners worked on the methods in five pilot regions across Europe: Dora Baltea in Italy, Drôme in France, Inn-Engadin in Switzerland, Soča in Slovenia and Steyr in Austria.

Involving the local public in the process of jointly working on development goals is particularly important, says Christine Ehrenhuber, moderator of the participation process in the pilot region of Steyr (Austria). In total 435 people are involved in the various activities. These include youth summer camps, personal meetings, public penals and workshops, as well as thematic commissions. Raising the awareness for the many ecosystem services intact river ecosystems provide, for example they are the most essential part of a long-lasting and effective flood protection, is also an essential part of the work of the European Wilderness Society.

WILDRiver Tagliamento
WILDRiver Tagliamento

An outcome of the SPARE project was the “My River Kit” Toolbox. This toolbox makes it possible to experience different situations necessary for a sustainable life and economy along alpine rivers. This is done based on a journey along a fictional river.

Understanding the importance of ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are the benefits humans gain freely from an ecosystem, for example rivers provide protection against floods. SPARE project partners presented the results of the project in Innsbruck at the end of November. The topic of ecosystem services, which play a crucial role for the quality of our life,  linked the SPARE project with the AlpES project. AlpES is also trans-alpine, and aims to strengthen the importance and appreciation of ecosystem services within the regional and alpine-wide environmental policy. For example, one focus of AlpES was on the protective function of forests. In particular in the case of avalanches, landslides and rockfalls. Other AlpES project partners worked on the services provided by rivers and alpine pastures giving us clean water, energy and food.

One of the manifold values of Wilderness is the high amount of ecosystem services it provides for society. Next to clean air and water, undeveloped and wild nature is able to store a high amount of carbon. 

Innovative project communication

Both of the mentioned projects, SPARE and AlpES, decided to present the results of their work in an interactive way. The project team of AlpES published a WebGIS-map and an online encyclopedia, called WikiAlps, for ecosystem service in the alpine region. The encyclopedia will also be available online after the project is finished. The team of SPARE decided to present their project results with photo books, video interviews and a webvideo. These channels further explain the importance of rivers for the society of the alpine region in an understandable way. Social Media and Newsletter played important roles in both projects as well to keep people up to date.

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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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