European Wilderness Society

Evolution of Forests in the Alpine Valleys North of Tamsweg in Austria

This post and maps are created by Aurélien Rinaudo.

10,000 years ago, humans began to settle down gradually. With this sedentarization, they transitioned from a diet based on hunting and gathering to one they produced themselves. This lifestyle change led humans to modify their environment to make it more favorable for their needs. Gradually, they started clearing forests, draining marshes, and so on to create agricultural lands. These actions significantly transformed our landscapes.

Starting from the Middle Ages, the growing European population led to more forests being cleared for agriculture. Monks often initiated these clearings, seeking to settle in isolated places. Subsequently, populations moved into these cleared areas. By the late 19th century, 80% of the European population lived in rural areas (compared to 27.5% in 2020). Agricultural activities, which required a lot of labor, meant that most people lived in the countryside. All available lands were exploited, even up to the highest summits. For example, in the Alps, it was common to harvest hay in mountainous areas inaccessible to animals. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, the demand for labor in cities increased, while technological advancements allowed the same work to be done with fewer people. After World War II, a significant transition occurred, notably impacting our agricultural landscapes. The war accelerated technological progress, leading to the mechanization of agriculture. To make mechanization profitable, larger fields and flat areas were needed, altering the landscapes. In France, for example, campaigns to remove hedgerows were conducted, which significantly changed the territory. Agricultural practices that required more labor became unprofitable and were abandoned. This agricultural decline allowed forests to reclaim previously cultivated lands in some areas. Mountain landscapes were particularly affected since many areas were not suitable for mechanization and thus became unprofitable.

We will now examine, through maps, the evolution of forest cover between 1910 and today in the valleys north of Tamsweg in the Salzburg region of Austria. The maps below were created based on historical maps from 1910, 1960, and the present day.

By Aurélien Rinaudo

Above, we observe the evolution of forests between 1910 and 1960. The forested areas did not change significantly between these two periods. Overall, the forested areas are similar, with a slight trend toward forest expansion, but this remains relatively minor. In some areas, there is even a slight decrease in forest cover. These differences may be explained partly by mapping methods, as the observed variations are relatively small. There might also be some form of agricultural decline in these regions. The increased demand for wood may have impacted forest areas or at least their representation. There is no significant difference between these two periods.

By Aurélien Rinaudo

Above, we observe the evolution of forests between 1960 and today. While there were no significant changes between 1910 and 1960, here we can see that the forest has significantly expanded. Overall, the forest has spread around its existing areas and into larger spaces, such as the southeast of the map. This highlights the agricultural decline that has occurred since the 1960s. However, in some areas, there is a noticeable decrease in forest cover, such as in the northwest of our map. This could be due to more intensive wood exploitation in these areas or a higher levels of agricultural activity. 

Since the mid-20th century, with what was called the “green revolution,” landscapes have undergone significant transformations. The return of forests in the Alpine landscapes is partly due to agricultural decline. The cessation of agricultural activities allowed forests to reclaim some lost lands. However, this is not the only reason for forest expansion; climate change also enables forests to grow at higher altitudes, among other factors to be studied. This factor does not influence our map interpretations as our observations are mainly at mid-altitude (a more detailed map would be needed to show this). Today, agricultural practices have stabilized, supported by financial aid for pastoral practices like alpine grazing, which helps maintain these areas and partly prevents forest encroachment. These landscapes have evolved significantly over the centuries. While we focus on forests here, other aspects like urban development have also changed dramatically, impacting the landscape.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *