Wilderness Policy

Percentage of European forest cover is misguiding information

Our planet is at the edge of ecological collapse. One of the fundamental reasons is several centuries of deforestation and timber oriented forest management. Around the world, many forests are shrinking due to deforestation, urban development and climate change. However, in Europe as a whole, this trend is reversed. European forests currently cover around 1 000 million hectares. This is about 30 times the size of Poland and 42% of Europe´s total land area.

Between 1990 and 2015, the area covered by forests and woodlands increased by 90,000 square kilometres – an area roughly the size of Portugal.

Simultaneously with these kind of positive messages in Europe, we are both living in a period with the most intense impact on the natural environment. Consequently, European forests are dying at an unprecedented scale and speed. It seems that even complex, sophisticated forestry legislation is failing to deal with this precedence.

These kind of controversial messages have been flying around in the last few months all over the Europe. So what is the truth? What is behind these kinds of completely controversial messages?

Size versus quality

The reasons for this communication inconsistency are simple: history of forest use in Europe, current climate extremes and century-long forest mismanagement.

Firstly, we have to understand that the percentage of forest coverage in each European country is only one indicator that is often communicated. Other, much more important indicators, are forest tree species composition and forest age structure related to forest quality. These two additional aspects are often not communicated publicly and also neglected in daily forest management. As a consequence, the controversial messages regarding European forests are widely spreading throughout Europe.

Challenges of European forest

If we look more carefully at European forests, while considering these new aspects, the result is striking. The majority of European forests consist of non-native tree species. This means not native and relevant in the particular locality, e.g. originally mixed forest is replaced by conifer forest or multi-age forest is replaced by a monoculture.

These changes are so significant that in some parts of Europe native tree species has beed replaced by non-native tree species already several centuries ago, for example in Germany and Austria, but also in Slovakia. While forest management in the last decades at least tried to imitate natural principles and plant native tree species for a particular locality, the second aspect, healthy forest age structure is even more rare in man-made forests.

Violent forest history

The conclusion is that due to violent forest history in Europe, tree species composition and age structure are very rarely publicly communicated. This is striking because these are much more important aspects than just pure percentage of forest cover per country. The reality is that particularly in Central and Southern Europe, forests completely lost their native species composition and structure. A critically important aspect is that forest must be resistant to climatic fluctuations.

It seems that the European forest is at the edge of complete disintegration. Current generations are facing the most violent forest destruction in human history. Sad is that all current changes in forest ecosystems are without doubt, and we can say it without any hesitation, caused by man.

Vlado Vancura
European Wilderness Society Deputy Director

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