Enhancing Mediterranean Forest Management

Date: 24 April 2024

In November 2023, the Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF) in Barcelona summarized 10 science-based recommendations for enhancing the management of Mediterranean forests. These recommendations were presented at the European Parliament building in Brussels. They look at how local stakeholders can support forests in the South Mediterranean through science-based forest management – so that these forests can overcome the multiple challenges they currently face and can persist as living, evolving ecosystems that profoundly influence our environment, food and water availability, and health.

Dr. Teresa Gimeno is a researcher of plant ecophysiology at CREAF who focuses on the impact of different drivers of global change on vegetation functioning with a particular focus on forest ecosystems. She sat down with AMWAJ to discuss a host of topics from CREAF’s 10 science-based recommendations and the present-day challenges facing South Mediterranean forests to the impact of global changes on these forests and the kinds of nature-based solutions in forest management that could be implemented.

Question: What is the current state of forests in the Southern Mediterranean? What is the situation with regards to biodiversity and what challenges do these ecosystems face?

Answer: The first point I want to mention here is that individuals like us, living in the Mediterranean Basin, may have a certain perception of what forests look like. However, this perception may contradict the views of those living in the same Basin that rely on and use these forests. We have to keep in mind that we cannot separate ourselves from the landscape. We should not look at those forests with a sense of detachment, thinking, “there is the forest, and here are we”. We must recognize that we are part of it. I believe this is the foremost and most defining characteristic of our forest – they are profoundly intertwined with our history, our present and us. As members of societies living along the Mediterranean Basin, for millennia, we cannot simply perceive forests as an external issue; we are an integral part of it.

Regarding the current state, it is not fabulous. Firstly, the region is densely populated. This means that we demand a lot of space for us humans and for the infrastructure necessary to sustain our daily lives and activities. This includes essential services like water management, waste treatment facilities, transportation networks, and agricultural production. These demands impose significant disturbances on the environment, impacting the forests and their ecosystems.

The primary threat to our forests at present, particularly in the Mediterranean Basin, is all this change occurring in the region. However, in areas slightly further inland, towards continental regions, we observe a contrasting phenomenon. For example, in the Iberian Peninsula’s inner regions, there is a lot of rural abandonment. So, we are witnessing substantial increases in forested areas, as people are not using the land anymore for agriculture, so that means that forests are expanding in certain areas of the Mediterranean Basin.

Q: Can you elaborate on the impact of these changes on both urban and rural settings, as well as their implications on health, development, and water availability management?

A: You are highlighting some of the most significant impacts that forests have on our health and well-being, such as water cycles and climate regulation. Forests play a crucial role in conserving water, thanks to their ability to efficiently utilize it. The soil in forested areas acts as a reservoir, retaining water for extended periods. These slow infiltration processes ensure that water remains available during drier seasons in spring and summer when it is most needed. Therefore, water cycling stands out as one of the most critical ecosystem services provided by forests.

Forests play a crucial role in conserving water, thanks to their ability to efficiently utilize it.

Another direct effect forests have on our society and well-being is local climate regulation. Forests play a crucial role in this by utilizing water from the soil and returning it to the atmosphere through their foliage. In this process, forests also absorb heat. For instance, during heatwaves, forested surfaces aid in regulating the climate and mitigating the impact of extreme heatwave events.

Q: With the diverse range of forests in the Mediterranean, could you share a specific one you have researched?
A: Indeed, last year, in collaboration with institutions such as the University of Barcelona, and other colleagues, we conducted research examining the impact of different types of forests on local climate regulation during heatwaves. Our findings revealed significant differences depending on the forest type. For example, pine forests showed limited capacity in climate regulation compared to forests dominated by other species that are less conservative with water use.

However, even with the ideal forest type nearby, if there is insufficient water available in the soil, cooling the local climate will not happen. Without adequate soil moisture, the desired cooling effect cannot be achieved.

Q: Your research focuses on understanding the water needs of various plants and trees. Given climate change and rising water scarcity challenges, understanding tree water requirements is crucial. How much progress have we made in studying this aspect in the Mediterranean region?

A: There is a great initiative underway, led by a group here at CREAF, which has collected reliable data on the water requirements of trees from various regions worldwide. So, there is a lot of data available, but there are still gaps to be filled, particularly in other Mediterranean areas such as Morocco, Algeria, and underrepresented parts of Eastern Europe. Although conditions in these areas might be similar, we need concrete data.

We have made considerable progress in understanding tree water usage and weather conditions. We have data for numerous species, but there are still some species for which data is lacking. Likely, we have data for closely related species.

Even with the ideal forest type nearby, if there is insufficient water available in the soil, cooling the local climate will not happen. Without adequate soil moisture, the desired cooling effect cannot be achieved.

This initiative serves as a tool and a resource for academics. However, the knowledge gained from this endeavor is translated into more practical applications. For instance, we can use this information to assess specific regions, determining the tree population, their sizes, species composition, and the climate they are expected to encounter in the future. This positions us favorably to accurately predict the water usage of these trees.

Q: What are the practical implications of the recommendations? For instance, when considering nature-based solutions in forest management, could you provide an example?

A: One example that comes to mind is maximizing the diversity of species co-existing within a certain forest. This strategy can enhance the forest’s resilience and resistance to various threats such as wildfires or drought episodes. We can achieve this by combining species with deep-root systems with those having shallower roots. Through this, they use water from different water pools, meaning when one species draws water from deeper layers, it can facilitate moisture movement upward, benefiting the species with shallower root systems. Therefore, combining species composition within a forest setup can significantly aid in enhancing its resilience to drought conditions.

Q: Who should ideally be involved as stakeholders in forest management?

A: That is a great question, although it’s a bit outside my area of expertise, I’ll try to answer. From my perspective, I believe that public administrations should bear the primary responsibility for implementing such policies. Additionally, we need to create incentives for individuals. Here in Spain, specifically in Catalonia, some forests are publicly managed but owned by private individuals. Many of these owners prioritize investment, so they are not going to prioritize policies that require lengthy implementation. This is where public administrations need to find solutions, likely based on economic incentives, to facilitative policy implementation.

Certain regions, such as some areas in the Basque Country, are beginning to consider such concepts. However, to my knowledge, such policies have not yet been implemented in practice with tangible results.

Q: Do you think there is sufficient awareness regarding the importance of forests, as well as the impact that climate change has on them?

A: The vast majority of us barely think about forests unless they are prominently featured in the news. I don’t believe there is enough awareness of the critical importance of forests.

CREAF_Decalogue 10-proposals-Med-forests_Copyright image Laura Fraile
Decalogue of 10 proposals for Mediterranean forests management. Illustration: Laura Fraile.

Q: Where do you see the role of the state in allocating resources for forest management?

A: Currently in Spain, there is an important initiative underway, aimed at stabilizing the employment of forest managers. Often, these individuals are just hired on short-term contracts, which limits their ability to implement certain practices. There is a bigger movement towards changing that and – as you said – that needs to be allocating funds to cover the salaries of these workers. It also requires a paradigm shift, instead of thinking about it in the way that when there is a fire, firefighters have to be called to put it out and then you forget about it. No, no. This is going to be a big problem unless we address the issue with a long-term perspective. I don’t feel like we are currently tackling the issue of sustainable forest management beyond fire prevention.

There is progress in the prevention of wildfires, in the right direction but we are taking baby steps. However, to truly maximize the provision of forest service and enhance forest resilience, we need to adopt a more holistic approach. Currently, our focus is still limited, but it is a step in the right direction.

Q: CREAF presented the forest management recommendations to the European Parliament. Are there any efforts at the European level in that regard?

A: You are addressing a very important issue. It is essential to perceive the Mediterranean Basin as a diverse system, particularly from a sociological perspective. There are significant differences not only between countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, and Albania but there are even more disparities between countries like Italy and Algeria or Tunisia, all of which are part of the Mediterranean. Therefore, it is probably a bit naïve to simply draft recommendations that advocate for managing forests for multifunctionality without considering these diverse sociological contexts. For example, when we consider a forest surrounded by areas recently affected by a disaster like an earthquake, such as what occurred in Morocco, the local population’s immediate priority is often rebuilding their house. In such situations, they are going to cut whatever tree they have nearby. Therefore, it is essential to integrate a little bit more local knowledge and understand the social background to effectively implement certain policies outside the EU.

Here at CREAF, we see the European Parliament as a good starting point for our initiative. We need to be ambitious in this setting. Europe is positioning itself as some kind of leader in the fight against climate change and the preservation of biodiversity. If we are not ambitious in presenting these recommendations to the European Parliament, we will not be ambitious anywhere else. We bear a big responsibility, as Europeans, for the degradation of ecosystems, both within our continent and beyond. So, we have to start by fixing our own house. This combination of policies is ambitious yet grounded in scientific knowledge. Each recommendation has been thought through very thoroughly based on years of research involving many researchers. I think they are a great compilation from which we can adapt and tailor strategies to specific contexts. While we seek to maximize multifunctionality, we must remain aware of the unique challenges and circumstances present in each context.

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