26 June 2013

Diana Tuomasjukka: taking care of forest futures

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Reaching forest sustainability is a challenge that could benefit from recently developed modelling tools designed to assist policy makers in their decisions

European forests are expected to supply us with woodchips, paper and timber but also harbour biodiversity and access for recreational activities.  Working out how decisions affect social, economic and environmental roles of forestry is not straightforward. But an EU funded project called EFORWOOD, completed in 2009, helped produce a decision support tool for the forestry sector.  Diana Tuomasjukka, a senior forestry researcher at the European Forest Institute in Joensuu, Finland, who specialises in sustainability impact modelling, talks about how such decision support tools can help decide which paths to sustainability are best followed and how to balance the various demands placed on forests today.

What trends have you seen in forests and the changing demands Europeans have as consumers?
In general I would say the demands on forestry are increasing. There is demand for providing material for bioenergy, for nature conservation, for recreation, for having forests that are accessible and open and nice to spend time in. And there is demand for protection functions of forests, such as water, soil and erosion protection. So that is one reason assessments that take a broad view are increasingly important.

In the light of such trends, does European forestry risk being unsustainable?
I don’t think so at all.  European forests are carefully managed, and gains in timber exceed the amount that gets harvested.  But there are different perceptions of what sustainable means.  A common definition is that it is behaviour that does not deplete resources we have now for future generations. This also includes environmental functions like biodiversity and social functions like recreation and economic functions that serve the forest-based sector.

What did the project achieve and what happened since its completion?
This was the first time the whole forest sector came together at European level. And this project was very important for communication and creating a network.  Since then we followed up with other projects resulting in software called ToSIA .  With this tool, we can ask how sustainability is affected by deliberate actions or outside forces.  So you can ask for example what effects climate change will have on the forest value chains. It quantifies effects and helps decision makers by comparing different options or scenarios.

Why are such tools necessary?
One difficulty with sustainability is there is no absolute value, so it is very difficult to say whether something is sustainable or not, but it is easier to say if something is more or less sustainable, so we always compare between two options. Decision makers could for example compare two or more alternatives.  And we can quantify for each of them effects on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, employment, recreational use or water use.  These tools quantify effects and it is up to decision makers then to decide preferences or trade-offs.

Could you provide examples of how these tools been used in specific locations or to address specific questions?
We had an interesting case study looking at the Sami people in Sweden. We looked at how changes in forestry can affect their reindeer husbandry as well as the local forestry industry.  There was a comparison between keeping the status quo, more reindeer friendly forest management and more nature conservation in management to see if we could satisfy multiple objectives. A forest management policy was then implemented to allow for good conditions for reindeer husbandry as well as keeping good biodiversity in the forests.

We also looked at the Cairngorm National Park in Scotland to assess expansion of various forest activities and to take into account different user groups such as birdwatchers, mountain bikers and walkers.  We examined various management scenarios and the results were discussed with various stakeholders. The results contributed to a national plan drawn up for the park last year.

There was another interesting case related to newspapers consumption.  Often when you do assessment you start from the forest.  But we had an Iberian case study which was consumption driven. So it asked what would happen to upstream processes, be it in plantations, forest management or imports, if newspaper consumption increases or decreases. We looked at the demand for raw materials from the forests in both scenarios.

Why is it important to look at the impact of climate change and how might climate change impact on European forestry?
These tools allow us assess what the impact of climate change will be and we know the impact will be different in the different regions. So if you want to look at the impact in southern Europe, it will most likely be shortage of water or increased fire risk. The effects in central Europe will be more storms or changes regards suitability of species. In Scandinavia it could mean a shift in species suitability and more central European problems, like increased risk of insect infestations from pests like pine beetles.

Who are the users of these new decision support tools?
For now it is mainly research institutes who are using these tools but we have a growing number of SMEs that are getting also interested.  Local government, national parks, policymakers and others are interested in the results of the analysis, rather than the tools. Currently those who are making the decision do not use the tools but they do need the results. 

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