Spontaneous forest expansion in the Mediterranean basin: Which policy mix maximizes ecosystem service provision and resilience at the landscape level?

In their latest Policy Direction, Varela and colleagues examine ecosystem services and ecosystem disservices of forests in the Mediterranean Basin and the policies influencing forest expansion.

This post is also available in Spanish here

Forests in the Mediterranean basin have been managed for millennia. They provide key ecosystem services (ES) to society and host within them high levels of biodiversity. Some of them depend on traditional agro-silvo-pastoral practices to support biodiversity and secure the provision of services. Indeed, multifunctionality is a salient feature of Mediterranean forests, where non-wood forest products and services may be as important for society, in terms of income and intangible cultural services, as a place for recreation and attachment.

Forests cover 88 million hectares in the Mediterranean basin, and this area has been expanding at a net rate of 0.85% per year since 1990. Today, forests occupy 21% of the entire region, with more than half of them located in Spain, France, Turkey and Italy.

Spontaneous forest expansion increases the supply of ES, although some ecosystem disservices (EDS) and trade-offs between ES also emerge. We reviewed the scientific evidence on the ES, EDS and trade-offs amongst different bundles of ES. Based on these findings, we provide policy recommendations to maximize landscape ES/EDS ratio.

Ecosystem services, disservices and trade-offs of spontaneous forest expansion

Soil retention and C sequestration in the form of tree biomass are the main services provided by new forests. In contrast, transpiration and rainfall interception by trees may result in negative balances in terms of water yield because of forest expansion. The increased aridity scenarios foreseen in the Mediterranean call for active management to minimise the risk of forest dieback due to the competition amongst trees for water and to guarantee water provisioning services to the population.

Forest expansion may represent an opportunity to reduce forest fragmentation and enhance the conservation of forest specialist species. Forest recovery in crop-dominated landscapes improves landscape diversity, while the opposite seems to hold when semi-natural grasslands or agroforestry mosaics are transformed into continuous forest stands.

Wildfires in five Euro-Mediterranean countries (France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) burn approximately 450,000 ha per year, representing 85% of the total burnt area in the entire European Union. The spontaneous forest expansion process creates favourable conditions for the spread of wildfires but, at present, active forest management practices are scarce in many parts of the Mediterranean. Such practices are urgently needed to reduce wildfire risk, improve water use efficiency, and reduce stand vulnerability.

Policy proposals

Forest-related issues in Europe are scattered among different sectoral interests with multiple competing objectives, which complicates the management of spontaneous forest expansion.

We advocate for policies geared towards creating landscapes resilient to concomitant risks, such as wildfires, while promoting forest value chains that stimulate active management for the provision of goods and services in addition to wood. Policy initiatives should endeavour to minimise socio-ecological damages and losses, adopting instead a territorial perspective beyond separate forest- and farm-based measures and payments.

We call for changes in the measures of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that finance forest and agroforestry-related activities. For example, they could shift from funding afforestation to stimulating competitiveness of the forest-related sector, its value chains, and the provision of environmental and climate services (e.g. soil protection, wildfire resilience). Additionally, the CAP direct payments could support multifunctional farming systems and track their expenditures to ensure they benefit biodiversity.

We propose a more balanced inclusion of different land uses in the EU Nature 2000 network. Together with an intensification of the support for High Nature Value farming in less-favoured areas, it would increase biodiversity while mitigating the risk factors associated with forest expansion.

Pulido blog 1
The recovery of a multifunctional landscape with a mosaic of forest and agricultural patches (olive groves in this case) would allow us to reduce wildfire risk. Extremadura, Western Spain. Photo: Fernando Pulido

A number of initiatives are emerging in the Mediterranean that exemplify our approach, e.g. the Mosaico project in Western Spain (Extremadura), where reactive measures are gradually being replaced by proactive approaches which involve the local population in the recovery of a productive rural mosaic , and where landscapes are redesigned for climate-smart and income generation purposes.

Read the full article, Targeted Policy proposals for managing spontaneous forest expansion in the Mediterranean, in Journal of Applied Ecology.

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