European forests: quantity without quality
The conservation status of many forest species of European concern continues to be very poor; a characteristic example is the old-growth boreal forests in which about 1.000 species are at serious extinction risk in the long term (Exploitation of high biodiversity forest). The persistent poor conservation status of many forest species of European concern is directly related to the small numbers of remaining old growth forests : 18% of European forests are older than 80 years, and there is no reliable data for forests of more than 120 years. Forests undisturbed by humans (wilderness areas) are estimated to amount to a mere 4% of forest areas in Europe; in the EU these are mainly located in Bulgaria and Romania. A goal of 10% of strictly protected areas in Europe could be a good starting point for ensuring good conservation status for forest species and habitats.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 proposes the sustainable management of forests as the only method to enhance the contribution of forestry in the protection of forest biodiversity, while not putting sufficient emphasis on the crucial role of strictly protected core areas for improving in the conservation status of forest species and habitats. According to the EEA, although most European forests are heavily exploited, the current total wood harvest remains well below the annual re-growth. In some EU Member States forest management techniques have also improved over the years (e.g. Germany, Belgium, Sweden or Finland). Here attention is now also being given to soil protection, water storage or reduced use of pesticides. However, in most cases the core objectives of management, i.e. wood production, mainly remain the same, even within Natura 2000 sites. In most cases the obligation to develop specific Natura 2000 management plans as a tool for reaching conservation objectives, is not fulfilled, and conservation management remains secondary to other targets (Exploitation of high biodiversity forest). Some EU Member States have invested in preventive protection measures (e.g. Cyprus and France against forest fires), but in other cases protection measures are also used to justify intensive logging and harvesting (e.g. Latvia or Slovakia).
It is important for the new EU 2020 Forest Strategy and Action Plan to include agreed EU definitions and guidelines for Sustainable Forest Management, combined with an evaluation framework. This policy should also explore options for payments for ecosystem services in order to reward ecosystem conservation.
Finally, questions on the sustainable management of EU forests and its effects on biodiversity, will remain unanswered as long as a reliable and long-term common forest information scheme is not developed and adopted by all EU Member States.