European Forests

A common heritage but no common policy

While many European forests are slowly recovering from centuries of overexploitation, hardly any primary forest is left on the continent, and species dependent on mature forest and dead wood are often threatened or heavily depleted.

Europe’s forests offer a plethora of ecosystem services to society, e.g. timber, recreation, biodiversity and carbon storage. Forests and forest management, however, face a variety of challenges due to ecological and socio-economic developments, such as climate change and an increasing demand for wood from the bioenergy sector. Although these challenges affect forests all over Europe, no common forest policy exists at EU level to date. Instead, forest and forestry issues are addressed and influenced by several EU policies in the environmental, agricultural and energy fields.

BirdLife Europe works on policies in the fields of energy, agriculture and biodiversity to ensure that the pursuit of other political aims, like food security or renewable energy, happens without further degradations of Europe’s forests and that efforts to improved forest biodiversity are increased.

Legally binding agreement on forests in Europe

Forest Europe (the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe comprising of 46 countries and the EU) announced its decision to produce a Legally Binding Agreement on Forests (LBA-f) in Europe in June 2011 to legally support the sustainable management of Europe’s forests.

BirdLife Europe welcomed the concept of the LBA as a common legal basis for the protection and management of Europe’s forests, but at the same time said that it would only support a text that ensures multi-functionality, long-term sustainability and the protection of biodiversity.

BirdLife Europe advocates an agreement involving all the relevant stakeholders and incorporating well-defined and countable indicators and a monitoring scheme. To ensure effective sustainability, these will have to be in line with the new EU Forest Strategy and the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy targets, such as halting the deterioration of forest species status or restoring degraded forest ecosystems.

The LBA will also have to comprise sustainable criteria for the production and consumption of forest biomass, so biomass energy will contribute to climate change mitigation without reducing forest ecosystem services.

EU Forest Strategy

The EU Forest Strategy aims to be a framework for forest-related EU action in support of sustainable forest management. The Strategy mostly relies on willingness of Member States to take action or on legal tools of the EU in other fields of policy, since the EU itself doesn’t have direct competence in forest policies.

BirdLife Europe has been actively engaging in the drafting of a new EU Forest Strategy, published in 2013. BirdLife advocated for ensuring that the Strategy results in a real improvement of forest governance across the EU, in improved environmental conditions of Europe’s forests and addressing the growing demand on wood products.

While the Strategy is a signal of EU willingness to do better in protecting its forests, at the same time it lacks proposals for concrete action. The strategy also failed to address the conflicts arising from the increasing demands on forests from different sectors, notably the growing demand in biomass from the energy sector.

Current laws on forests are too weak to manage these threats and they are therefore unable to protect the forests. Existing instruments already fail to provide a coherent and a robust policy framework for forests.

This was also highlighted by the Commission’s own study on “EU policy options for the protection of European forests against harmful impacts”, which examined in detail the future challenges for European forests and the forestry sector. It concluded that the challenges ahead ask for a more coherent policy approach to European forest protection and forest management. This challenge still remains.

Rural development measures for forests

Forests and other wooded land cover more than 40% of the EU land area. These areas are managed mostly primarily for wood production, while management which enhances other forest functions (biodiversity or ecosystem services) is limited. The reason for this trend is that wood products provide a direct income for the forest owner, while the rest of forest services provide mainly public goods (habitat for species, water storage, climate change mitigation, health support, etc.).

The Rural Development Regulation (RDR), also known as Pillar II of the Common Agriculture Policy, is meant to address current and future environmental challenges and ensure consistency between EU policies (eg. 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, Strategy on Climate Change, etc.).

Forest owners and forest managers should be supported to increase the sustainability of their management practices, including management of forests. Sound safeguards are nevertheless needed against perverse incentives and to ensure that public funding really delivers on the objectives set for its use.

European Union member countries still use a very limited share of the rural development funding to improve the environmental status and management of forests. BirdLife Europe and its Partners are actively working on rural development funding and related plans at both EU and national level to ensure appropriate environmental safeguards.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.

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