Developing an innovative, sustainable bioeconomy is one of Europe’s key strategies in the global quest of tackling climate change and complying with the UN’s SDGs. In the big scheme European forestry is expected to be playing a major role in providing raw materials and services. In fact, Europe plantation forestry already plays a significant role in meeting environmental, economic and climate needs. However, further investments could enhance these contributions.
But what is the real description of a plantation forest? According to the definition adopted by FAO in its ongoing Global Forest Resource Assessment, applied to the European context, plantation forests would be those “predominantly composed of trees established through planting and/or deliberate seeding and which are being actively managed for provisioning services, climate regulation or both. Forests established only by natural regeneration, planted forests that are left unmanaged, and forests that are managed mainly for purposes other than provisioning services and climate regulation are not considered plantation forests”.
Therefore, this definition excludes the extensive areas of semi-natural and natural woodland in Europe which may have been planted but which now have little or no management. In Europe, in the late 1800s and 1900s a significant proportion of forests were planted to supply timber and to protect soil, but now those areas are not being sustainably managed if managed at all.
Sustainable Forest Management implies keeping the balance between ecological, economic, and socio-cultural pillars to provide integrated benefits that include safeguarding local livelihoods, protecting biodiversity and ecosystems provided by forests, enhancing rural quality of life and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
Often, plantations forests are focused on wood production, but they can have a positive environmental impact, i.e. providing ecosystem services or having a mitigating effect on global warming. Trees are long-lived and slow growing and the final harvest of plantation forests usually occurs several years after establishment, but there are short rotation species such as poplars that can be harvested after a 15-year period, once the tree has reached maturity.
According to EFI’s publication “Plantation forests in Europe: challenges and opportunities”: “In many regions, land-use mosaics incorporating forest plantations are highly effective in enhancing ecological integrity and in tackling climate and environmental challenges. Forest plantations are often a significant component of landscape-scale restoration and can bring degraded land back into production and improve the provision of ecosystem services. If managed well, forest plantations have the potential to sustainably supply a substantial proportion of the goods and services required by society, and therefore allow other forest areas to be managed for conservation and protection objectives”.