Forests produce wood, mitigate climate change, protect against natural hazards, filter water, conserve soil and provide recreational space. They are important habitats and contribute to the aesthetic of the landscape. These ecosystem services are often available for free, even if it costs something to provide them. Most importantly, forests cannot provide all services indefinitely and simultaneously.
The trend towards a more sustainable economy (see SNSF press release on the conclusion of NRP 73) and energy supply, but also the climate and biodiversity crises, will further increase the demand of forest services. Additionally, the demands on the forest are often in conflict with each other, as illustrated by the frequent criticism of timber harvesting in local recreational forests.
Recognising forest services
As part of the research programme "Sustainable Economy" (NRP 73), four WSL researchers have investigated possible solutions for forest management. WSL environmental economist Roland Olschewski wanted to find out whether beneficiaries of improved protective services provided by the forest would be willing to pay something for them. A survey of the population in mountain areas revealed in some cases a high willingness to pay for additional forest management that increases natural hazard protection - beyond what is required by law. This shows that such "insurance products" could certainly create new sources of income for forest owners. The key challenge here is to bring together a sufficiently large group of agents to participate in the permanent provision and financing of such additional protection services.
Tamaki Ohmura and Tobias Schulz of the Environmental and Resource Economics Research Group explored which compensation services forest owners would provide in return for payment, such as nature conservation measures in the forest, that are implemented instead of reforestation after forest clearance. This is particularly attractive for owners of large forests (for example communes); private owners of small parcels tended to reject this type of compensation. Forest management for carbon storage also tends to be met with scepticism, compared to climate protection measures that can substitute fossil materials (construction timber, energy wood). The two WSL researchers conclude from this that forest owners are only prepared to a limited extent to meet compensation claims from other sectors, especially not at the expense of wood production.
Esther Thürig, head of the WSL Resource Analysis Group, worked on a practical solution for forest managers: she developed a prototype of a decision support tool that simulates the need for forest services and corresponding conflicts for different management practices. This makes it possible to demonstrate impacts on forest services even before harvesting and to facilitate the prioritisation of different services. Among other things, the model shows that in most cases there tend to be fewer forest services without management than with it.
Considering forest services when making decisions
The results show the difficult decisions that forest managers are faced with, given the increasing demands of a sustainable economy and simultaneous uncertainty due to climate change.
For the forest sector to be an important and successful part of a sustainable economy, forest services should be given greater consideration in political, economic and social decision-making, the researchers emphasise in a policy brief. Awareness of the various forest services, the costs of their provision and possible conflicts must be raised among the public, but also among politicians and, to some extent, among the forestry sector itself. Since forest services are partly in competition with each other, clear goals and priorities must be set as to where the forest should best fulfil which services. This also requires targeted policy tools, which may include subsidies or incentive schemes, to ensure that forest services are available at the right time, in the right place and in the desired quantity.
About the NRP 73
The National Research Programme "Sustainable Economy" (NRP 73) was launched by the Federal Council in mid-2017 with a total budget of CHF 20 million for a research period of five years. It finances 29 research projects in subject areas such as the circular economy, finance, construction, cities and mobility, forestry, agriculture and food, supply chains, sustainable behaviour and governance. The goal of NRP 73 is to gain scientific knowledge about a sustainable economy that uses natural resources sparingly, creates prosperity and strengthens the competitiveness of Switzerland as a business location.
WSL participated with three projects: