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The history of forest monitoring

Christian Barthod (CGEDD) and Guy Landmann (GIP ECOFOR) take the floor

A Historical Perspective of Forest Monitoring and the RENECOFOR Network


The European networks for forest monitoring of so-called levels 1 and 2 and their French extensions - the systematic network for forest health monitoring (16 x 16 km) and the RENECOFOR network - were respectively put into place in 1988/89 and 1992. Today, 25-30 years later, they are still operational. The initial concern over a possible massive decline in European forests due to atmospheric pollution ("acid rain"), which reached a peak in the 1980s, was already subsiding in 1985/86 thanks to regional networks which had been set up in several countries (for example, the "blue network" in France) and to national monitoring networks (though scales varied greatly). However, networks which were both representative of and comparable among countries were lacking. The two European networks were set up thanks largely to:

  • A "win-win" agreement with the UN programme for European forest monitoring, "ICP Forests" (the International Co-operative Programme on Assessment and Monitoring of Air Pollution Effects on Forests under the Convention on Long-range Trans-boundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)), (aka the Geneva Programme, piloted by Germany and the European Commission;
  • The dynamism created by the first Ministerial Conference on Forest Protection in Europe (MCPFE) (Strasbourg, 1990).

In France, Maruice Bonneau, then head of the DEFORPA (FORest DEcline and Atmospheric Pollution) research programme, was convinced that a long-term forest monitoring programme which was compatible with research procedures was of interest. He pushed for the creation of the French intensive monitoring network (RENECOFOR) while simultaneously participating in European Commission working groups called to put the political commitments made into practice, despite often seriously diverging national approaches. France's decision to place the management of the new network into the hands of a state forest management service (the ONF) is unique in Europe, though this decision certainly underlies, at least in part, the programme's success.

The context has changed considerably in the last 25 years:

  • Today, atmospheric pollution has become a less pressing issue compared to climate change, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • Forest Europe (previously MCPFE) now promotes using indicators of sustainability and is militating for the creating of a worldwide governing body for forest management, a far cry from the concrete concerns of the first European conferences.
  • The European Commission has halted all direct financial support for forest monitoring since 2006 and is now re-centring its efforts on concerns which are deemed more strategic and more sensitive (FLEGT and REDD programmes most notably).
  • The European Environment Agency (EEA) is progressively extending its reach whereas the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) never fully shouldered its potentially central role in long-term forest monitoring.
  • Forest environmental monitoring has been reinforced in France: (i) the National Forest Inventory has considerably increased its potential in ecological monitoring by adopting a new inventory protocol and by better valorising its data; (ii) special experimental sites for (very) intensive monitoring have been set up starting in 1995 within various research establishments, with currently 18 existing sites (SOERE FORET).

In this highly changing context, it is quite remarkable that the ICP Forests programme has remained relatively stable for 33 years. The vast majority of the European countries are still convinced of the pertinence of the level-1 and -2 approaches and continue to fund the programme. However, it is legitimate to ask whether this programme can adapt to fundamental changes, if necessary, and this is likely to be the case.

In 1990, the Ministerial Conference in Strasbourg listed the following considerations in Resolution 1, covering a broad range of concerns (listed in order of priority): atmospheric pollution, forest fires, climate warming, severe climatic disturbance events, soil erosion, pests and diseases, browsing damage, over- and under-exploitation and finally, the interactions among these phenomena. Three years later, at the second MCPFE conference, the European Union and its member states committed to "evaluating, developing and coordinating forest monitoring activities to better understand the large-scale spatial variations and the dynamics of change resulting from climate change." This resolution may have been taken somewhat too early in view of the state of the knowledge on climate change at the time; however, it was already a little too late because the level 2 networks which had already been established.

Twenty-five years on, climate change has become a major concern in long-term forest monitoring, and it is now important to analyse in depth the contributions RENECOFOR can provide over the next 25 years. The potential opportunities are many. The current network of monitoring sites, distributed throughout virtually the entire country, reflects "standard" silvicultural regimes and avoids extreme site conditions; this gives the network definite potential but also carries limitations when climate change has become a top priority. One option may be to create new plots with borderline conditions (at niche edges) and contrasting silvicultural regimes. This re-orientation could be gradual, taking place as plots are renewed, while maintaining a certain flexibility in the system. Complementarity with other monitoring systems should, of course, always be kept in mind. Though leveraging European-level support is uncertain, there is every interest in encouraging reflection within the ICP Forests programme and in involving the EEA.

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