Behind Austria's thriving forests

Last Updated : 24 July 2023, 10:24 IST

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With charming villages nestled in the mighty Alps, Austria is a green heaven. The meadows, vineyards, apricot plantations, farms and many thick forests blanket the land mass. An abundance of delights with over 25,000 lakes embellishes the extraordinary terrain making it a hiker’s paradise in the woods.

Walking through a local Austrian market, you see various wooden products Austrians use. Wooden baskets, firewood in bakeries, the countryside wooden houses adorned with Antlers, and restaurants serving food made of venison—all make one think Austria would exhaust its wood soon. In reality, Austria’s forest is growing since the 1960s.

Despite its ranking as one of the top 10 sawn wood exporters globally and its relatively small landmass (ranked 110th), Austria manages to annually increase its forest area by around 3,400 hectares.

According to World Resource Institute, 36 countries experienced a net gain in tree cover from 2000-2020, and Austria is one of them. Even though tree gain occurs in many places, it doesn’t negate the impacts of loss. Carbon storage varies between old and young trees, and mature forests are crucial for flourishing the diverse flora and fauna that depend on them.

So how is Austria different from other countries?

The success story of Austria began in 1713 when the nation’s income was teeming with salt mines and losing forests. Austrians embraced Hanns Carl von Carlowitz (a salt mine Inspector of the Kingdom of Saxony Germany), “sustainable use of the forest” that demands the balance between logging and reforestation.

During 1848’s European-wide revolution and rising nationalism, many small-scale timber forest farmers emerged. The revolution granted farmers ownership rights, transforming them into genuine landowners. The Forest Act of 1852 mandated that all forest owners adhere to “sustainable forestry.”

According to the Austrian Forest Report 2015, around 80% of Austria’s forests are privately owned, surpassing most European countries. The Austrian Federal Forests possess 15% of the forest area, while other public institutions own the remaining 5%.

Private ownership’s role in the sustainable development of timber forests stems from the enhanced sense of legal security and ownership experienced by individuals. It cultivates a stronger attachment to their property, leading to increased caution and careful management of the cultivated forests.

People have the right to choose what to grow among the native Austrian species mentioned in their forest policy. Felling of trees is done without large machinery. There is no mass felling of trees, and the trees to be felled are chosen carefully with the help of foresters.

The Austrian Federal Forest reports specify that Austrians associate themselves with the forest. Both tourists and people go hiking in Austria’s wilderness — sometimes for leisure and mostly to learn about their forest. Most forest owners are unwilling to cut down the forest for short-term profit.

There are a few legislative acts these private forest owners must adhere to. The Forest Act of 1975, province-specific policies based on each province’s geographical features, and biodiversity-related laws, including the National Park and Hunting and Fisheries Laws, are just a few of them which help private owners stick to the cause of conservation.

Their forest policy involves educational programmes for forest owners. Summer school workshops conducted by organisations help them learn more about agro-forestry and ecology. Austria actively participates in several international conferences and has signed treaties on environmental protection and sustainable development, such as the 1991 Alpine Convention.

A source of income

In Austria, virgin forests untouched by human influence are rare. The man-made forests are grown to resemble the natural forest. These serve as the nation’s lungs and a major source of income through tourism, wilderness exploration, hunting and sustainable timber harvesting.

The key factor in selective tree removal follows Pro-Silva principles—a confederation of professional foresters from 25+ European countries actively supports and promotes Pro-Silva Close to Nature Forest Management, offering an alternative to clear-cutting and short-term tree plantations.

In an interview with a global radio news programme, forest manager Herbert Schmid explains how adapting the Pro-Silva method has helped farmers.

Diverse tree species contribute to a “close-to-nature forest”, fire resilience and increased stability of the forest. The forests with a single tree species and uniform height are more susceptible to various disasters, including fires, storms, and snow, Schmid says.

He emphasises natural management as a balance between light and shadow that provides sufficient light for the growth of small trees while preventing the dominance of certain plants like elderberry. The key is to carefully assess the amount of light that filters through the canopies of older trees. When the forest requires additional light, selectively removing some trees is the appropriate course of action.

This approach involves cutting down trees at risk of dying from lightning, old age, or bark beetles. The gaps created by the felled or dead trees allow for the regeneration of diverse tree species. Close-to-nature forests, typically characterised by their lush and moist conditions, are less prone to rapid wildfires.

Natural techniques

In Austria, a fascinating aspect of close-to-nature forestry is the involvement of native birds in natural forest management. When faced with a spruce-dominated forest area, Schmid, unlike conventional foresters, didn’t resort to clearing underbrush or manually planting thousands of saplings. Instead, he gathered seeds from oak forests and placed them in bird feeders. The birds discover the food, take the seeds, and hide them in the forest. The Eurasian jay birds, feeding on these seeds, store some for the winter. They naturally forget about certain hidden stashes, resulting in the growth of saplings. These native birds effectively become Schmid’s forest workers.

The statistics specify that the 3400 hectares are added annually, raising the concern over over-afforestation. However, this only adds up to the area designated as forest land in the zoning plan. In other words, the Austrian forest is a “reserve” for the future.

It is easy to ignore Austrian agro-forestry success by saying that it is a country population density of 109/sq km, while India’s is 481/sq km. But being one of the top 10 timber exporters in the world and a global leader in agro-machine manufacture it is remarkable for Austria to increase the forest coverage annually.

Published 24 July 2023, 10:14 IST

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