Studies of Eastern European nature reserves are leading western experts to reassess how nature is managed in their own countries, an international forum in Zurich was told on Wednesday.
Experts at the symposium said studies of virgin landscapes in Eastern Europe, which only became accessible to western researchers after the end of the Cold War, had highlighted how nature was often 'over-managed' in the west.
Reinhard Lässig, a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, which organised the meeting, said natural forests in the Russian Urals had 10 to 15 different tree species growing in them, whereas Swiss forests only had six or seven.
He said more variety could help forests to be more resistant to storms, such as the one that destroyed about 13 million cubic metres of forest in Switzerland last December.
"It is worth integrating more natural dynamics into our way of managing our forests and landscapes, and that's the reason we are studying natural dynamics in the eastern part of Europe and Siberia," Lässig told swissinfo.
One research project, which was presented at the Zurich forum, is the Institute's collaboration with the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve in Ukraine.
The last-surviving virgin beech forests in Europe are to be found in this reserve. Only by investigating such areas is it possible to find out what the composition of a natural forest is, what life cycle phases it goes through, and the extent of biodiversity within it.
The findings from this research should promote the natural and sustainable use of managed forests with a minimum of effort. They will also allow predictions to be made about the likely development of forests that are no longer managed.
Lässig said this was not only an important lesson for the west, but also for Eastern European countries, where the many untouched expanses are now coming under threat. Economic development is threatening the natural forests, pristine mountains, steppes and moorlands as never before.
Also speaking at the symposium, Alexander Shestakov, from the Russian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, denounced the exploitation of mineral resources in Russian nature reserves.
But he noted that Russia, through its sheer size, was one of the few countries where it was still possible to maintain extensive, interlinked conservation areas.
Several senior Swiss officials attended the meeting, along with more than 200 academics, scientists and researchers from 15 countries, to underline the importance of co-operation with Eastern Europe.
Among them were Charles Kleiber, the Secretary of State for Science and Research, and Walter Fust, director of the Swiss Development Agency.
They said the co-operation could help eastern European research by proving valuable contact to the western scientific community, new knowledge, new methods, equipment and money.
Over the past decade, Switzerland has supported hundreds of researchers, conferences, research projects and partnerships in all scientific fields.
Evelyne Glättli from the Swiss National Science Foundation said research played a key role in helping countries manage the transition from a totalitarian economy based on shortages to a modern democratic society oriented towards a market economy.
by Tom O'Brien