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Swiss forestry policy proves too efficient

Swiss forests suffered great damage after hurricane Lothar in May 2000

(Keystone Archive)

Switzerland’s much-heralded reforestation programme is the victim of its own success - in some areas there are now too many trees.

The Swiss Forest Agency is now calling for greater use of wood for construction and energy to reduce its timber surplus.

As the Fourth Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, got underway in Vienna on Monday, Switzerland is conducting a review of its policies on forest preservation to deal with new developments over recent years.

A survey, released to coincide with the opening of the conference, suggests Switzerland lags way behind its European neighbours in the area of forest protection.

The study by the Swiss-based environmental organisation, WWF, reveals that only 1.6 per cent of Switzerland's forests are protected.

"Switzerland doesn't look good in comparison with other European countries," said the WWF's Dieter Muller, referring to the fact that Switzerland was placed fourth from bottom - along with Romania - in the survey of 16 countries.

Protected areas

Muller said the WWF would like to see Switzerland establish a network of protected areas covering ten per cent of all the country's forests.

He added that protected areas were only found in mountainous areas, where profitable logging was impossible.

The WWF accepts that Swiss timber reserves have increased and should be harvested, but in tandem with the creation of new protected areas where biodiversity can be preserved.

Switzerland's forestry laws are over 125 years old, and have been used by other countries, such as Japan, as a model for their own policies on forests.

Thanks to strict regulations governing reforestation and preservation, 30 per cent of Switzerland is forested.

But it seems conscientious policies may be posing a threat to the country's biodiversity.

In some areas the trees are packed too densely. As a result, the forest floor does not receive ample daylight for plants such as orchids and herbs to grow, and this in turn discourages animals from living there.

More felling

Sandra Limacher, international forest policy adviser at the Swiss Forest Agency, says there now needs to be more tree felling – under strict conditions – to deal with the problem.

The agency is therefore calling on industries to use more wood for construction, furniture and energy, promoting it as a more environmentally friendly alternative.

“Wood is one of the only renewable materials we have in Switzerland, and it is ecologically sound,” Limacher told swissinfo. “We also want to decrease the amount of CO2 emissions, and substituting fossil fuels with wood for energy would help us do that.”

She added that the currently high price of wood was not helping to encourage its use in the place of cheaper alternatives.

“Bizarrely, wood is more expensive than high energy-intensive substitutes such as aluminium, steel and fossil fuels.”

Better management

The Swiss Forest Agency is currently reviewing Switzerland’s forestry policies. It has to decide what state the country’s forests should be in by 2015.

The country’s forestry law was last changed in 1991, but a number of issues have arisen since then that the agency thinks may need to be incorporated into legisaltion.

The agency believes tree density is part of a wider problem relating to a lack of coordination between the various organisations and industries whose decisions affect Swiss forests.

Although the Swiss Forest Agency is pushing for a revival in the use of wood in industries, it also recognises that some areas of forest still need to be protected from increasing pressures imposed by humans.

“Nowadays, people want to go to the forests for recreation,” Limacher said. “They also want the forest to sequester more CO2 and they want clean drinking water - a large chunk of which comes from the forests.”

The agency has also expressed concern over the strain that environmental factors, such as increased air pollution, puts on biodiversity in the forests.

swissinfo, Joanne Shields

Key facts

Woods and forests cover 30 per cent of Switzerland.
Between 1985 and 1995 woodland increased by four per cent to 477 square kilometres.
There is an increasing need for woodland because: CO2 is on the rise; flora and fauna need living space; and increased use of woods for recreation.
In Switzerland, some eight per cent of forest plants and 24 out of the 101 species of birds are classified as endangered.

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