Mountain forests and watershed management in Europe

European Union (EU) statistics consider that 38.8 percent of the total EU-15 area is covered by mountains. The total population of these mountain areas is 54 million people, of whom two-thirds have a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) that is lower than the EU-15 average. Mountain watersheds have a relevant geographic setting, mountain people a strategic role, and mountain economies widespread disparity. Mountain forests represent 27 percent (28.1 million ha) of the total EU-15 forest area, and so affect the water balance of more than half of EU-15’s land area. According to Bruno Messerli, in the dry summer of 1996, 95 percent of the Rhine water flowing into the North Sea came from the Alps, from melting snow and ice at high altitude, and forest-filtered downstream runoff. Mountain forests are therefore more than isolated biotopes to be conserved for the sake of beauty or exploited for timber, wood and tourism: mountain forests contribute significantly to EU watershed and water balance.

According to the European Observatory on Mountain Forests, several negative trends affect the current status of mountain forests in Europe, such as:

  • growing instability and ageing stands, including overstocking of living and dead wood;
  • damage from pollutants, game, logging, fires, tourism and recreation activities;
  • loss of biomass density and reduction of biodiversity;
  • lack of natural regeneration and reduction of management practices;
  • decreased forest revenues and declining use of locally adapted knowledge and practices.

Many people from European mountain areas view forests as an increasing liability or danger, but they used to represent an asset, security and the solution for many problems. The flood events in Central Europe in 2002 confirmed that, as well as extreme climatic events and downstream infrastructure, the abandonment of productive practices in mountain forests is also becoming an important threat to watershed functioning all over the continent.

In 2002, to address this situation, the International Consultation on Mountain Forests recommended that the EU make the following changes:

  • Widening perspectives. Mountain forest resources and communities are part of larger ecosystems and processes. Their influence goes beyond mountain forest ecosystems to affect mountain massifs, the conservation of natural and cultural assets, rural development patterns, water and watershed management processes, and the improvement of economic, social and territorial cohesion (i.e., keeping people on the land).
  • Reinforcing locally adapted management. The sustainability of mountain forest resources and communities depends on having management forms that are adapted to local conditions and situations. Such an approach takes account of the knowledge and experiences developed by both local populations and interdisciplinary research reinforcing one another.
  • Sharing responsibilities. The natural conditions in mountain regions and the interrelationships between upland and lowland areas require that responsibilities are shared, local communities involved, governance and collaborative management promoted, and solidarity strengthened at all levels.
  • Sharing benefits. Under appropriate management, mountain ecosystems provide many benefits to lowland regions. Many socio-economic sectors are both benefiting from and influencing these resources. Alliances, coalitions, partnerships, agreements and contracts on forest conservation and management among local and non-local actors help to share the benefits at all levels.

Adapted from P.C. Zingari. 2006. Effective watershed management: a European perspective. In M. Achouri and L. Tennyson. Preparing for the next generation of watershed management programmes and projects. Proceedings of the European Regional Workshop, Megève, France, 4 September 2002. Watershed Management and Sustainable Mountain Development Working Paper No. 9. Rome, FAO, FORC Department.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007