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Forest biological diversity conservation as an element of sustainable forest management - policy and practice in Poland

K. Rykowski

Kazimierz Rykowski is Professor of
Forestry and Head of the Forest
Ecology and Environmental
Protection Department, Forest
Research Institute,Warsaw, Poland.

In the past decade, the conservation of biological diversity has been emphasized in Polish forest law and practice, as one of the key concerns of sustainable forest management.

The transition process in Central and Eastern European countries, with its many political, economic, social and institutional changes, extends also to the forest sector. Countries are establishing new forest practices, regulations and amendments to policies in line with international agreements, recommendations and strategies that followed the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 - in particular Agenda 21, the "Forest Principles", the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) and Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF), the follow-up to the Ministerial Conferences on the Protection of Forests in Europe (held in Strasbourg, France in 1990; Helsinki, Finland in 1993; and Lisbon, Portugal in 1998) and the European Union forestry strategy. Accordingly, the conservation of forest biological diversity has become a prominent concern, not only as a challenge for nature conservation, but as one of the key components of sustainable forest management.

Forests cover about 29 percent of the area of Poland and together with agricultural land dominate the landscape, creating a favourable habitat for native flora and fauna. The level of human transformation of forests in Poland is variable, but the area of natural and semi-natural forests is still significant.

Naturally regenerated Pinus sylvestris in Poland - country of pine


This article presents the main principles of forest biological diversity conservation in Polish forest policy and practice, focusing primarily on conservation in production forests. It first reviews the underlying causes of the loss of forest biological diversity in Central and Eastern Europe and some of the theoretical principles of biodiversity guiding the establishment of forest management and conservation goals.


Much of the loss of forest biological diversity in Central and Eastern Europe can be attributed to an emphasis on rapid economic growth. Contributing factors include air, water and soil pollution; industrial and agricultural development and urbanization, which has resulted in fragmentation of forest cover; and perhaps most important, intensive forest management practices focused mainly on wood production. This focus resulted in substitution of mixed and broadleaved forests (the natural forest communities of the Central European lowlands) by high-production coniferous monocultures. The shift from natural mixed forests to single-species plantations, together with intensive practices such as large-scale clear-cutting, rigorous removal of dead trees and harvesting before maturity, has had a negative impact on forest biological diversity. Biological diversity has also decreased through substitution of natural succession with artificial regeneration and intraspecies competition with artificial selection.

The "normal forest" model introduced in the nineteenth century in Europe substituted random exploitation with "rational" management of forest resources, and engendered an obligation to regenerate deforested areas. This model has protected Europe from loss of forest cover and allowed the trend of increasing forest cover to continue to the present. Yet while it avoided quantitative changes, it introduced qualitative ones. By transforming the existing natural, multilayered forest into a series of uniform tree stands, the normal forest model severely interfered with the structural biological complexity and species diversity of natural forest ecosystems, as well as their natural heterogeneity and spatial and temporal variability.

Nevertheless, the forests in Central and Eastern Europe continue to contain some of the most valuable and well represented components of European wild flora and fauna. The forests are also a focus of nature protection legislation in the region (Rykowski, Matuszewski and Lenart, 1999).

A dead tree in a managed stand, which increases forest biodiversity - in Poland, removal of dead trees as part of intensive production-oriented management has had a negative impact on forest biological diversity



Human beings are the only users of nature that consciously manipulate it. By regulating mechanisms of primary production (through means such as silviculture and forest management), humans regulate the development of ecosystems and influence the abundance of life forms, within the limits of existing ecological conditions.

The idea that "diversity creates diversity" is only partly true. A lack of reference to time and spatial scales, of accurate indices and especially of a reference level for desired or optimum diversity creates some doubts concerning the concept of biological diversity as the leading philosophy of nature protection. Diversity within one category of plants, animals or micro-organisms may limit diversity in another; the increase of local diversity may cause a decrease in landscape diversity between ecosystems across a broader region; an increase of species diversity may cause a decrease in ecosystem diversity; an increase of intraspecific genetic diversity may reduce the number of species; etc.

Changes in biological diversity on individual trophic levels vary in importance and determine different, often contradictory, processes and states in the ecosystem. Declining systems may present high diversity of heterotrophs, while non-declining systems may be limited to only several species of producers. A low biological diversity may be a sign of vigorous growth processes (young ecosystems, early stages of succession), i.e. a positive phenomenon; while a high biological diversity, e.g. of micro-organisms, may signify a predominance of decay processes or decline in the system, i.e. a negative phenomenon.

Whether diversity has positive or negative impacts on sustainability of ecosystems is an old and unresolved question in ecology. System sustainability is not so much a function of diversity, but rather of complexity; in other words it is a function not only of the number of elements, but above all of the number of internal links between these elements. Systems with low species diversity may be as sustainable as systems with abundant species if they have a high inner complexity. It is thus debatable whether high biological diversity is a valid indicator of a desirable state for each forest type in each climatic zone.

Non-forest associations such as arable land, meadows, orchards, ponds, gardens and human settlements appeared after the forest receded. They represent the hand of humanity in shaping biological diversity. Forest would return to those sites if human activity and interference ceased for a long enough period. In this case spontaneous natural succession would make nature more uniform in the temperate climatic zone, i.e. would lead to a decrease in biological diversity on the landscape level. Diversity on the landscape level consists of the coexistence of complex and simple systems.

Thus "artificial" forest ecosystems should not necessarily be classified in a negative way. The management of such communities, which may include introduced species, fulfils an important role in the structure and maintenance of diversity. Communities that are artificial at the moment of their creation are from then on subject to natural processes. Suitable management of those processes may lead to comparability of those forests with certain natural ecosystems. The biological richness might diminish if human activity were to stop.

The strategy for conserving the biological diversity of forests should be part of an overall system of nature protection, which is part of a continuum in the relationship between people and nature. Today, this continuum starts from protected primary forests and strict reserves and continues through productive and managed forests, to fibre plantations and plantations using genetically improved species and clonal production. There are differences in the ecological, economic and social values of the forests along the continuum; forest biological diversity will never be maintained solely by a growing network of protected areas. The existing nature protection system which appeared in the nineteenth century, based on delimitation of protected areas from production systems and on abandoning economic activities within them, is not always efficient (with protection sometimes existing only on paper) and is insufficient today. This system sharply divided nature into two categories: nature under legal protection and areas that lack such protection. Today forestry has an operational tool at its disposal - sustainable forest management - to maintain and develop forest biological diversity in all forests, including but not limited to forest protected areas.

The real challenge for the future is to establish a system of conservation for all of nature that is integrated with the social and economic activity of humankind, taking into account local and regional conditions as well as the rights and interests of local communities. It should be in compliance with global agreements regarding the conservation and use of nature, which call for a need for harmonization of economic development with environmental protection (World Conservation Strategy [IUCN, UNEP and WWF, 1980]), protection of the environment as an integral part of development processes (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development [UNCED, 1992]) and the necessity for linking the conservation of biological diversity with the use of its elements (CBD, 2001). It is not possible to separate nature from people. The state of nature is not indicated by the number or extent of protected areas, but by the wisdom of the management methods and the sustainability of the use of natural resources.


Forest biological diversity is directly and indirectly connected to all of the main forestry activities: from genetics and seed management, through different stages of forest tree breeding, cultivation, management and protection (against pests, diseases, fire, etc.), to harvesting and use. The influence of these activities on biological diversity is not usually seen until after a significant time delay, and they affect all levels of biodiversity: genetic, species, ecosystem and landscape. In the past decade, Polish forest law and practice have greatly stressed the necessity for biological diversity conservation that takes into account all of these levels of diversity.

The principles of forest stability, expansion, protection and sustainable use are the foundation of the main forestry programmes and policies: the Programme of Conservation of Forest Gene Resources and Selection Breeding of Forest Trees in Poland for the Years 1991-2010 (1991), the Polish Policy of Comprehensive Protection of Forest Resources (1997), the National Policy on Forests (1997) and the Strategy of Forest Biological Diversity Protection. They also underpin Poland's special initiatives for forest biodiversity conservation, the Promotional Forest Complexes and Nature Protection Plans (discussed below), as well as policy implementation activities such as the Programme for the Increase of Country Forest Cover (1995).

The National Policy on Forests (1997) addresses the conservation of forest biological diversity by specifying the following goals:

"Artificial" forest ecosystems should not necessarily be classified in a negative way - although this planted pine stand may have less biodiversity than natural forest, it does not replace forest, but rather a less biodiverse agricultural system; its management fulfils an important role in the structure and maintenance of diversity


Genetic diversity

The size of the gene pool of forest tree species is an important issue in conservation because it determines not only the species' useful characteristics, but also their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions - and thus their long-term survival. A strategy for conservation of the genetic diversity of all species in the forest ecosystem is being developed in parallel with the present policy of selection of stands for seed collection.

The Programme of Conservation of Forest Gene Resources and Selection Breeding of Forest Trees in Poland for the Years 1991-2010 defined specific targets for increasing the area of in situ conservation stands (seed stands, clonal seed orchards, seedling seed orchards, progeny trials and plus trees), all of which are under legal protection.

Ex situ conservation is preferred when forest gene resources are threatened with extinction or depletion mainly because of environmental changes. It encompasses:

Ex situ conservation is facilitated by a technical infrastructure network comprising 21 seed extraction plants and ten germplasm storage facilities.

The Forest Gene Bank at Kostrzyca, the first in the region, established by Poland's State Forests (with financial assistance from the Global Environment Facility [GEF]), has a special role in the ex situ conservation strategy. The bank collects gene resources from all selected seed stands, from plus trees and from the oldest trees in Poland (those more than 200 years old), as well as from selected threatened shrubs and ground cover in forest plant communities and, in particular, threatened gene resources from the Sudety Mountains and all Polish national parks.

Species diversity

At the species level, Polish forest conservation efforts focus on the potential vegetation cover of a given site, in particular those organisms for which the forest is an essential habitat and those colonizing transition zones between the forest and adjacent communities (fields, meadows, water bodies, etc.). The strategy pays special attention to the conservation of indigenous wild species of forest flora and fauna. It recognizes that native tree species are the foundation of the species composition of forest tree stands; however, it treats "domesticated" (introduced) species as a possible enriching element and an extension of biological diversity. This is especially important in the light of likely global climate changes, which may cause changes in the natural distribution ranges of trees and thus in the concept of "indigenousness" or "naturalness".

Other elements of the strategy of forest species diversity conservation include the following:

The strategy of forest species diversity conservation also takes into account the special need to protect species threatened with extinction, according to a decree issued by the Minister of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry (1995). The decree covers 19 species of protected animals; for 15 of these, old-growth forest (over 120 years old) is the natural biotope. The decree stipulates two protection zones around breeding areas and sites of permanent occurrence of these species.

Ecosystem diversity

Forest ecosystem diversity is a function of site diversity. Therefore, examining soil and site conditions provides key information for silvicultural planning and development of biologically diversified and stable forest ecosystems. Surveys on forest typology and classification of plant associations, as well as site and stand descriptions, are important as the basis for shaping and protecting forest biological diversity at all levels. At the ecosystem level, description of forest communities (structure, species occurrence, crown density, mixtures and quality classes) is as important as knowledge of the site.

To distinguish representative forest ecosystems for conservation in Poland, it is necessary to consider the country's geo-botanical and climatic features, the occurrence of sub-Atlantic, boreal and endemic vegetation associations and the degree of naturalness of forest associations. This distinction is currently based more on natural forest associations than on forest site type. Poland distinguishes the following forest plant associations as targets for protection:

As part of the protection of selected ecologically important forest types, the annual allowable cut should be established in rotation cycles for different species according to silvicultural needs, e.g. 130 to 180 years for pine, 120 to 140 years for spruce, etc.

In the light of their role in maintaining and enriching biological diversity, the Polish biodiversity conservation strategy recommends more regular mapping of transitory zones (ecotones), linear sites and broad-leaved riparian forests along rivers and streams. Special attention must also be given to forest edges, particularly those adjacent to swamps, water bodies, meadows and agricultural belts. Forest management plans should contain rules for the maintenance of these edges through supplemental afforestation and widening of the border zone of overlapping ecosystems. In this manner, the strategy aims to protect the spatial microstructure of sites and the natural mosaics.

Landscape diversity

Conservation at the landscape level has involved the "regionalization" of forestry; the country is divided into a network of biologically diverse territorial units in a three-tiered hierarchical system:

The main task for sustainable forest management and for conservation of forest biological diversity at the landscape level is to create operational principles of ecosystem-based landscape forestry.

Flooded forests are areas of high biological diversity and are distinguished as targets for protection in Poland


Management should include:

Special initiatives

Two special initiatives in Polish forestry have been promoted to conserve forest biological diversity: Promotional Forest Complexes (PFCs) and Nature Protection Plans (NPPs).

The concept of PFCs, in line with other model and demonstration forest initiatives, is designed to demonstrate sustainable forest management practices in an area larger than the traditional forest management unit in Poland (the Forest District) and to promote the conservation of biological diversity by wise use of forests. The implementation of PFCs began in Poland in 1994; the 11 PFCs total about 480 000 ha (approximately 7 percent of the country's forests) (see Map). They are representative of the various natural forest habitats and natural history and vary in habitat conditions, species composition of stands, structure and functions of forest ecosystems and production potential, as well as in social and economic context.

Forests under different forms of nature protection in Poland


The detailed goals of establishing PFCs in relation to biodiversity issues are:

The fundamental task in PFCs is to draw up new forest management plans and adjust existing ones to new obligations. PFCs also have an important educational role, with nature trails, natural history and forest exhibits and museums that inform the public about the forest ecosystem and its multifunctionality.

Nature Protection Plans, established through a binding regulation in 1996, have even larger practical implications in the forest biodiversity conservation strategy than PFCs. NPPs are an integral part of routine forest management plans; they concern all forests and address the operational level. The concept was conceived to protect nature in all forests, not only in protected areas. NPPs refer to the landscape level. They require the elaboration of special maps and the identification of the role and place of forests in the region; the land use structure; relations with other legal forms of nature protection (e.g. national parks, nature reserves and protected landscape areas); threats to the forests; and actions proposed for nature conservation. NPPs promote forest management practice in harmony with the principles of nature protection through measures such as:

Of 438 Forest Districts in Poland, some 215 already have NPPs, and another 97 NPPs are in preparation.


One of the hottest issues discussed in international forums dealing with forest biological diversity is the establishment of new forest protected areas. The question is what is really needed: more protected areas, or better protected areas?

The most important reason to establish forest protected areas is to conserve and maintain ecological processes. The most important processes in terms of sustainability and resilience, as well as stability of high biological diversity well adapted to local conditions, include natural selection, adaptability, survival and sustainable evolution under conditions of continuous environmental changes and human intervention.

Therefore, taking into account global threats to forests (climate change, destruction of the ozone layer and human population growth), it is evident that in Central and Eastern Europe some new areas are worthy of protection for evolutionary reasons. These include areas deforested by industrial pollution, improper exploitation of resources, large forest fires or storms. Protecting these areas will provide opportunities for developing and maintaining natural, spontaneous ecological processes of succession and for learning from them; they are more important for subsequent generations of people and trees than the old-growth forest of today.

In this context, the general strategy of forest biological diversity conservation in Central and Eastern Europe could be as follows (in order of preference and urgency):


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