Forests and the forestry sector
Forests cover almost a third of Switzerland¿s land area and were estimated at some 1.2 million hectares in 2000. A large proportion of them is available for supplying timber, but all forests have to fulfil a number of functions, especially protection against avalanches in mountain zones. Besides soil protection and timber production, hunting and nature conservation are important aspects of their functions. Almost half of Switzerland¿s protected aquatic zones are located within forests. Most forests are almost entirely natural or semi-natural, with only small zones totally undisturbed by human activities and a limited area of plantations.
The steep, mountainous landscape means that conifers account for 60 percent of the standing volume, primarily Norway spruce (Picea abies), but also such species as silver fir (Abies alba), European larch (Larix europeae) and pines (Pinus spp.). Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is the main deciduous species, while others include oak (Quercus spp.), maple (Acer spp.) and cherry (Cerasus avium). The net growth rate, which is well above the European average in terms of hectares, exceeds that of felling, resulting in a steady increase in the amount of standing stock and in aging forest stands.
More than two-thirds of the forests are publicly owned, belonging mainly to communities or municipalities, while a very large percentage of the remainder belongs to individuals. No forest owners live on their forest income, and there is no link between forestry and poverty in Switzerland (in any case a country with very little poverty).
The first federal hunting reserves were established in 1875, and the first national park (the Swiss National Park) in 1914, thanks to private initiatives in 1909. The reserves were created for biodiversity protection, and this effort has intensified since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and is supported by federal policies and subsidies.
Risks to forests include storms, insects, game and atmospheric pollution. However, forest dwindling and degradation are not usually problems in Switzerland, and natural regeneration is fast. Since forest cover is deemed sufficient, there is little encouragement to create new forests. The application of ¿soft¿ silvicultural techniques means that biodiversity protection can be incorporated into forestry activities.
Switzerland produces modest amounts of forest products, accounting for less than 1 percent of the national budget. Revenue from timber sales is falling and forest owners are therefore seeking to enhance the value of other marketable forest products. Relatively high labour costs are one of the main challenges facing the Swiss forest industry.
The country is a net exporter of logs and a net importer of sawnwood. It is practically self-sufficient in paper production, although the paper industry depends in part on pulp imports. The per capita consumption of forest products is higher than the European average.
Recycling, especially of paper, is a major sector in Switzerland. Recycled paper provided 1 032 tonnes of fibre for paper and cardboard production in 1997, a figure corresponding to almost 65 percent of the total consumed. The use of wood residues (from sawmills, for example) is encouraged as a source of energy.
Christmas trees are a major non-wood forest product, while other such products include herbs, lichens and fruit used in the pharmaceutical industry, honey and bark for compost making.
The main problem in the forestry sector is the economic non-viability of mountain forestry, and this results in a weakening of ecosystems, heavy economic losses and the abandonment of mountain zones. Attempts to make beneficiaries (railways, tourism, water companies) pay for the costs of forest management have so far come to nothing.
Last updated: January 2004