Undoubtedly, forests are the most sustainable and cost-effective form of protection against gravitational hazards in the Alps. Hence, the management of stable and rejuvenated protective forests is a central goal of Austrian forest policy.
Forest covers almost half of Austria and we may see it from the train window, experience it while hiking and look at it on the slopes of the Alpine valleys. What remains invisible, however, are the many functions that the forests fulfil. They are a carbon sink, a supplier of wood, a habitat, a place for recreation and leisure, an air and water filter and lastly offer protection against natural hazards. The forest is more than the sum of its trees and provides valuable ecosystem services.
The canopy, for example, absorbs up to 70 percent of new snowfall and thus reduces the avalanche threat. The trunks serve as natural protection against rock fall and the roots penetrate the soil. This means that more water is stored in the ground and the risk of flooding is reduced. Furthermore, the forest is the best protection against erosion.
According to the national Forest Development Plan, about 30 percent of Austria's forest area is protective forest, which corresponds to 1.25 million hectares. Almost every fourth Austrian benefits directly from the protective functions of the forest.
In Austria, the amended Forestry Act of 2002 describes and defines the protective functions of the forest. It distinguishes between site protection forest (Standortschutzwald) (§21), object protection forest (Objektschutzwald) (§21) and protective forest by declaratory decree (Bannwald) (§27).
Site protection forest
Site protection forests are forests where the terrain itself is threatened by the erosive forces of wind, water and gravity. They require special treatment to protect the soil and vegetation and to ensure sustainable rejuvenation.
Site protection forest is located, for example
- on drifting sand or shifting soils
- on sites with a tendency to karst formation or at high risk of erosion
- in rocky, shallow or rugged locations
- on slopes prone to sliding
- in the tree line ecotone at high altitudes
The management and maintenance of site-protection forests ensures that soils, and thus important resources, are preserved. Owners must carry out the stabilising and restoring measures, provided that the costs can be covered from logging proceeds. In addition, cut areas must be reforested. This guarantees sustainable forestry.
Object protection forest
Object protection forests are forests that protect people, settlements, infrastructure facilities and cultivated soil from natural hazards and other damaging impacts. Among other things, they slow down or stop avalanches and rocks, reduce the landslide risk and store run-off rainwater. The forests require specific measures to ensure the protective effect.
The owner of an object protection forest has to treat it in such a way that the vegetation is robust and the forest is as stable as possible and adapted to the location. Cut areas must be reforested. Financial support for the forest owners through public funds or payments by beneficiaries is possible.
Protective forest by declaratory decree
Protective forests by declaratory decree are defined as forests that directly protect against certain hazards. The declaration of this status means that the forestry authority prescribes necessary measures and requirements. If this results in financial disadvantages, forest owners are entitled to compensation by the beneficiaries.
Examples of the purposes protective forests by declaratory decree in the public interest are
- Protection against avalanches, rock falls, landslides, floods and wind.
- The protection of springs, water resources, tourist centres and urban areas from negative influences.
- The protection of traffic infrastructure.
In Austria, there are about 12,000 hectares of protective forest by declaratory decree.
Frequent challenges in protective forest management are overaged stands, lack of regeneration, poor accessibility, excessive game populations, multipurpose usage, an unfavourable mix of tree species and slow growth due to altitude. Climate change and the increase in extreme weather events are further putting a strain on the functionality of the protection forest. In addition, the price of wood is stagnating and management of protective forest must be profitable again for forest owners.
Therefore, a sustainable Austrian forest policy is needed to ensure the preservation and improvement of the protective function of forests.
Protective Forest Action Program
The "Protective Forest Action Programme" was adopted by the Austrian Council of Ministers on 22 May 2019. It paves the way for a stable, sustainable and recognised protective forest in Austria.
As mentioned, the protective forest is confronted with many challenges. Due to structural aging, 34 percent of the protection forest areas are in the terminal or decaying phase. There is an imminent need for action on about 300,000 hectares of forest.
As a response, the action programme defines 35 concrete measures to improve the situation and ensure sustainable protective forests. One important goal is the standardised representation of the protective forest areas in order to ensure efficient support. Moreover, in cooperation with regional partners, the protective forest is locally promoted and integrally treated in larger planning units such as valley communities and municipalities. The connection between habitat-oriented and wildlife spatial planning also plays an important role in this context.
Many Austrians and international guests benefit from the protective functions of the forest without knowing about it. Therefore, the action programme aims at raising awareness for forest ecosystem services. To this end, information events, websites and prizes are organised both nationwide and regionally. The present Action Programme represents a landmark document for a consistent improvement and future-oriented development of the protective forests in Austria.
You can find more information at www.schutzwald.at.