Two decades of natural forest reserves – it’s getting interesting!

20 years of natural forest reserves, 195 natural forest reserves over a total area of 8403 ha – almost the size of a national park. Research in natural forest reserves is long-term research. This costs time and resources. And the long-standing observation plots are already bearing fruit.

The Austrian Natural Forest Reserves Programme was initiated in 1995. The grounds for its initiation were the resolutions of the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE, now Forest Europe) in Helsinki. There, the forestry and environmental ministers committed to the establishment of an interdependent network of forest conservation areas, representing all forest types. The mountain forests protocol of the alpine convention includes a legal responsibility to establish natural forest reserves, however it is very unspecific in that reserves should be "in sufficient number and size", but contains a clear commitment to contractual regulation.

Contemporary foundations of the programme

In 1995 a conceptual framework was developed, which lead to governmental forest policies for the establishment of an Austria-wide network of natural forest reserves (NFR). They intentionally did not contain any strict requirements for area in hectares or percent, rather they were oriented on the representative nature of an NFR network.

All forest communities present in Austria, differentiated according to growth areas, were to be represented. The Federal Forest Office (BFW) was tasked with the implementation and the construction of the network, the legal and financial execution was carried out by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (BMLFUW).

The framework concept was built upon three equally important aims: Contribution to the conservation of biological diversity, monitoring and research, as well as utilization as educational tools. The process of selection, establishment and the continued maintenance were determined.

Contract principles are based upon the conceptual framework
  • Voluntariness: Every conclusion of a contract only takes place at the explicit request of the forest owner. He or she invites the BFW to examine whether his or her forest is suitable as a natural forest reserve and whether it is needed.
  • Contractual nature conservation: The 1995 contract negotiated between the contracts partners has thus far remained unchanged. The forest owners refrain from utilizing their forest area and receive in compensation an annual remuneration.
  • Long term: The contracts are set for 20 years. The state has the option of extending the contracts for a further 20 years.
  • Exit option: Under certain conditions the forest owner can prematurely leave the agreement. Until now, only two contractual parties have taken this option.
  • Annual remuneration: An annual remuneration is paid according to the terms agreed. The transfer of fees is part of a sustainable forest management and generates a regular income.

The choice of forest areas and the management of grounds for exclusion and cancellation are also based upon the conceptual framework and happen exclusively at the request or application of the forest owners.

The BFW provides expertise about the selected area. The annual remuneration for the forest owner is also based upon this expertise (not a compensation, but a remuneration!).

Support and communication

With a total area of 8403 hectares, the NFR network is the size of a national park, however it is spread out with currently 195 individual areas across Austria. One can imagine that through a much higher proportion of boundaries, through the high number of forest owners, and through the scattering of the individual areas, the expense for the necessary regular maintenance for the areas is far greater.

Such a programme based upon civil-law contracts requires support. Numerous problems have the need for a common solution: intentional and unintentional breaches of contract, necessary operations in the public interest, conflict situations with tourism projects etc. Unfortunately, browsing impact from hoofed game in the natural forest reserves does not deviate from the statistics from Game Impact Monitoring or the Austrian Forest Inventory.

Extreme are a part of nature, nature does not recognise disturbances in a human context. We have already experienced everything: wind throw, bark beetle epidemics, extreme drought, and avalanches of every kind, rock fall, and forest fires. In some cases we can utilize these events: for example, since a fire in NFR Potokessel in 1998, we have been observing the recolonization of the burned area.

Monitoring and research

Permanent sampling plots were established during the founding of the NFRs almost 20 years ago. On the one hand these allow a new evaluation at any time, on the other hand these sampling plots are very important reference areas for forest development. For example, it is not only possible to measure current deadwood volume in this way, but also to make predictions about mortality rates and increment. All repeated measurements show that the NFRs are in a agglomeration phase. In all cases the increment of wood mass significantly higher than the mass of wood which died off within the same timeframe.

20 years of experience and consequences

A regular inspection and revision of the NFRs is necessary. Inspection in this sense can be understood as communication with the forest owners. Boundaries and observation facilities must be kept intact. It is easy to establish an NFR but difficult to maintain it over decades. The forest owners are involved during the inspection and revision processes, but also during all other activities such as excursions and guided tours, research etc.

The best kept records are rendered worthless if the relevant sample plots in the field are not kept intact to the degree that they can be measured again after decades. Research in natural forest reserves is long-term research.

But now it is becoming interesting. The long term sample plots are beginning to bear fruit. The value of the sample plots increases virtually exponentially with the duration of their existence. There is much left to examine. We have found an accumulation of biomass, but do not yet know a great deal about CO2 storage in the soil, decay rates, changes to the herb-layer vegetation, habitat elements and habitat quality.

Every natural forest reserve is something unique. The forest owners can be proud of their reserve areas. That is the best guarantee that the Natural Forest Reserve Programme will be able to function on a long-term basis.