Situation and Challenges
Postcard showing clearcuts around 1910 in the Klönthal valley, Switzerland (Source: Anonymus; P. BRANG).
While there are some common traits in the current situation of the Alpine forests, the implications for humans vary widely. Apart from a few and small exceptions, Alpine forests have been used as a resource for centuries. Forests and water are among the rare and highly valued resources of the Alps.
Timber was used for construction, fuel and mining. Many forests were completely cut for their timber and for freeing land for agricultural use. The remaining forests were grazed, which slowed down or impeded their renewal. It has been estimated that the timber volume remaining around 1850 amounted to less than 50% of that found today (BRÄNDLI 2000). Many forests were largely depleted, which caused extensive floods and associated damage in the lowlands. Since that time, the forest area has greatly increased, and the forests' protective functions have been restored. Much has been invested into creating an effective forest organisation, afforestation and improving the accessibility of the forest resource through road construction.
Grazed forests near Amden, Switzerland in 2006. (Source: P. BRANG)
Since about 1950, forests have encroached on agricultural land on steep slopes after the abandonment of agricultural use (see also the tutorial "Mountain Agriculture"). The afforestations have often left a legacy of monocultures, in particular of Norway spruce. These forests provide benefits in terms of timber, but pose management risks and problems in other areas.
More recently, the societal settings in which mountain forests prosper have undergone considerable changes. While the importance of timber decreased, and has started to increase again only very recently, Alpine forests became more and more important as a protection against natural hazards, as a diverse habitat for many species, and for their recreational values. Multiple utilisations of a single forest often cause resource use conflicts. The concept of multi-functionality is therefore challenged in Alpine forests: There is a clear trend to zone particular forests according to single utilisations, e.g., in protection forests or in forest reserves.
Bark beetles have killed trees in a rockfall protection forest above the A2 highway near Gurtnellen, Switzerland (2005). The protective effect of the forest is almost lost, and rockfall nets have therefore been constructed just above the highway (Source: P. BRANG).
Old-growth forest remnant near Brigels, Switzerland, affected by wind and bark beetle disturbance (2004). Most forests in the Alps were subject to continuous and strong human influence (Source: P. BRANG).