BYLINE: Joshua Brown & Bailey Beltramo

Newswise — Walking along a steep ridge, under large hemlock trees, ten miles outside of Burlington, Vermont—Bill Keeton is worrying about Europe’s remaining old forests. He’s so concerned, in fact, that he and some colleagues wrote a letter to the journal Science—published on May 5, 2023—calling for rapid action to protect them.

UVM Today wanted to learn more about why he wrote this letter—and what’s special about old forests wherever they grow.

So Keeton took us on a walk to his long-term study plots at a UVM research forest, in Jericho, Vt., where he could talk to us about both the unique wonder of Europe’s ancient trees—and his much-closer-to-campus research on how to restore the benefits of old growth in younger forests.

A professor of forest ecology and forestry in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources—and a fellow in UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment—Keeton has spent decades studying old forests in New England and around the world. In recent years, he’s worked with partners in several European countries to better understand and map the remaining tracts of old forest there.

We had some questions and brought a video camera to capture a few of Keeton’s observations about the benefits of protecting and restoring older forests.

UVM: What’s important about Europe’s old-growth forests?

BILL KEETON: Most people don’t realize that Europe still contains more than three million acres of old growth—ancient tracts that have stood for centuries. These remaining forests are critical reservoirs for wildlife, rare plants, and other biodiversity; they soak up and store remarkable amounts of carbon; they provide powerful protection against flooding and heat. And they’re unique, wonderful parts of natural heritage in 34 European countries from Sweden to Romania.

A few years ago, the European Union passed the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. It calls for radically expanding their protected areas network there, building on the already impressive Natura 2000 Network. It's something Europe has that’s unlike anything in the US. Europe has really taken the lead globally in thinking about a continent-wide system of protected areas that is representative of all ecological diversity on continent—including protecting all remaining old growth forests. It's a visionary idea.

But now it's 2023. We're supposed to achieve these goals by 2030, which is looming on the horizon. And they’ve barely made any progress. The EU has become bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire of definitions. It's not that hard. The science is well established; we know what old-growth forest are. Now it’s time for action.

At the same time there are several EU countries doing very little to protect the critical old growth they have. It just continues to be lost and logged and cleared—while definitions are debated in Brussels. We finally have this ambitious goal of protecting all old growth by 2030. But we're going to lose a lot of it before then if we don't act now.

UVM: What should be done to protect Europe’s remaining old forests?

KEETON: Here are three recommendations.

First, we need a comprehensive and accurate inventory of the remaining old-growth forest in Europe. A few years ago, our group published some papers where we inventoried and mapped Europe’s remaining primary forests—the forests that have never been cleared. But those studies were partially a modeling exercise where we predicted where the old growth would be—as opposed to explicitly mapping it. So now we need to go to the next step: mapping every remaining stand.

The second is, simply: once we know where it is, protect it—include it within Natura 2000 sites or new protected areas. We previously estimated that this advance could be done with a relatively modest 1% expansion of the existing protected area network. This represents only 0.3% of Europe’s land area.

Although the majority of old growth that remains is within some kind of protected area, less than half is strictly protected. That means they are still open for logging, and our data shows that old-growth is still being cleared at alarming rates. Europe has really different protected area categories than we do in the US. They have places called national parks or national protected landscapes. But there’s still quite a bit of logging that happens inside of the boundaries. In countries like Romania and Sweden, the old growth is still being logged at rates that could lead to these amazing forests being gone within decades.

So, third, to prevent this from happening: a temporary moratorium on logging in those areas we predicted will hold old-growth forests until we ground truth the predictions and map it. So we don’t lose it before we know what we’ve lost.

Read “Protect Old-Growth Forests in Europe Now,” a letter in the journal Science, May 5, 2023, (vol 380, Issue 6644).

Journal Link: Science