How do we clean the mountain? And how do we pay for it?

Let’s look carefully at the image that follows this paragraph: in the foreground, a barbecue in a recreational area in an area where there is hardly any vegetation. In the background, and behind a half-ruined stone fence, the configuration and structure of the vegetation is much more complex: a shrub layer dominated by heather and dry ferns under oaks and pines. Two worlds, two mountains, separated by an old wall.

Recreational area on a hill, clean of rubbish, adjoining dense natural vegetation of pines, oaks, scrub and bushes in Ribeira Sacra (Ourense).
Jose Reque, Author provided

For many, the mountain behind the wall is dirty, even if there is no rubbish to be seen. The recreational area, on the contrary, is clean: its appearance is landscaped.

For others, the lesser ones, the mountain in the background is not dirty, it simply manifests itself with its present structure as a consequence of the abandonment of traditional agricultural uses that has made possible the natural colonization of the space that our elders and their animals once used intensely.

An even more limited number will add concepts such as structural complexity and fuel continuity. But, without a doubt, everyone understands that, in the event of a fire, the fire in the background landscape will be practically unextinguishable.

This article will focus on fire prevention and, especially, on economic and budgetary aspects. But let’s not lose sight of the first image.

More and more forests and more fires

Climate models predict increases in drought phenomena, heat waves and, therefore, desiccation of vegetation, which increases the risk of fire spread. In the summer of 2022, the fires have caused the highest CO₂ emissions in Europe in the last 15 years.

More than 50% of the territory of Spain is forest (27.9 million hectares), located mainly in emptied Spain.

Despite the forest fires, the forest area increases annually and gradually more biomass accumulates in the forest.

The transformation of a hectare of forest misnamed dirty (behind the wall) into clean (recreational area) requires, at least, five to ten days of work.

Given this panorama, is it feasible to think that there is a budget in any country in the world to address a fire prevention forestry based on investments and public money in millions of hectares?

sustainable forest management

The gruesome fires that fill the headlines every summer have brought a new concept into the debate: the need to manage the mountains. The need to promote silvopastoralism (extensive livestock farming carried out in the bush) and forestry is widely accepted.

We will focus the article on forestry using three panoramic images taken following a hypothetical north-south line from the Cantabrian mountain range to the Mediterranean continental environment of the northern plateau.

Let’s look at the following three photos before continuing with the reading:

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Pine forest in Velilla del Río Carrión, Cantabrian mountain range, Palencia.
Jose Fernandez Trigueros, Author provided
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Oak grove in La Valdavia, Palencia.
Jose Reque, Author provided
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Encinar, Mount El Viejo, Palencia.
Jose Reque, Author provided

On the right side of the three images you can see the result of silvicultural treatments called clearing or thinning. Trees have been cut in order to reduce competition between them to promote their growth, vigor and stability, while obtaining products with commercial value (wood, firewood).

The structure of the forests on the left shows the state prior to silvicultural treatment. An obvious and dangerous accumulation of woody fuel is recognized, similar to the area behind the wall in the photo at the top of this article.

On the right hand side of the panoramas, as trees have more space to grow and soil nutrients can be spread among fewer trees, their vitality and vigor will improve and growth will accelerate.

The crowns will rise more quickly, creating a fuel discontinuity between the soil and the crowns in the medium term, which will be favorable for fire prevention.

In drought scenarios, the scarce water resource may be used by fewer individuals, which will reduce their water stress and, therefore, also their flammability.

The freeing up of space also enables the installation of understory species. On the right side of the photo of the pine forest, herbaceous vegetation has been installed that is being actively used at the end of summer by extensive livestock. In the three forests, the fundamental strategy has been based on cutting trees: several hundred per hectare!

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Photo of the pine forest at the time of the application of the white (three years before). The wood is stacked and classified for sale. The treatment has been carried out with specific forest machinery for this type of work.
Jose Fernandez Trigueros, Author provided

A financing strategy

In the three cases presented, the value of the cut product, the wood, has contributed to financing the treatment and is being managed as a renewable natural resource. It is what is called a self-financed silvicultural treatment or exploitation.

Instead of having consumed public funds, economic benefits have been achieved for the owners of the forest. The wages invested in the white have not cost money; wood has paid for them.

In all three cases, forestry has been:

  • environmentally acceptable,

  • economically viable (in areas with a serious problem of rural abandonment),

  • socially accepted.

These are the three pillars of sustainable forest management.

The where, how much and how

If at the beginning of this article I commented that it is unfeasible to propose forestry in Spain solely based on investments, it would also be unfeasible to address forestry treatments throughout the territory in a uniform way.

The contrast of the two realities of the panoramic photographs (left side vs. right side) clearly shows two contrasting aspects: the risk of fires and the lack of management in the face of the wildlife refuge, structural complexity, diversity, etc.

It is evident that the key to management must be based on the search for a balance: landscapes with alternating zones with different types of forest structure, avoiding large continuous and homogeneous areas: where matters.

In order to approach self-financing forestry, it will also be necessary to define how much and how to cut per hectare. Not managing the forests or transferring Central European realities to southern Europe can be just as problematic – to later lament unextinguishable fires, enormous CO₂ emissions and rural depopulation –, such as executing felling without any forestry criteria in which only economic performance governs.

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Robledal, Bonar, Leon. Too much was cut in a clearing and this has facilitated the development of the flammable heather undergrowth, which is gradually deteriorating the forest structure in terms of fire prevention.
Jose Reque, Author provided

Forestry, which includes the reasoned and orderly felling of trees as an essential part of its line of action, is accepted as the key to adapting to climate change in forests and preventing fires, especially in southern Europe.

The current market conditions –growing interest in wood, firewood, biomass for energy– expand the options to address a self-financing and wealth-generating forestry in many mountains of emptied Spain, but require forest planning and execution in accordance with the integrating principles of sustainable forest management so that we talk about forestry and management of renewable resources as opposed to the simple felling of trees and extraction of forest resources.

Let’s talk seriously about sustainable forest management and relegate the concept dirty mountain to forests with waste generated by humans and abandoned in nature: garbage.

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