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José Manuel Cabrero, Director of the Chair Madera of the University of Navarra.

The value of our forests

80% of the Spanish population lives in cities. Our forests are abandoned and many of their potentials are wasted.

Thu, 21 Mar 2019 13:12:00 +0000 Published in Diario de Navarra, El Diario Montañés, El Norte de Castilla, Las Provincias

This 2019, another ephemeris accompanies the World Forestry Day that we celebrate today. It is the 250th anniversary of the birth in 1769 of the great German scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, the forerunner of today's environmental awareness. In the diary of his journey through America between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt writes: "When forests are destroyed, (...) springs dry up completely or become less abundant. The river beds (...) become torrents whenever heavy rains fall on the summits. The grass and moss disappear from the mountain slopes (...) and then the rainwater no longer finds any obstacle in its path (...) and forms those flash floods that destroy the country". He tells this story when he sees the deforestation in Venezuela and Ecuador, and he would remember it years later on his trip to Russia.

Our Spanish (and European) forests are fortunately in a status radically different from the one described by Humboldt, as stated in the report of status of the Forests and the Forestry Sector in Spain (available at Spain is the country with the third largest forested area in Europe (18.2 million hectares), after Sweden and Finland. It is twice the size of France and almost three times that of Germany.

As Humboldt rightly pointed out more than 200 years ago, forests protect our forests and conserve the hydrological cycle. They are also major producers of raw materials. From them we can extract timber, firewood, biomass for energy, cork, resin, mushrooms, pine nuts, game... We are aware of their vital importance, and for this reason we design and execute plans for management forest in which we attend to this multifunctionality.

The pine forest of Valsaín (Segovia), acquired by the Crown in 1761, is an interesting and nearby example of good management. Thanks to the inventories of its trees, preserved since 1889, we know that in this century and a half 1.5 times its initial stock (1,814,150 m3) has been extracted from the forest. But far from depleting it, the current forest has been rejuvenated (in 2000 there were 2.5 times more young trees than at the beginning), and the quality of the timber produced has improved (in 2010 there were 32% more thicker trees than in 1889). All this, while simultaneously respecting the habitats of species of interest or in danger of extinction: the populations of black vulture and imperial eagle have multiplied exponentially since they have been in existence data.

Spanish forests are growing at a current rate of expansion (2.19%/year) much higher than that of other European countries (with an average growth rate of 0.51%/year). Although this may seem like good news, behind this data lies the sad reality of the rural world. As the World Bank recently indicated, 80% of the Spanish population live in cities. Unfortunately, our forests are abandoned and many of their potentials are wasted.

The annual growth of timber in Spanish forests (45 million m3) is three times higher than the amount that is actually cut and harvested (15 million m3 per year). Our forests are growing because our villages are emptying. Properly managed, Spanish forests could offer an annual production of about 30 million m3 of wood, enough for our current consumption. All our wood could be "kilometer zero".

The consequences of using our forests more and better would be many. They would undoubtedly improve their status of withdrawal, and the impact of forest fires would be reduced. They would be economically valuable, and consequently, their future would be assured. In addition, they would increase the rural employment : increasing timber harvests to a possible 30 million m3 would double the current 200,000 forestry jobs. And so would the rest of the economic activities related to the forest (leisure, hunting, rural tourism...).

All this would improve the status of our towns. They would have renewed and revitalized economic activity and new inhabitants. As Alexander von Humboldt taught us more than two centuries ago, our forests are valuable. It is we who can make them valuable.