Ecosystem Services of the Forest

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Ecosystems comprise numerous biotic as well as abiotic interactions and processes such as decomposition, nutrient cycles, biomass production and energy flow. The interrelations and interdependencies are extremely extensive and complex. A disturbance of the stability or health of an ecosystem therefore has far-reaching and often devastating effects, including on humans. According to a 2015 report by the World Health Organization and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, ecosystem goods and services are essential for our society, our economic development and our health and well-being. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessments adopted four main categories of ecosystem services: Provisioning services such as water, food and timber; regulating services such as pest control, climate regulation and water quality regulation; cultural services such as recreational and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as photosynthesis, soil formation and nutrient cycling. Forests are crucial in all these categories, and thus also for our health and the functioning and resilience of ecosystems.

 

Provisioning Services

An important service of ecosystems is the basic supply of water, food and other wood as well as non-wood products.

Thanks to forests, the capacity of water infiltration into the subsoil is increased, increasing the water reserves for consumption by humans and other organisms. Furthermore, forests filter and purify rainwater. With proper forest management, 74 to 88 percent of rainfall can be filtered into the soil instead of being captured. In this way, well-managed forests reduce water stress on trees and increase water resources by replenishing aquifers, swamps, reservoirs and springs.

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Many foods originate from the forest, from a wide variety of nuts to olives and honey from beehives. One of the most popular foods from the forest are mushrooms. Teas made from rose hips, linden and various other plants and herbs, all of which come from the forest, are also widely popular. Besides their use as food, many plants are also used in cosmetics and medicine. Lotions, ointments and other cosmetic products often consist of herbs or oils from plants that grow in the forest. The use of plant parts such as roots and leaves for herbal medicines is also diverse and has great potential. Many medicinal plants, such as ramsons, nettle or black elder, grow in the forest.

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As one of the best known forest products, wood is still a popular material for furniture and constructions such as houses, but also fences, shoreline stabilization, protective barriers, among other things. Paper is also made of wood. Paper pulp is made from cellulose from trees. In addition to wood, cork, for example, is also used for construction. The material extracted from cork trees is used, for example, to insulate walls and floors. In general, biomass is increasingly being used for various applications, for example as a fuel to replace non-renewable resources.

 

Regulating Services

Another important function of ecosystems is their regulatory capacity. A healthy ecosystem performs essential tasks from pest control to climate and water regulation.

In a healthy and properly managed forest, trees can develop resistance to pests on their own and are therefore not dependent on chemical intervention. By naturally developing resistance to pests, flora and fauna within the ecosystem are being protected.

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Forests also play a major role in mitigating climate change and its consequences, as recognised by the UN climate summit. According to the Kyoto Protocol, forests are the planet’s most important carbon sinks, alongside oceanic plankton and peatlands. By promoting the conservation of forests, the amounts of atmospheric CO2 that contribute to global warming through the greenhouse effect are reduced. Thanks to their regulatory functions, such as cooling effect, water storage and wind protection, forests can also make a significant contribution to reducing extreme weather events caused by climate change and the disasters they cause, such as floods, droughts and rising temperatures. They also protect the soil from erosion because the trees hold the soil with their roots and their canopies protect it from the direct effects of raindrops, which can trigger large mudslides during a storm.

Reforestation and the sustainable management of forest areas therefore offers great potential for combating climate change. On the other hand, deforestation also has devastating consequences because the CO2 stored in the trees is released. The amount of carbon accumulated in wood is considerable, accounting for about 50% of the weight of a tree. When the tree dies, CO2 and methane are released into the atmosphere or water. This is why it is so important to guarantee the survival of the forest. In the event of a disturbance, be it a fire or uncontrolled logging, not only the CO2 bound in the plants would be released, but also the carbon dioxide retained in the soil, due to the erosion processes that follow such a disturbance.

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Water is both an essential basis for life and a potential threat. While the supply of clean water is essential for the survival of both humans and other organisms, contaminated water can have fatal consequences. Therefore, the regulation of water quality is an indispensable function of ecosystems. Forests improve the water quality of rivers by preventing soil erosion, trapping sediments, removing nutrient and chemical pollutants, reducing microbial contamination of water resources and preventing salinization. Properly managed forests improve soil moisture and drainage, making the soil more resistant to drought.

 

Cultural and Supporting Services

The cultural function of ecosystems must not be underestimated either. A natural environment, for example the forest, provides a healthy environment for leisure activities. With their relaxing atmosphere and absence of social stress factors, forests offer an ideal place for learning, spirituality and recreation.

No less relevant are the so-called supporting services of ecosystems. Processes such as photosynthesis, soil formation and nutrient cycles support or enable primary processes.

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Through photosynthesis, plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, store carbon and return oxygen to the environment. In this way, they not only provide humans with an indispensable basis for life, but also enable a wide variety of organisms to carry out oxygen-based processes. Forests, with their high plant density, make an important contribution to this. Healthy forests with a variety of trees, fungi and other organisms also play an important role in the exchange of nutrients and the formation of nutrient-rich soil. To promote and ensure these processes, however, sustainable forest management is essential.

 

Biodiversity and Ecosystems

The different properties and functions of individual species have complex effects on ecosystems, so that loss of them can severely affect the balance of the ecosystem. A greater mass and diversity of species within an ecosystem contributes to its efficiency and productivity in resource extraction, biomass production, and decomposition and recycling of essential nutrients. Studies show that with decreasing species diversity, changes in the ecosystem increase. An increase in species diversity, on the other hand, has a positive effect on ecosystem stability over time.

Forests are an important habitat for numerous plants, animals and microorganisms. Healthy forests offer greater species diversity than any other ecosystem. Therefore, the decline of forest areas and the lack of or inadequate management of these areas is a very serious threat to biodiversity and thus to the ecosystem.

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Despite the high relevance and innumerable services provided by forests, they are more endangered and vulnerable than ever. Droughts, forest fires, diseases and the decline in natural resources – all factors exacerbated by climate change – are destroying forest health and reducing the areas covered by forests. Forests must therefore be actively protected and managed. This is precisely the aim of sustainable forestry. Learn more about sustainable forestry and the work of Social Forest here!

 
 

Related SDGs

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