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Change and persistence: exploring the driving forces of long-term forest cover dynamics in the Swiss lowlands

Loran, Christin, Kienast, Felix, Bürgi, Matthias
European journal of forest research 2018 v.137 no.5 pp. 693-706
deforestation, forests, land use, landscapes, lowlands, natural regeneration, police, politics, Alps region, Switzerland
By the end of the twentieth century, the forest cover over most of Europe had stabilized or was increasing after many decades of decline. Persistence and change in forest cover are driven by complex human–environmental interactions and feedback loops operating on different temporal and spatial scales. A promising method to detect these complex interactions between driving forces is a causal analysis based on historical documents. In the first step of this study, forest cover was reconstructed based on historical and contemporary maps of the Canton of Zurich at seven different points in time between 1664 and 2000. Secondly, causal chains of drivers were constructed based on historical document analysis, in order to investigate whether forest cover was stable or whether any compensating mechanisms in place were reducing the net changes. While the overall net forest cover remained considerably persistent in the Canton of Zurich throughout the 336-year study period, major gross forest cover losses and gains were detected during certain periods. Major deforestation events occurred during times of crisis, e.g., at times of economic or political crisis. In contrast, the strong persistence of net forest cover was mainly a consequence of the Forest Police Law, but can also be attributed to intensive land use. The law prohibits deforestation in general, and intensive land use is preventing the kind of natural reforestation occurring in other regions, e.g., the Swiss Alps. These empirical findings shed light on the relevance of a high degree of political and economic stability in terms of maintaining landscape persistence. These insights into the driving forces of forest cover change and persistence can contribute to protecting and managing valuable landscapes in a rapidly changing world.