Future proofing Europe’s forests

Climate change has been associated to a decline in the health of forests around the world – and with temperatures set to increase further, low-elevation and drought prone forests in Europe could become vulnerable.

To ensure the long-term stability of Europe’s forests, it is vital to conserve forest genetic resources (FGR), the inherent genetic material that exists within a species and forms the base for adaption.

The EU-funded FORGER project was set up to provide science-based recommendations on the management and sustainable use of forest genetic resources to meet future changes, and presented its findings at the final project meeting in Dublin (17-18 November 2015).Antoine Kremer presenting at the final FORGER meeting. Credit: Bioversity International/B.Vinceti

One of the main objectives for FORGER was to assess how well conservation sites in Europe, which have been established specifically to preserve forest genetic resources, represent the spatial distribution of genetic diversity for the species conserved. FORGER also aimed to make this information easily available for stakeholders.  

“Genetic data are distributed in different files and organisations,” says Antoine Kremer of INRA. “This project aimed to assemble this data so users could rapidly have a picture of the spatial distribution of genetic diversity in a tree species of interest.”

The project succeeded, to an extent, in that it has made it possible to link information about the genetic diversity of Europe’s most important tree species with more general information about the sites designated for FGR conservation.

But in bringing this information together FORGER learned that genetic studies have, in many cases, been conducted far away from sites that have been identified as a priority for conservation. This means scientists don’t currently know what forest genetic resources are being conserved.

“The picture of the current distribution of genetic diversity, of even the most important forest tree species, is still incomplete,” says Dr. Koen Kramer, project coordinator.

Prof. Katri Kärkkäinen, of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, concurs: “More studies are needed; we need more genetic data.”

The declining costs of genetic analysis – and the fact that FORGER has successfully developed a common protocol for measuring and monitoring genetic diversity – should help fill in the gaps going forward, but it also presents challenges: who will be responsible for managing the data, how will it be curated and standardised, and where will the resources come from to support it? These are questions that will need to be answered.

Perhaps FORGER’s greatest achievement has been its success in documenting the historic movement of forest reproductive material (FRM) – seeds, cones, cuttings and planting stock – for some widely spread tree species across Europe.

“This is something that has never been done before,” says Prof. Thomas Geburek of the Austrian Federal Research Centre for Forests. “It is quite an important contribution of the project.”

Having information about the historic movement of FRM is vital in the context of climate change, because it allows scientists to monitor the performance of material that has been introduced from other climates.

That knowledge can help forest managers prepare for climate extremes (e.g. for much warmer temperatures) by introducing tree populations that currently live in conditions that are expected in the future, or that have proven to grow consistently well in many different environmental conditions.

Though informative, FORGER’s ground-breaking study into the historic movement of FRM is not exhaustive due to a generally poor documentation and record keeping.

“A regulatory framework on the documentation of the FRM traded is in place,” says Thomas. “The results generated by FORGER strongly indicate the need to strengthen the implementation of existing regulations and to harmonise data on transfer of FRM across EU member states.”

The FORGER project has now finished, but its findings are being used to lobby EU policy-makers and help bring forward initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change.

FORGER’s findings are also helping reframe the debate surrounding forest conservation, which has largely been focussed on species and habitat diversity and not genetic diversity, which is the basis for all biological diversity. 

Written by Gavin Haines