Legacies of 19th century land use shape contemporary forest cover


Historic land use can exert strong land-use legacies, i.e., long-lasting effects on ecosystems, but the importance of land-use legacies, alongside other factors, for subsequent forest-cover change is unclear. If past land use affects rates of forest disturbance and afforestation then this may constrain land use planning and land management options, and legacies of current land management may constrain future land use. Our goal was to assess if and how much land-use legacies affect contemporary forest disturbance, and the abundance of different forest types in the Carpathian region in Eastern Europe (265,000 km2, encompassing parts of Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and Czech Republic). We modeled contemporary forest disturbance (based on satellite image analysis from 1985 to 2010) as a function of historic land use (based on digitized topographic maps from 1860 and 1960). Contemporary forest disturbance was strongly related to historic land use even when controlling for environmental, accessibility and socio-political variation. Across the Carpathian region, the odds of forest disturbance were about 50% higher in areas that were not forested in 1860 (new forests) compared to areas that were forested then (old forests). The forest disturbance in new forests was particularly high in Poland (88% higher odds), Slovakia (69%) and Romania (67%) and persisted across the entire range of environmental, accessibility and socio-political variation. Reasons for the observed legacy effects may include extensive plantations outside forest ranges, predominantly spruce, poplar, and black locust, which are prone to natural disturbances. Furthermore, as plantations reach harvestable age of about 70 years for pulp and 120 year for saw-timber production, these are likely to be clear-cut, producing the observed legacy effects. Across the Carpathians, forest types shifted towards less coniferous cover in 2010 compared to the 1860s and 1960s likely due to extensive historic conifer harvest, and to recent natural disturbance events and clear-cuts of forest plantations. Our results underscore the importance of land-use legacies, and show that past land uses can greatly affect subsequent forest disturbance for centuries. Given rapid land use changes worldwide, it is important to understand how past legacies affect current management and what the impact of current land management decisions may be for future land use.

Global Environmental Change, 34 83-94
Tobias Kuemmerle
Tobias Kuemmerle
Professor & Head of the Conservation Biogeography Lab