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The Public Role of Forests

Professor Dr. Tomasz Borecki
President of the Forest Friends Association

Forest Faculty, Warsaw University of Life Sciences – SGGW
Institute of Modern Civilization


The Public Role of Forests

Forests being the cradle of mankind and its culture have had a decisive effect on man’s achieving the present level of economic life in the entire civilized world. Forest functions have been undergoing constant changes and at every stage of the material and cultural development of communities they have appeared to be extremely important. Also at the present stage of civilization development, communities cannot do without forests, their goods and services, both material and non-material. The simplest and oldest classifications divide forest functions into two groups: economic and social (protective and recreational). The recent 20-30 years have seen a significant revaluation of forest functions both in European and global forestry. The economic functions of forests lose their dominant role in favour of protective and recreational functions, which are social functions.

The 20th and the present 21st century are characterized by a dynamic population growth on our globe. Year to year the global population expands and with it grows the demand for consumer goods. Communities to develop need raw materials, energy, water and natural resources. The 21st century will be the period in which the quality and condition of the environment, healthy forests and clean air will decide about the quality of human life. Today it is in the great interest of the citizens of Poland and of the world to take care of nature, its harmonious development and in handing it over in a better condition to the future generations. Civilization development in Poland has for hundreds or even thousands of years been connected with forests which originally covered nearly all the lands within Poland’s current borders. For the first tribes to appear in Poland, which possessed the skills of growing cereals leguminous and oilseed crops, forests were the main obstacle in their search of land for farming and building settlements. Therefore, they cleared them with all their strength using fire and axe. Forests were treated as the area of unlimited economic exploitation, and their resources as inexhaustible and permanent. In many Polish fables and tales the forest is described as a dark place where danger lurks. These circumstances have determined society’s attitudes to forests creating a certain cultural pattern of behaviour towards them. For centuries man has “genetically” programmed himself to believe that forests are everlasting and can be utilized at will.

Man needs nature. Rational management must take into consideration nature’s wellbeing and development, preservation of its riches and full harmony with all what man needs to live. For that to become real, society must be educated. The contemporary man must be conscious of the profound role the plant and animal world play for the preservation of the quality of life. He should adopt Professor Józef Tischner’s philosophy of respect for any living thing, whether a plant or an animal. This distinguished Polish and European philosopher and priest in his considerations expressed an opinion that every element of nature, any living organism “has a soul of its own”. The world of nature deprived of man’s respect, his proper rational acting may become impoverished or even destroyed. Education about nature and forests combined with public relations are important tools for reaching this noble aim.

Thanks to the economic functions of forests, wood and non-wood products are obtained, like game, mushrooms, berries, herbs, etc. The economic functions of forests are frequently called productive or materials-generating functions. These may include the property functions of forests. In every country, forestland and forest stands are very important components of the state property. The current area of forests in Poland exceeds nine million hectares which corresponds to about 29 % of forest cover. The current timber resources in Poland exceed 1.9 billion cubic meters of gross merchantable timber. These are a great national asset.


The productive functions of forests

Forests are the source of different raw materials determining the development of many industrial branches. Timber is the main raw material impacting the national economy, particularly the building industry, furniture-making, the pulp-and-paper industry or the mining sector. Over 30 million cubic meters of timber is harvested in Polish forests every year. Due to the present age structure of stands in Poland, the value of forest utilization will grow in the coming years.


The revenue-generating functions of forests

Foresteconomy contributes a defined input to the national product which determines the level of a community’s wellbeing and the possibilities of a country’s economic development. As a result of the dynamic development of industry, the share of forestry in the national product is in all countries relatively low and still deteriorates. However, it should not be forgotten that forestry’s contribution is calculated exclusively on the basis of timber sold. According to some researchers dealing with forest functions, timber production is just one of the many functions forests serve.


Forestas a workplace

Forests are an important workplace. Over 26 thousand people are directly employed in the state forests in Poland. Several times more employees work for the companies providing services for forestry. Some tens of thousands of people are employed in the sectors dealing with timber processing and manufacture of timber goods, like furniture. It is worth emphasizing that forests as a workplace perform a great role in poorly industrialized areas. In poor districts with a large number of the unemployed, collecting forest floor products like mushrooms, berries and others are also of great importance for the financial situations of their inhabitants.

The economic functions of forests also include those which are an area reserve and tool of land reclamation. This is particularly visible in areas deformed and devastated as a result of excavating fossils and operation of industrial plants. Forests planted on these lands bring them back to life. Due to our history and the necessity to eliminate damage caused by war, forests also play the function of a specific “forest treasure-house” Shortly after the war the impoverished society overexploited forests to reconstruct the burnt-down houses, households or industrial plants.


Social functions – protective and recreational

Under these functions it is understood those kinds of services that have a significant impact on the quality of the natural environment and the living conditions of its inhabitants. In literature these functions are also called indirectly-productive, non-productive, social or infrastructural. These also include:

  •  forest as a regulator of water management. Forests retain and store excess waters, slow down their run-off after winter or long-lasting rainfall. Forest soils with their typical humus layer easily absorb and store water. Woodlands are characterized by a generally more uniform water run-off capacity. Forests perfectly counteract water contamination acting as an excellent natural filter. Nearly 20 % of state forests are water-protecting forests. They are located on watersheds along rivers, around lakes, on peatbogs and waterlogged areas. Forests accumulate all civilization waste produced by man, absorb impurities and release pure water to the environment.
  •  protection against negative industrial effects. Having a huge leaf and needle area, forests absorb industrial emissions from the air. These contaminants are washed down by rain waters into the soil. Because of climate warming, discussions intensify on the role of forests in the accumulation of carbon dioxide. On the basis of available date concerning timber resources, carbon content was estimated at 736 million tonnes.
  •  protection against natural disasters.Forests protect people, lands, buildings and structures against landslides, snow and stone avalanches, or mountain torrent flooding. This function is particularly visible in montane and piedmont areas.
  •  nature protection function. Forestis the richest environment for plants and animals. It is frequently the only refuge for some species. For that reason the role of forests for maintaining biodiversity is extremely important.

Among social functions, worth mentioning are also recreational, wind-protecting and defence functions, those stimulating production in non-forest economic sectors, as well as soil-protecting and landscape functions. Without forests and their predominant impact on air humidity and volatile oil content, no health resorts will be possible. Due to their fragrant air, singing of birds and the rustle of leaves, forests have a beneficial and soothing effect on humans.

The last two decades of the 20th century have seen many deforestations. The global area of forests shrinks at a pace of about 15 million hectares per year. At present, forests occupy 60 % of our planet’s virgin forest cover. The World Conservation Union estimates that 12.5 % of plant species and 75 % of mammal species are threatened as a result of the weakening of forests. Monitoring of the health condition of European forests shows a 50 % being damaged on smaller or larger scale. Europe is the only continent where forests expand. Poland’s forest policy has a great role in the expanding area of forests in Europe. Poland’s forest cover has increased by circa 2.5 million hectares (8 %) since 1945.

Forests may not be treated exclusively as a source of timber. The issue of proper forest management may not be the private business of the owner or manager. Forests must be treated under the same category as water and air. The World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development recommends, among other things: creating facilitations for public involvement wherever valid forest issues are decided, fulfilling by the government the role of a representative and guardian of public interest, water and soil protection, ensuring food resources and fulfilling living needs of communities dependent on forests, protection of biodiversity.

There usually are mentioned three main threats to forests and their functions. The first of them arise from competing for earth resources and their utilization methods, particularly in connection with the necessary development of food production. The second source of threats is the growing global demand for timber. The third threat is outside forestry and results from the global climate change and biodiversity reduction. Particularly important is the role of forests in the well-developed European countries. The standard of living of their inhabitants will depend on how forests will be treated and in what condition they will be preserved. Humans have decisive influence on forests, their condition, health and sanitary status, as well as age structure. Their conscious decisions will determine the future of Europe’s forests. Therefore it is our common duty to educate young Europeans and make them aware of the profound role that forests play for the preservation of our standard of living.