Forest and wood: In brief

The state of the Swiss forest is relatively good and has been stable since 2005.  Forests can adapt to changing environmental conditions. The question is whether the forest can complete this adaptation process fast enough.  In the future, climate change will cause problems for the forest due to drier summers and harmful organisms that have either been introduced or migrated.  The economic conditions in the forestry and timber sectors may also make it difficult to guarantee the services provided by forests.


1. Traffic, agriculture, climate change, demand for wood, society’s demands (drivers)

Increasing traffic volumes and intensive agriculture are polluting the Swiss forest through emissions of nitrogen and other air pollutants, either directly from the air or indirectly through pollutant deposits in the soil.

Due to climate warming and the associated gradual and continuous changes in the climate, extreme weather events, for example heavy storms and summer heat waves, are likely to become more frequent in the future. However, Switzerland has been untroubled by major storms and damage to forests in recent years.

Due to the continuous growth and, particularly, the transcontinental nature of trade, Switzerland‘s ecosystems and forests are being increasingly confronted by new organisms.

In recent years, with the exception of 2017, less timber has been harvested in Swiss forests, despite the overall increase in demand for wood in Switzerland. Wood is mainly harvested where the price covers the costs. This is mostly the case in the easily accessible forests of the Central Plateau. In large parts of the forests in the Pre-Alps and the Alps, wood harvesting is not cost-effective because of the difficult terrestrial conditions and the low accessibility.

Due to the value of the Swiss franc, the Swiss forestry sector must deal with a tough domestic wood market, on which wood prices often do not cover their production costs. These costs are driven even higher by the small-scale structure of forest management. Moreover, forestry operations provide services to society that are only compensated in part, and sometimes not at all. This specifically includes the protection of groundwater and drinking water and the use of forests as recreational spaces. At the same time, society’s demands on the forest (recreational use, protective function etc.) continue to rise.


2. Drought, pest infestation, nitrogen and air pollutants, insufficient management, recreation (pressures)

Since 2000, Switzerland‘s forests have been spared extreme storms but have suffered repeated droughts, especially in 2003, 2015 and 2018. Higher temperatures and lower precipitation levels in the summer months combined with increased precipitation in the winter months have a direct effect on forests. The risk of forest fires may increase in some regions due to climate change.

The forest is also increasingly threatened by harmful organisms and diseases. These include the bark beetle, new fungal diseases such as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus and red-band disease in pines, which are increasingly attacking the forest. The spread of invasive alien plants (e.g. tree of heaven) is also increasing.

Switzerland's forests are under huge pressure from inputs of air pollutants and are becoming more sensitive to acute events such as drought, storms, diseases and pest infestation (e.g. bark beetle).

The nitrogen inputs from the air are too high in more than 90% of forest area. Nitrogen causes the acidification of the forest and gives rise to an imbalanced supply of nutrients to the trees. Leaf cells are also subject to attack from highly concentrated ozone in summer

Switzerland’s forest is managed sustainably and in harmony with nature, and natural regeneration is predominantly promoted. Furthermore, the use of fertilisers and plant protection products is prohibited. Clearing is permitted in exceptional cases only, and the deforested area must be reforested. Forests that are difficult to access in the Alps and Pre-Alps are often insufficiently managed. As a result, an adverse age structure develops, and the forests are no longer able to fulfil all of their functions.

Excessive recreational use of the forest in urban areas and in tourism areas can have impacts on forest regeneration and, hence also, on sustainable forest development and the behaviour of wild animals.


3. Forest area increase, wood harvesting potential under-exploited, healthy living environment (state)

At approximately 1.31 million hectares, around one third of Switzerland is under forest cover.

Switzerland's forest area increased by 2% between 2006 and 2013. This is due to the reclamation of agricultural and Alpine pasture areas by forest in the Alpine region and the Southern Alps. The pressure on forest area in the heavily populated Central Plateau remains high.

The standing volume in forests has remained stable since the last inventory (2004/2006). There are wide-ranging differences between regions: whereas the standing volume in the Southern Alps has increased by almost 10%, it has declined by around 4% in the Central Plateau.

With an average increment of 10.2 million m3 per year, 1.4 million m3 wood remains unharvested in forests annually.

The Swiss forest is generally considered adaptable and robust. However, long-term studies have shown that the nutrient supply available to trees has deteriorated and trees are stressed as a result. This makes them more vulnerable to diseases and the impacts of extreme meteorological events.

Approximately half of Switzerland's forest area is considered protective forest: It protects people, settlements, transport routes and industrial installations against natural disasters such as landslides, avalanches, rock avalanches and rockfall. The protection provided has improved since the 1990s.  Yet, the forest is still unable to regenerate sufficiently in many places. One reason for this is the increase in browsing damage caused to young trees by deer and roe deer.

The forest is very important for species diversity. Almost half of the flora and fauna in Switzerland, i.e. 20,000 species, depend on it.

While biodiversity has come under severe pressure in other habitats, the development in the forest is on the whole considered positively. Close-to-nature forestry and efforts by the federal government and the cantons to promote forest biodiversity have contributed significantly to this.

The maintenance of a balanced and near-natural distribution of tree species has positive effects on both biodiversity and the stability of the forests. The forest has a higher percentage of deciduous trees than in 2005, which corresponds more to the natural tree species composition. However, deciduous trees are in much less demand on the log timber market than coniferous trees. Overall, the diversity of species and structures in the forests has increased.

Despite its generally positive situation, the Swiss forest also has ecological deficits. Deficits exist in the young open forests and forests in later development stages, rich in deadwood, which is essential to the survival of thousands of species.

More than half of the forest reserve areas planned for 2030 (10% of the Swiss forest area according to the target set out in the Forest Policy 2020) are already established.


4. Less stability, change in forest biodiversity, CO2 sinks (impacts)

The forest fulfils important functions and provides diverse services. Switzerland’s forest is an essential habitat for plants and animals as well as a source of the renewable resource of wood. It is part of the landscape and indispensable for regulating the climate, providing drinking water, minimising the risks of natural hazards and ensuring biological diversity. The forest contributes to our well-being, our safety and economic value creation.

The undesired input of nutrients from the air causes trees to grow faster in height without forming correspondingly deep roots. This reduces the stability of the trees affected.

Ozone pollution causes leaf and needle damage to trees. Some polluted forests cannot adequately fulfil their function as groundwater filters.

Climate change affects forests as ecosystems and the growth of individual tree species: forest communities change and the forest line shifts to higher altitudes. Although forests and tree species can adapt to altered conditions over the generations, this capacity is coming under pressure due to the speed at which climate change is taking place.

The insufficient regional utilisation of wood, particularly in the Alpine region and Southern Alps, affects the various functions of forests:

  • forests become denser and darker and inhibit light and heat-loving species from growing in the habitat and this has a negative effect on biodiversity;
  • insufficient management also causes an imbalanced age structure in many forests. This specifically compromises protection against natural hazards.

The increase in forest area can, together with the segregation of agricultural production land, result in the disappearance of traditional landscape forms which are perceived as particularly attractive, such as the wooded pastures in the Jura region or Alpine meadows.

On the other hand, large forest areas can absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere, a process that counteracts the greenhouse effect. Forests act as carbon sinks and contain four to five times more carbon than the atmosphere over our country.

Safeguarding these ecosystem services comes at an additional cost, which can only be partially covered by timber revenue. In the future, forest owners will need to better communicate the services they provide and emphasise their value in order to generate sufficient income.

In addition to the services described above, the forestry and timber sectors are important employers in rural areas. Around 5,700 people work in forestry sector and around 88,000 in the timber sector.


5. Deforestation ban, forest protection and sustainable forest management, forest reserves, adaptation to climate change (responses)

The most important forest protection measure in terms of forest area is the legally prescribed ban on deforestation.

Forest policy is a joint task of the Confederation, the cantons and forest owners. The federal authorities' Forest Policy 2020 creates effective conditions for sustainable, efficient and innovative forest management and ensures that forests can carry out their various functions. As part of programme agreements, the federal government helps fund the implementation of the programmes, particularly in the areas of forest management, protection forests and biodiversity.

The Confederation’s wood resource policy pursues sustainable harvesting and use of Switzerland’s indigenous raw material wood. One of the federal authorities' goals is to tap the sustainable utilisable potential of wood. Under the Wood Action Plan and the forest and wood research fund of the federal government and the cantons, projects are launched and supported in the areas of innovation and awareness-raising.

The Forest Act and Forest Ordinance were revised on 1 January 2017 to better protect the forest against harmful organisms, prepare it for the challenges of climate change, and promote wood use as well as the safety of forest workers during wood harvesting.

The federal government also uses its Forest Policy 2020 to conserve biodiversity through actions such as supporting forest reserves and conserving priority habitats such as forest edges and wooded pastures.

On the international stage, Switzerland is committed, among other things, to implementing the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030 and achieving the Aichi 2020 Biodiversity Targets and the goals of the 2030 Agenda. Furthermore, it supports the prevention of greenhouse gas emissions caused by clearing and forest destruction.

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Last modification 30.11.2018

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