In the context of the European Green Deal and the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the Commission’s Directorate General of Environment has developed Closer-to-Nature Forestry (CNF) Guidelines, in active communication with Member State experts and key stakeholders. The Guidelines start strong, but taper off quickly in sections offering regional examples of practices.
The introduction to the Guidelines is based, for the most part, on existing knowledge and promotes the kind of forestry that could deliver strong environmental benefits: e.g., avoiding clearcuts, promoting natural regeneration, and maintaining the heterogeneity and complexity of forest structures and patterns. However, as examples become more concrete, they become more questionable. Sections on different forest regions, called Biogeographical regions, feature elements describing the harvesting-intensive status quo. For example, the sections on “Ensuring suitable harvest conditions” for the Alpine region and “Closer-to-nature tools in practice in the Boreal region” refer to practicing a shelterwood system, which focuses on timber production with very narrow biodiversity benefits (mainly preventing trees falling in the wind).
The document further outlines limitations and feasibility issues, giving examples of specific situations where CNF best practice is unrealistic, and where certain harmful management techniques may be justified. But it does not carefully define these constraints, opening a dramatic loophole that the Guidelines fail to contain (and which will almost certainly be used negatively and out of context). One particularly egregious example in the boreal region is the mention of 5 - 10 per cent of trees retained after a clear-cut under the ‘close-to-nature tools’ section: five per cent is even lower than Forest Stewardship Council standards, which have faced severe criticism in recent years.
Exceptions in forest management will always exist. An old plantation with no natural regeneration because of past neglect or climate crisis impacts may, in rare circumstance, need to be cleared. But exceptions should not be used to water down the CNF-concept that offers foresters a viable alternative to clear-cutting. CNF goes largely unrewarded across Europe, yet should be encouraged.
In countries where forestry rules and practice are dominated by mighty commercial pulp and paper enterprises or extremely well-funded bioenergy interests, or in countries confronting the risks of dangerously flammable, abandoned plantations, one struggles to see, pragmatically, how these Guidelines should be used to advance a solution.