What do people think about forests in the EU?

Authors: Lea Ranacher (Wood K Plus), Helga Pülzl (EFI Forest Policy Research Network), Liisa Tyrväinen (Natural Resources Institute Finland LUKE), Georg Winkel (EFI)

Citizens living in Europe appreciate forests for the many societal benefits they provide, and literally all of them consume forestbased products ranging from furniture to paper products. However, when asked about their perceptions of forests and their benefits, environmental benefits are the most well-known, and receive the highest appreciation.

In a 2016 Eurobarometer study, the benefits most often mentioned as being most important were:

  • absorbing carbon dioxide to fight climate change: 66%
  • providing animals with natural habitats :63%
  • protecting people from natural disasters such as floods and avalanches: 40%

The economic potential of forests – for example their ability to provide wooden products and energy, their contributions to employment, green jobs and rural development- did not score highly. Neither did their importance for healthy leisure activities, although there are large regional variations in Europe as outdoor recreation is much more appreciated in the North compared to southern member states. But during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, recreation opportunities in forests have been heavily used. Their importance for recreation, health and well-being is well documented in the literature.

In 2018, 39.3% of the EU population lived in urban areas such as cities, 31.6% lived in peri-urban towns and suburbs, and 29.1% lived in rural areas. While there are differences with regards to respondents’ country, age, gender, education and in some cases between people living in rural or urban areas, the overall perception of forests is remarkably consistent across the continent: the environmental benefits of forests are perceived as most important. In particular, female, higher educated individuals or urban citizens tend to give comparatively higher preference to the environmental benefits of forests than male, less educated and rural citizens. Wood and wood-based products such as for construction purposes, composites, chemicals, packaging, textiles or fuels are appreciated as they are substituting fossil-based materials. However, citizens have little knowledge about them and are concerned about their environmental sustainability.

Some studies indicate a general satisfaction with forest management, albeit with regional differences and partially negative perceptions of forestry operations. People with a professional background in forestry and/or forest owners and managers show significantly higher support for silvicultural operations and the economic use of forests than the general public. Visible signs of (intense) wood harvesting (especially clear-cuts, impacts of harvesting machinery on forest areas and forest roads) are frequently perceived negatively by citizens. In turn, mixed and rich structured forests and close-to-nature management are the preferred management options. Trees with large dimensions are perceived as beautiful. However, studies show some differences between verbally stated and visually stated preferences using photos. Apparently, there are trade-offs between societal preferences regarding forest ecosystem services and forestry objectives when these are translated into concrete forest management interventions. They might not be considered by the general public when surveyed.

Some studies point out that a relatively high share of respondents feels rather poorly informed about forests and has little knowledge about the purposes and effects of forest management. This indicates a need to improve information, education and communication on forests and their management, also explaining the synergies and trade-offs between different forest ecosystem services related to different management practices.