Trees need the Government to grow big


This week a controversy flared up about the area of woods are taking in Belgium. The Minister of Environment, Nature and Culture declared that according to a survey this year 185,686 hectares of woods was counted (Dutch). This is 8,262 hectares more than the baseline measurement two years ago.

Two environmental organizations, Bos+ (translatable as Woods+) and umbrella organization BBL (translatable as Federation Better Environment), were not amused. They didn’t believe the results of the survey, saying it is strange that so many extra woods were created with no extra funds. It would be by far the fastest growth of woods in Belgium or even our neighbor countries. They also had criticism on the way of measuring. They didn’t like that the survey also counted trees along the motorways, fallow land and private properties.

Groen (the Flemish green party) added to this saying there was even a decrease in area (Dutch), not the increase that the Minister claimed.

This seems confusing. The Minister said there was an increase, environmental organizations said there was not much of a change and a political organization said there was a decrease. First let’s look at the methodology to be classified as “wood” in the report:

  • a collection of trees
  • in an area of at least 0.5 hectare
  • trees should be higher than 3 meters.

Reading more about the history of the survey, it seemed that Bos+ and the Minister didn’t get along well. Bos+ has a competing measurement system, based on the information of licenses and subsidies. Obviously less accurate and not comparable with the more objective measurements. They also knew about the methodology of the survey and that it is much more objective than their own.

Who was right? Well, they were all right, at least according to their own definitions. They understand “wood” in a different way and don’t necessarily take the same time frame:

  • the governmental report said there was an increase because it measured tree collections of at least 0.5 hectare with trees of more than 3 meters high. Doing that they found about 8,262 hectares more than 2011. And yes, it included all trees regardless they were “natural”, planted by man or regardless their function. Every collection of trees with those properties was counted
  • Bos+ said there is not much difference because of their focus on the “official” numbers of areas that were newly converted to wood or existing woods that lost their purpose. There weren’t many new projects in the last two years, so they concluded that there would not be much improvement in those two years.
  • the decrease that Groen was talking about was a 600 hectares increase during 2008-2011 and logging licenses for 1,000 hectares in the same period. When adding this together it indeed means a decrease. But I think this is beside the point as the survey covered the period from 2011-2013, not from 2008-2011.

Those green organizations seem to have a nanny mentality towards woods. As if trees don’t grow in absence of action by man. They also seemed not really happy with the news that there is now more area with large trees in Belgium without the intervention of our Government. Even the “unofficial” woods will have specific functions like for example generating oxygen, breaking winds, preventing soil erosion,… They don’t need to be licensed or subsidized to do that. In their attack they looked disconnected from the reality of real nature. In a small (30,500 km2) and densely populated country like Belgium, new trees will have an impact. At least I was happy to hear that there was an almost 5% increase in areas with large trees in our country, even without the need of action by the Government.

On the other hand, I agree that the statement of the Minister (that this result shows that the Ministry makes an effort in forest policy) is stretching it a bit. This survey proves there are more areas with large trees than two year ago, but this doesn’t necessarily prove better forest policy.

But more importantly, it indicates that definitions are very important. That does make climate communication with their very vague definitions even more hard. But more about that in a next post.

Update 1:
The count in the governmental report seem to have quite a wide error margin: between -14,163 hectares and +1,803 hectares. Depending on the error margin of the baseline measurement, an addition of 8,262 hectares might not be significant.

Update 2:
Go to the follow-up post about definitions.

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