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A natural process of reforestation is taking place in Switzerland, particularly in the Alps and on the southern side of the Alps. The structuring of agricultural direct income payments around work undertaken to pre- serve open land as well as around ecological quality objectives could have the effect of countering natural reforestation.
Switzerland's forest area is increasing – but the rate of increase varies from region to region. For example, the forest area in the Alps and on the southern side of the Alps rose by up to 18% according to the surveys of the first and third National Forest Inventories, in other words between 1983/85 and 2004/06. In the pre-Alpine regions and in the Western Jura, the increase was just 2 to 8% over the same period, while in central Switzerland and the Eastern Jura the increases were of a very small magnitude.
Around a fifth of the new forest area has no priority function. For two fifths, "protection against natural hazards" is cited as a priority function, while a good tenth of forest area primarily serves other traditional forest functions such as wood production or forest renewal. In other words, no conflict with respect to usage is expected in around 70% of new forest area. Of the remaining new forest area, 12% serves as agricultural area, 8% as landscape protection area, and another 8% as nature protection area. In these areas there is the potential for a conflict of objectives.
Forest abandonment most prevalent in Alpine regions
As is clear from the results of the research project "Forest expansion in the Swiss Alps" conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), reforestation is a phenomenon that is most apparent in less affluent and labour-intensive areas: around two thirds of extensified or relinquished and therefore uncultivated forest area lies in the summering zones and in the mountain zones III and IV. The natural reforestation of the mountain area will persist unless political measures are taken. A key starting point is that of agricultural direct income payments:
1. Compensating labour
Agricultural direct income payments for ecological compensation areas have the effect of compensating farmers for the loss of income involved in extensive land management. The contributions in marginal locations are therefore relatively low. If these payments are to contribute to the preservation of land cultivation, they must be structured around the work that is necessary to keep an area of land open.
2. Summering areas as cultural landscape
Summering areas are not viewed as agricultural land. As a result, no contributions are made to ecological activities aside from contributions made under the Nature and Cultural Heritage Protection Act (NHG). A structuring of contributions in line with environmental objectives could provide an incentive for farmers to maintain a minimal level of cultivation and thereby restrict the reforestation of ecologically valuable summering meadows.
3. Regionally differentiated contributions
As the increase in forest area is heavily dependent on local characteristics in the individual regions and therefore results in differing levels of costs and benefits, the regionalisation of agricultural direct income payments should also be considered.
In addition to agricultural policy, instruments from other political areas also have an important role to play in deciding whether land areas are kept open (or not), for example cantonal master plans and zoning plans, inventories, hazard maps and cross-policy concepts such as land development concepts.