In Europe, forests cover 41% of the total mountain area – over half of the Alps, Balkans, Carpathians, and Pyrenees – and are the dominant land cover except in the Nordic mountains, which extend well into the Arctic. In other mountain regions with high proportions of forest cover, particularly in tropical countries, these mountain forests are vital for the livelihoods of large numbers of people.
Much of the high biodiversity that is characteristic of mountain areas is in their forests, also threatened by the invasion of alien species.
Mountain forests are particularly important for protecting fragile slopes from soil leaching and erosion, as well as acting as reservoirs of biodiversity.
Most mountain forests are semi-natural or naturally regenerating forests that, through forest management activities, provide diverse ecosystem services and livelihood opportunities.
Widespread reforestation has occurred in many European mountain regions, in conjunction with agricultural land abandonment and declining deforestation, accounting for about two-thirds of land cover changes from 1990 to 2006. However, the expansion of mountain forests has been offset to some extent by losses due to epidemics of diseases and pests, or fire.
Mountain forests provide diverse ecosystem services, including provisioning services (e.g., timber extraction), regulating and supporting services (e.g., carbon sequestration), and cultural services. Productive functions are well recognized due to their economic contribution.
However, regulating and supporting services such as reliable water supplies, protection against natural hazards, and mitigation of climate change, and their flow to beneficiaries, represent the most important functions of mountain forests to communities living within and around mountain regions. On both continental and regional scales, a key role of Europe’s mountains is as centres of biological diversity and intercultural knowledge. Cultural services are vital for mountain people and lowland communities, particularly as sustainable mountain recreation and tourism increase in importance.
The dilemma of assigning value to these services in a market economy stems from the fact that there is no clear market relation between provider and customer. Water may be the single one commodity that has the most direct economic value. However, as the lack of appropriate data inventory and the heterogeneity and uncertainty in the interrelationships between physical properties of the landscape and ecosystem services of mountain forests has an exponential increase, the supply and demand of these services require harmonized monitoring and reporting systems of their assets.