The duties of the WSL are research, scientific and technical services, teaching and public relations.
As part of an ETH Domain research institute, the Confederation requires the WSL to provide cutting-edge research and social benefits, particularly for Switzerland. One of the WSL's important national functions is to conduct the Swiss National Forest Inventory (NFI) and long-term forest ecosystem monitoring (LWF). It is particularly active in applied research, but basic research is also among its duties. SLF employees develop tools and guidelines for authorities, industry and the public in order to offer them support in natural hazard risk management and in the analysis of climatic and environmental changes. They also share their knowledge by teaching at domestic and foreign universities and by training other professionals.
The duties of the WSL are described in the following laws and regulations:
The fundamental mission of the ETH Domain research institutes, and thus of the WSL, is described in Article 21 of the ETH Law of 4 October 1991:
- They conduct research in their areas of responsibility and provide scientific and technical services.
- To the extent allowed by their circumstances, they are available to universities for teaching and research.
The professional orientation and duties of the WSL are specified in Article 3 of the ETH Board Ordinance of 13 November 2003 regarding the ETHDomain research institutes: The WSL works on sustainable spatial development, particularly in mountainous areas and in conurbations, in the following technical areas:
- Landscape research;
- Forest ecology and forest management;
- Natural hazards and integral risk management;
- Snow, ice, avalanches and permafrost.
In addition to its research duties, the WSL has four national functions based on laws and regulations. For the SLF, the second function is of particular importance:
- In cooperation with the Federal Office for the Environment, the WSL collects basic data for the Swiss National Forest Inventory (NFI), and in the Long-term Forest Ecosystem Research (LWF) programme it collects data on the impacts on forest ecosystems (Article 37a (2) of the Forest Ordinance (WaV) of 30 November 1992, last revised on 1 March 2015).
- The SLF, which is part of the WSL, operates the avalanche warning service in Switzerland and alerts the public to avalanche hazards (Article 9 (1) of the Alert Ordinance (AV) of 18 August 2010, last revised on 1 January 2014).
- It operates the Swiss Forest Health Facility in accordance with Article 30 (2) of the Forest Ordinance of 30 November 1992.
- It ensures the scientific and technical maintenance of forestry plant protection pursuant to Article 44 of the Plant Protection Ordinance of 28 February 2001.
The Confederate Council has granted the ETH Domain a four-year service contract. Certain parts of the contract will be assigned to the WSL in the target agreement between the ETH Board and the WSL. This target agreement expands upon and clarifies the duties specified in the Ordinance.